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Culture shock hits hard in Cambodia

Written By vibykhmer on Monday, August 31, 2009 | 5:54 AM


A typical slum village in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

My friend and fellow Des Moines native, Chandra Binnie, and I sitting atop one of the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Sunset in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.

A little boy I met at a river slum village in Phnom Penh

This beautiful little girl lives in a slum village built on stilts over two feet of floating garbage.

PHOTOS FROM BETSY BAEHR / SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

BETSY BAEHR • Special to the Register
August 30, 2009

"The other side of the world" is an impossible phrase to comprehend until you're actually on the other side of the world. Within 15 minutes of my arrival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the culture shock hit hard. Within a few short minutes, that simple phrase had a whole new meaning.

Eighteen months ago, as a student at Oral Roberts University, I attended a seminar on the growing problem of child trafficking and prostitution in southeast Asia. I realized that I was rather naive to the topic. I couldn't seem to wrap my mind around this worlds-away issue, and I was immediately intrigued and interested to learn more.

In 2004, Citipointe Church in Brisbane, Australia, started a child rescue home in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. They house 15 girls, ages 3-16. Once I learned of the shocking statistics of child prostitution in Cambodia, and the hope and life Citipointe was bringing, I was both heartbroken and captivated to learn more and to see this country for myself.

I spent June 27 through July 10 in Cambodia with a group from the church's rescue home, and it was one of the greatest experiences I have encountered. Breaking out of the "American bubble" was exhilarating.

I visited the "killing fields" and was floored that the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge happened just 30 years ago.

Outwardly, the Cambodian people are unlike any group I have seen. They are absolutely, unknowingly stunning. Everywhere you look is a photo waiting to be taken. Some Cambodian clothing stores only offer one size since the people there are so small and lean — talk about culture shock.

The overarching language barrier was difficult since there was so much I wanted to learn from them. But the fact that I, a Westerner, was there only to hang out in orphanages and slums, to offer hugs, shampoo, rice and lollypops, visibly resonated with them.

When visiting the slum villages and the rescue home in Phnom Penh, the contrast between the startling and numbing experiences these children had been through and their cheerful attitudes, was striking. The children in the slums and rescue homes were vibrant, loving and lively.

Our group also visited the town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is primarily known for its ancient temples. The only other location with similar ancient temples is Egypt, in the Nile Valley. The temples were beautifully aged, elaborate and breathtaking. Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples and appears on the Cambodian flag.

Understanding and experiencing "the other side of the world," is an irreplaceable, unexplainable gift. It cannot be truly grasped through textbooks, documentaries or Wikipedia. There is beauty in authenticity and the need to see with your own eyes.

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