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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 11.6724, 105.425
Because I miss working with young children, on Friday, January 13, 2012 two friends and I traveled to an orphanage about one and one-half hours from Phnom Penh by tuk-tuk. I plan to volunteer here for one month. This decision was not reached at all lightly. My daughter, Laila, and I had spent ten wonderful days traveling in southeast Asia, exploring Bangkok, VietNam, and Cambodia, and since I was already in Cambodia, I thought it would be good to do something useful, to find a way to help others since I wasn't teaching in Thailand. My friend, Gail, has volunteered at Wat Opot for several years, and has frequently talked about the orphanage, so I seriously considered volunteering here myself, and signed on.
Roads in Cambodia are very dusty, especially when riding in an open tuk-tuk. From Phnom Penh to Wat Opot takes 1 1/2 hours in a tuk-tuk. Our driver was slow, but is known for being a careful driver; I can't testify to that because the day before he had come to pick me up at the bus station, and while I was still securing my backpack he started to drive away, running right over my right foot! It's a good thing tuk-tuks have rubber wheels and are relatively light; except for bruising and soreness my foot was surprisingly fine. But what an experience!
Riding in a tuk-tuk is also very bumpy; Gail and Carmen (another volunteer) and I had to hold onto our luggage to keep it from bouncing out of the tuk-tuk as we bumped along. The dust is another problem; you have to squint to keep some of the dust and grit out of your eyes, and hope that passing trucks don't throw up many small pebbles and debris at you when they pass as that is very painful.
When we arrived, Wayne, the man who started the orphanage, gave us a tour. There are so many buildings that I did get lost a few times going to and from the volunteer dormitory, but the whole place is not so big that anyone can get truly lost. The children all seemed happy, playing in small groups, riding bicycles, running around, looking just like children anywhere, although with many fewer toys than children in the US. This is a very beautiful, peaceful place; I don't think it could be otherwise. There are flowering trees, ponds, paths leading from one building to another. There is a schoolroom for the youngest children; Melinda, the preschool teacher, is also the volunteer coordinator. She does well with both jobs. Currently the volunteer dorm is full; I share a room with Carmen, who will stay here ten days. Sometimes it is only Wayne and Melinda who are here, and other times there are many volunteers of all ages, coming from all over the world. Everyone is welcome.
Melinda is also vegan, so meals are delightfully free from worry, although there are sometimes separate meat dishes because there are so many volunteers right now. The biggest problem is lack of water; we are just past the rainy season, and already the water is very low. We drink bottled water, but tomorrow water from the pond in front of our dorm will have to be pumped in for showers and flushing the toilets.
The children range in age from 2 1/2 to 18. The older children attend a nearby school, and come back for lunch. There is a rest period, and then free play time, dinner, and then a group gathering with singing meditation followed by dancing. The children love it! Then they watch TV for awhile before bedtime as the younger ones are getting bathed and ready for bed. It seems like a good schedule, with enough free time built in between organized activities. The children are well-loved, and seem to feel secure here; they exhibit an innocence that I have not seen in children in the states in many decades, but I also find the Cambodian people to be very sweet.
Tonight I will learn how to take a shower from a bucket and pail, in cold water. The weather has not been very hot, so I won't like the cold water much, but with the children climbing on me, and giving hugs, and grabbing my hands, and from simply walking in the dirt and dust all day, I really need a shower, low water or not. No one wears shoes here; I bought an ugly pair of flipflops (they fit the best) just to wear running around Wat Opot. Shoes come off and on all day long as we kick them off before entering any building, so open sandals are the best thing to wear; and the children "borrow" all the adults' shoes, but I don't care at all about these ugly flipflops, so it's good.
At night you can hear the frogs singing in the ponds, the crickets and grasshoppers, all the night insects. It is a very beautiful sound to hear while falling asleep! My mattress is very thin, but I sleep fine, at least, that is, until wakened by Cambodian wedding music at 4:30AM. But you learn how to weave that music into a dream to finish your sleep.
There is a soft rhythm to the day that is very peaceful and friendly, no rushing, no yelling, nothing negative that I can see at all. But these children have lost their parents, in some cases seeing them die, so Wat Opot is designed to be accepting, comforting, nourishing, nurturing. I am glad to be a part of it, even if only for a short time, at least as long as the water holds out.
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