Wandering Story: 500 Days in Cambodia

May 29, 2016

Tim Pryce

ជំរាបសួរ – “CHOMREABSOUR”, OR “HELLO” FROM CAMBODIA.

 

Firstly, let me introduce myself. My name is Tim Pryce and I was born and raised in the capital city of Perth, Western Australia. Back in the 1970’s when I was just a kid, Perth was like a big country town where everyone knew each other and you could ride around the streets on your bike without a care in the world or fear of anything happening to you.

Being the largest of all the States and Territories in Australia, Western Australia is rich in natural resources and minerals and mining therefore is one of its largest industries, earning billions of dollars in revenue for the Australian economy each year. In time Perth grew into a large capital city with over 2 million people living there today, and the freedom and safety I once knew as a kid was now a thing of the past.

 

At 15 I began working in the Hospitality & Tourism Industry for a number of large 4 & 5 star hotels, but later in my career was “poached” by a mining Company to manage some of their accommodation villages located in the remote northwest of the State. Some of these facilities were like huge 2000 room resorts, complete with swimming pools, gymnasiums, sports grounds and airports, and were built to accommodate the mining workforce who would fly-in-and-out of Perth on a weekly basis, some 1400 kilometres to the south.

 

Due to my flexible work roster and high income, I was able to spend lots of vacation time travelling to overseas destinations, exploring the history, culture and landscapes of the places I visited. With Perth being so close to SE Asia, I travelled many times to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and also visited India, Laos and Cambodia to mention a few.

My first visit to Cambodia was in January 2013, where I spent 6 days exploring the ancient temples, lakes and beautiful countryside surrounding the city of Siem Reap. The Khmer history and culture fascinated me, the ancient temples captivated me, and the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Khmer people so impressed me that I knew I would return again someday.

And sure enough I did! The following year in April 2014 I returned for 4 weeks, but rather than just relax and explore the countryside at leisure, I wanted to volunteer with a local Non-Government Organisation (NGO) instead, to gain a unique and different insight into the Cambodian people, their history and their culture. As I had been sponsoring two children in Indonesia for a number of years to go to school, I decided to “travel and teach”, and chose local Khmer NGO “Greenway Cambodia”, who had built a school in the remote north-west city of Samraong, and provided free English lessons for children living in poor rural villages on the outskirts of town.

The kids were just adorable and although living in tough conditions compared to what we’re used to back home, they were so happy, carefree and eager to learn that it left a lasting impression with me. They were so much like me when I was a kid, – riding their bikes around and exploring the countryside, stopping by a waterhole to catch frogs or go for a swim; climbing fruit trees to raid the mangoes when you were hungry….all the things kids should be out doing when they’re young and growing up, but what most kids in the big cities are missing out on these days.

Those 4 weeks came and went so fast and before I knew it, I was back in the Australian desert working my butt off for 12 hours a day wondering, “what was the point of all this?” My head was in Australia, but my heart was still in Cambodia! I realised that happiness didn’t depend on where you lived, what gadgets you had and how much money you earned, but rather, doing something that had a purpose and benefited others more than yourself was where the key to real happiness and a meaningful life could be found.

Day by day I grew more restless and disillusioned with my life, even though I was enjoying the highest income and most luxurious lifestyle I’d ever had. I could go where I wanted, do what I wanted and buy what ever my heart desired, but all this meant nothing to me any more? It seemed that all I’d been taught about what would make you happy in life; – “go to school so you can get a good education, so you can get a good job, so you can earn lots of money, so you can buy a big house and have a big family…”, but never get to spend any time with them as you’re too busy working to make a living…. – it was all a load of ****! The Western world had lost the plot and we were all oblivious to it!

At the end of 2014 I’d had enough and handed in my resignation. I packed all my belongings into storage, rented out the house, sold the car and in January 2015 headed back to Samraong, to begin a new life of teaching at the school and exploring the ancient wonders of Cambodia.

Ironically, the first day I started back at the school was “Australia Day”, the 26th January, 2015. But while it was a national public holiday back home, here I was standing in front of 65 brand-new, bright-eyed Beginner students on their first day at Greenway School!

So much for a life of relaxation and ease! The kids ranged in ages from 6-12 years old which was quite a new concept to me, as we usually attend school with kids our own age. But if you haven’t learnt any English before then you have to start from scratch, so out came the books and off we all went.

l soon came to realise that these kids were really smart and I had to keep my guard up at all times, or they’d walk all over me. First trick they pulled was swapping seats and changing their name cards, or answering someone else’s name when doing the morning role call. It was hard enough just trying to remember who was who and how to pronounce their names, let alone work out whether or not they were telling the truth, so they took advantage of the situation while they could.

As the days and weeks quickly passed by we all became very fond of one another, and going to “work” each day was something I looked forward to with eager anticipation. The kids love coming to school and work so hard to please me. Remember, the school is free for these kids. No-one is telling them they “have to go because it’s the law”, or “I’m paying a lot of money for your education, so you’re going….” No, the kids come because they really want to, and they just love it here so much.


Initially, I’d only anticipated staying for 6 months before moving on to another destination to “travel and teach”, but before you knew it a year had nearly passed and it was time for the kids to do their end of year test. Nearly everybody passed with flying colours and would move up to Level One next year. They were so proud of themselves for all the hard work they had put in, but no one was prouder than me.

When the new school year commenced, I decided I’d stay another 12 months and take the next group of Beginners who were enrolled and ready to begin, but my previous class was having none of that! They wanted me to teach them again this year through Level 1, and there were no objections from me on my part.

So now we’re half way through their second year and it’s hard to believe that 500 days have passed since I first came to teach at the Greenway School. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I could be here for another 4-5 years yet, taking the kids through each of their Levels until they finish at Level 6, or commence going to High School, whichever comes first.
What I’m really looking forward to though is the coming years, when the kids become more conversant in English (and me in Khmer), as that’s when the real “teaching” begins. I’ll be able to learn more from them about their lives, dreams and future ambitions, while I continue to teach, share knowledge and guide them in return. I wait with eager anticipation for that time.
You know, I’m not a superstitious person, but once when I was 18, I met this old Holy man from India and he took my hand and looked into my eyes and told me that one day… “I was going to be very rich and have lots of children”. Thinking that I’d be a millionaire with a beautiful wife, a big house and lots of kids, I now wonder if what he really meant was that I’d be “spiritually rich,” and I do indeed “have many children”…


All images © Tim Pryce * Image above © Nick Melidonis
You can view more of Tim’s travel and landscape images from around Cambodia at 500px and his Facebook page.

Tim Pryce

Tim Pryce is originally from Perth, Western Australia and commenced teaching at the Greenway School Cambodia in January 2015, where he continues teaching his students today. Tim is also a professional free-lance travel photographer and captures beautifully "the spirit and essence of the Khmer people and their country", during his frequent visits to the temples of Siem Reap and road trips throughout rural Cambodia.

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