How many of us have had the opportunity to appreciate our country’s most famous landmarks? To walk through the Arc de Triomphe and admire the Eiffel Tower or cross Tower Bridge and stand beneath Big Ben, feeling a humbled sense of pride and identity. In this age of immediacy and fast transportation, one might not necessarily feel particularly lucky.
Consider then that approximately only 15% of Cambodians, young and old, have ever experienced one of the great masterpieces of the architectural world - the spellbinding temples of Angkor Wat. Not only a feat of beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage site which is proudly emblazoned across the national flag, but also a spiritual home for Cambodians. It’s a site that over 2,000,000 tourists flock to every year and yet so few Cambodians have been able to see in person. And with many of Cambodia’s temples destroyed by Pol Pot, Angkor Wat remains, standing stoically majestic.
Throughout the year the Happy Chandara girls take well-earned breaks from their studies and discover the country’s rich provinces - for fun at the beach in Sihanoukville or Kampot, a climb up Phnom Udong Mountain, not to mention the two weeks spent at OISE last summer. This week it was the turn of year 8 to say ‘li sen howey’ to school for 5 days and make the journey to Siem Reap to discover the Kingdom’s most iconic symbol, Angkor Wat. Bags packed, Toutes à l'école caps on, and excitement levels rising, the girls were on their way.
For most of the students, the school trips are the only time they travel much further than Phnom Penh and the bumpy bus with its long, swinging turns resulted in quite a few unsettled stomachs and green faces. To lift spirits and take minds off matters, the convoy of 3 buses entertained each other by having ‘sing- offs’ through the intercom, to everyone’s enjoyment. A few pit stops and food breaks later the buses had arrived and after a good night’s rest, the girls were up bright and early to get exploring!
In an action packed 5 days the students went on a variety of excursions. First stop was a silk farm to learn how Cambodia’s famous silk is produced - the process of unwinding the silk from the cocoon, preparing it for use and dyeing it as well as the traditional methods used to weave, loom and produce the cloth. Next was a visit to a Cambodian Cultural Centre, championing the rich diversity of Cambodian culture. Traditional dances, weddings, clothing, dialects and ways of living all differ across the country and each province proudly cultivates their own distinct characteristics. There was also time to cool off at the local swimming pool.
And of course they visited their country’s greatest treasure, the Angkor Wat temples, and were given a tour of the sprawling grounds and learned about their history and cultural significance throughout the centuries. At last they could see first-hand the fine details of the masonry, run their hands over the coarse and weathered stone and pray at their spiritual home.
The visit also coincided with the 20th Angkor Wat 3km run, 10km run, half marathon and wheelchair race. This year over 8,000 entrants descended on Siem Reap from all corners of the globe to compete, raise money and have fun with all proceeds going to the Cambodian Red Cross and CMAC, an organisation dedicated to clearing landmines from the country.
Proudly wearing their Toutes à l'école t-shirts, specially designed by the students for the event, most of the girls participated in the 3km Fun Run. Some however, keen to go that step further, decided to attempt 10km. A long way for little legs which Ben - the school’s sports teacher who would be running alongside - was keen to stress.
‘’Don’t start too fast, don’t bring bags. There will be nowhere to keep them once we get there and don’t bring drinks. There will be water points all the way along the route’’.
‘’Yes teacher, we know teacher’’.
Of course, it has been known for a teacher’s instructions to fall on deaf ears. The next day, an exasperated Ben:
“Why have you brought your bags and bottles of water? I told you there’d be water along the way?!’’
‘’But, we might get thirsty!’’.
It seems that if there is one binding characteristic that all teenagers have in common, wherever they’re from, it’s that they know best.
The race started, and naturally, the girls bolted like 10km was no further than to the nearest tree and back. But how can one possibly keep up such a pace when laden down with a bouncing bag of water bottles? No matter thought the students, Ben won’t mind carrying it - after all, he’s 6ft plus and more than capable of taking just one bag.
All the girls completed their respective runs in that Happy Chandara way: energised, smiling and cheering home the other finishers. Then came Ben, ‘le domestique’, commendably dragging himself across the line, his chest a web of drawstring bags, hanging and bouncing off him in what had become more of a challenge than he’d anticipated.
The trip was capped off with a meal followed by karaoke and dancing, both mainstays of modern Cambodian culture. During the party the students even got to witness a source of hilarity we can all remember from school, teachers dancing with each other. Hard to watch but even harder to look away!
It was time to go home. And the sore feet and tired bodies could finally rest, but what an experience it had been. The trip had been a chance to mix with different nationalities, encounter another side to Cambodian culture, experience and learn about Angkor Wat first-hand and feel the satisfaction of completing one of the most beautiful races one could wish to participate in.
The girls are all extremely proud to be Cambodian and by helping to uncover the rich wonders and values that make the Kingdom unique, the school nurtures their love for their country with which their past and futures will always be intertwined. Now why can’t all school trips be like at Happy Chandara?
Written by James