We pile into two vans and head out of the city. As our route becomes more rural, tuk tuks and tourists begin to disappear. The colors all become brighter. People move rhythmically in the rice fields that stretch across the landscape. Our expert drivers navigate the red dirt roads, weaving around pools left by the rain and inching over precariously placed boards serving as bridges. We have crossed over the country’s 20/80 population split – this is Cambodia. As we bump along the road, we pass a mountain set against a sky full of clouds so striking, no camera can fully capture the sight.
Finally, we arrive at Koh Ker. The road to the school we are visiting appears to be washed out, so we unload and walk the last stretch. After a short trek through the rust-colored mud, we pass through the gates at Koh Ker Primary School, where a fence behind the classroom buildings separates the land that has been cleared of mines from that which has not. It’s one thing to read or hear about this space, it is another thing entirely to stand within it. As we walk through the neighboring village, it is clear that this is unlike the previous villages we have entered. While walking through Kompong Khleang, I’d felt like we were disrupting the village and creating a spectacle, despite the smiles and waves from the people we passed. Here, it is different. There are fewer waves and more hard glances. Who are these Westerners? Why are they in our space? I don’t have any satisfying answers for the families that stare as we trudge past their homes, so I hope a smile and respectful “chum reap suor” will communicate how humbled and awed I am by the majestic land that surrounds me.
With each step, I am learning: the sights, the sounds, the smells all teach me about the Kingdom of Kampuchea. I am a spectator now, but I will bring this knowledge forward with me. The students I encounter who beautify their space and create their own opportunities are the individuals I aspire to be more like as I continue to work toward my degree and act in the world. In the remaining days, I will continue to take in the stories and experiences of everything around me: the people I speak with, the animals I pass on the street, the trees bearing fruit or the stumps that remain, the dirt beneath my feet, and the air that sustains me.