I can never forget how I felt early May 2016 when Becci Bell,from Helping Hand Ministry, asked me if I wanted to visit Cambodia to see Sokunkim, the child I had been sponsoring since November 2015. I felt quite uneasy, thinking about all the things that could happen to me whilst in the slum. All sorts of diseases I could catch, the insects I might see (I hated anything that crawled), the hot weather. Will Sokunkim like me? Would I like him? What would it be like in a homestay? Who would I meet there? On and on all kinds of questions started running through my mind. So I couldn’t make any decision right there and then. So I pushed the questions and my thoughts under the bed. And left it like that for a while.
About a month later Duncan contacted me. Again enquiring of my interest in joining him to Cambodia to see Sukunkim sometime in October. Well, I had been praying about it and although I still had some hesitancy, I thought it would be a good idea to go, seeing that the date Duncan was planning fell right between my half-term at the college. I was also hoping that my daughter, Naomi could also join me provided she was on holiday from university at the same time. So I emailed Duncan back and said that I would love to go to Cambodia and whether it was okay if Naomi, my daughter, could also came. Perfect I thought. At least I wouldn’t be on my own and maybe Naomi would help fight off some nasty insects for me. Because I dreaded the thought of travelling alone to a country I’d never been to and spending time with people I didn’t know.
However, it turned out that Naomi wouldn’t be able to travel with me because she would she broke up from University a week after me. To be honest, I secretly wanted to change my mind after that news. Well I hadn’t yet booked so I thought okay. I’ll cancel. Maybe God didn’t really wanted me to go. Little did I know that God was planning something.
I received another email in July asking if it would be alright if I travelled with someone called Jean. Who had been yearning to go to Cambodia for a while to see the work her friend Christine (the lady who own the homestay) was doing but lacked confidence to travel alone.I knew at that moment that God definitely wanted me to go to Cambodia because I really did not want to travel on my own either.
It wasn’t long before Jean contacted me saying that she had a friend of called Jan who also wanted to travel to Cambodia so we planned there and then to book individually for a flight from Manchester to Cambodia.
The day came when we were to leave for Cambodia. Jan and Jean were planning to travel down from Lytham St Anns a day before and we were hoping to meet up at Manchester airport. The only description I had of them was Jean was tall and Jan was short.
As soon as my husband dropped me off at the airport I was wondering how I would find them. As you can imagine there would be several ladies of the description. But just I literally stepped into the airport, I saw two women who were in the queue directly before me. I said to myself, this can’t be them – that would have been too quick! One of them just looked at me and said, are you Elayne? I said yes. It was them indeed! We laughed and hugged. Then we found out that we were going to be seated near each other. I was 62 C. They were 63 H and 63 I so they were slightly to my left one seat back. So we could see each other! I thought God only you could have planned this.
I didn’t even consider the other flight we had to make when we got to Hong Kong. Only to find out again we were literally seated together. I was 23C and they were 23 D/E. God you are amazing. I could not have planned it better!
We eventually arrived in Cambodia at about 10.30 in the morning the next. It was raining a little. Christine, the lady from the homestay, came to meet us on a tuk tuk (a small open taxi). Loads of people were riding mopeds, bikes and motor bikes as the main mode of transport. The roads were fairly busy and bustling. My first impressions were everywhere looked rough and under developed, but people seemed very warm and friendly. And the temperature was barely to my relief.
The next day, Duncan arranged for all of us including Christine to go to the slums to see Sokunkim and his family. The slums were about 20 minutes from where we are staying. There were about 6 of us together, included the driver.
It wasn’t long before we stopped. I hadn’t t realised we had arrived at Sokunkim’s home. The whole family was there to meet and greet us. They were so polite and welcoming. Sokunkim’s mum was so happy to see me and gave me a nice bear hug. I also hugged Sokunkin’s two sisters. Sokunkim was a little shy at first when he first saw me but later warmed to me.
The mum brought out a photo which I had sent earlier of myself and my family. She pointed at me in the picture I nodded my head and said yes, yes, it’s me. And she hugged me again.It was a bit awkward at first because we didn’t know how to start a conversation. I asked Sokunkim to introduce his sisters. He told me their names and ages.
Sokunkim’s mum then showed me their kitchen. They basically had just one main room with two wooden-like beds where all of them slept. The floor was made of concrete. The roof corrugated iron. The place bits of things all over but apparently, that was their tidy up version.
They had one cat and three skinny kittens in the house. There were also chickens around outside making noise. It actually reminded me of dad’s place back in Jamaica so I felt quite at home. Everyone left me alone with Sokunkim, his family and Buntheouon.
At first the conversation was flowing gradually but I was slowly running out of questions to ask Sokunhim. Then I asked him if he reads English books. He said he did and went to fetch his books that he used for his course work. I opened it and looked at his work. His hand-writing was amazing. It was so neat and presentable. I then starting asking him to read some more, which he did. Before we knew it we were going through the book page by page and answering or correcting sentences. I had to laugh because it reminded me of my ESOL teaching and it kind of all came together for my teaching ESOL in the first place. For such a time as this. That really broke the ice and he was able to relax around me and me him.His little sister was so cute. She kept touching my arm. About 40 mins later, it was time to go.
We all said goodbye and gave each other hugs. . I put some money in Sokunkim’s hand and he was so appreciative. His mum gave me another bear hug and a squeeze. Although she spoke no English, I understood what she meant.
Later in the evening I visited the Russian market. It had loads of interesting things. The people begging you to buy something from them. I bought a few nice handmade soft toy animals to sell at my shop.
The following day we visited Toul Sleng (S21). I didn’t quite know what to expect as we entered in. But I did hear one or two people say it was very disturbing. I don’t do disturbing very well. I can’t bear to watch any gory films.We paid $5 to go in. They gave us earphones to attach onto a remote control devise so as you walk around you could hear accounts of people’s stories of what happened to them in Tuol Sleng.
Just a brief history: In 1975 Tuol Svay High school was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21). This soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between the years 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek.
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge (the ruling party in Cambodia, led by Pol Pot) was meticulous in keeping records of its barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture.
The museum displays include room after room of harrowing black and white photos; virtually all the men, women and children pictured were later killed.When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoner alive at S-21.
We could see through many open doors on the ground floor where there was a single rusty bed and some kind of torture instrument near by. We went into a few of the gloomy rooms and witnessed horrible pictures of death on the walls. We then went upstairs where there were more rooms of terrible pictures and information. As we carried on from room to room I could feel the pit of my stomach getting tight and heavy. That was it. I couldn’t do anymore so I decided to go downstairs and stay on the bench while the others carried on walking around.
So as I waited on the bench in the ‘pleasant’ grass area, I listened to some gospel reggae to calm me down and pick me up. You couldn’t really get away from it. I could still see terrible instruments of torture around (it was like a gallows with hook on) don’t ask me what they did with the prisoners there I wasn’t going to find out and Jean said don’t read the information about those, you’ll have nightmares. I could also see through the open doors hundreds of black and white photos of prisoners.
About 30 mins later or so Jean and Jan returned. They too had seen enough! They said it got worse as they walked around. I was so glad I didn’t venture any further.After the museum, we wondered around some of the tourists shops. We found one that sold interesting products. It gave me ideas of things to buy for my gift shop.
I was really surprised at how the gift shop and cafe were laid out. It was quite fresh and modern looking with chunky wooden shelves and cupboards. The bags and scarves were displayed fashionably. The quality of the products were second to none and the prices very reasonable. These products are handmade in Cambodia by local people. I was really impressed by the high standards. I bought a few items. There were two ladies in the gift shop and I noticed that one of them had no hands! But she carried on packing all my items and put them in a lovely brown carrier bag. I was just smiling at her and thinking no hands, yet she worked and carried herself like nothing was wrong with her! Amazing.
The journey back to the house was quite pleasant. Driving in the tuk tuk is quite relaxing. You can let the world drift by and think of nothing. The roads are okay too. Children still waved at us and shouted hello. We could see people sitting outside playing cards, or chess.
The evening meals were prepared by one of the girls who lived and worked for Christine. Every night rice and either fish or beef and steamed vegetables were prepared for about 12 people. When everyone is seated on the floor we all hold hands and say grace. It was lovely.
There are quite a few families and friends who lived at the house. Some from England and some from Cambodia. Rice seem to be the main thing Cambodians eat. They have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner because rice is quite filling and that is why its eaten so much throughout the day.
Duncan had a meeting the following day with a friend who owned her own business. He wanted me to meet her so we both I went to meet Channy who lives in the north of Phnom Penh. Channy initially only started making bags and now she has developed her business employing at least 10 girls (one or two former sex workers) and making clothes, hair accessories, hats and a range of different types of bags.
We met up with Channy and she took us back to her house which she converted into a factory. She told me she only had two sewing machines when she started, now she had about a dozen. We finally arrived at Channy’s large house. She telephoned someone and a young boy of about six came and opened the huge brown wooden doors. We followed her up some steep narrow steps and when we got to the top we were greeted by several workers on the sewing machine.
There were about eight ladies and only one boy. Two of the ladies had children and they brought them along to their work. I don’t think childcare is an option.There was a nice atmosphere going on. Some were hand sewing, some cutting and some were machine sewing. Bags of cut materials were on the floor and bags of uncut materials and different colour bobbins were in one corner.
I learnt that the workers worked from 8.00am until 4.00pm with 1.30 hour break. One of the girls was only 15 years old and she was previously into the sex trade. Channy also told me that the boy was drinking heavily and had started taken drugs so his mother got in touched with Channy and asked if she could give him a job and she did. The boy said he didn’t mind being the only boy.
I was really impressed because Channy was a former worker of an organisation called Daugthers of Camdodia and she was able to use her skills she learnt to build her own ministry/business and she was only 25 years old.
Later Channy took us to her exhibition where she had hired a stall to sell her products. As we arrived there were a good number of customers lining up to buy her goods. Her sister was selling at the time. The fair was quite big with loads of stall holders selling their stuff. Some had similar products. Apparently there is a new craze for the local material that are sewn to make bags, clothes and various types of things, even booties. The quality of the material is excellent and the price very reasonable. This visit to Cambodia has given me plenty of ideas for my own business. I have managed to make contacts with several business ladies whom I’m planning to do business with on my return.
On Saturday, I had another interesting day. Jan, Jean, Julie (Christine’s daughter) myself and about 5 other people all went to another slum to spend time with the children there.We travelled over bumpy roads and lots of water. The rain stopped at one point so when the tuk tuk could no longer pull itself over the pot holes. We had to get out and walk a little. I was amazed how the place had flooded so much and was very grateful for my Wellingtons Duncan had lent me.
When the children had all washed up, Julie brought them in and made them sit on the floor. There were about 40 of them different ages and sizes all chatting and laughing at the same time. Julie was able to calm them down while she opened in prayer.After the prayer there was a bit of singing, some games and a bible story about the five loaves and fishes, with prizes given out for the right answer. I was in charge of giving out the prizes from a bag full of rubber bracelets, McDonald’s soft toys, a variety of stationery and toiletry all donated.
Lastly the children were organised into families in order for us to give to give an apple and a bag of rice. If Jesus could feed 5000 with loaves and fishes then we should be able to feed about 70 children (more children had come by then) with rice and apples. It was really a blessing see no one left empty handed.
Early Sunday morning, which was my last day in Cambodia, Duncan along with Chanthy,(Duncan’s Cambodian assistant) had organised for us, the children and their families from the slums a visit to the zoo. It was an amazing day out. We had two coaches full of happy children. At the zoo we saw elephants, monkeys, tigers, crocodiles, deer, bears, snakes and more amazing animals. The children were all well behaved and enjoyed themselves immensely. When we had finished visiting all the animals we all found a lovely spot and sat down to eat rice and pork with a bottle water each. I was responsible for looking after my Cambodian family, which was so lovely. On the coach, Sokunkim sat next to me. I was able to find out more about him and he felt comfortably taking to me.
It wasn’t long before we were all in the coach, heading back home. We had hired tuk tuks to take us back to the homestay. Sokunkim’s family wanted to follow me to the airport to see me off. I was so touched.
The time arrived when I was ready to leave for the airport. It was difficult saying goodbye to my new friends, Jean and Jan. We had developed such a good relationship. We eventually hugged our good byes and promised to see each other when we were in England. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to Christine properly because she had retired early to bed.
At the airport, I hugged Sokunkim, his mum, little sister and Duncan and then left quickly through the automatic doors, I didn’t want to cry.
I suddenly realised I was alone. But this time I was ready to face the journey. God had shown me enough times throughout the trip that not only was He with me every single step. He had already gone before me. All I had to do was trust Him and relax.
All in all my experience in Cambodia was amazing. I met some amazing people and saw some amazing things. I was so happy for the chance to meet Sokunkim and his family. I’m hoping to return in 3 years time to see Sokunkim graduate from college. And after all that, I did not have any reason to fear because I didn’t see any insects!