Written by Hanna Gustafson on 25 / 04 / 2023
Gap Year Advice
I began my gap year to Cambodia with no expectations, a flexible return flight, and lots of sunscreen - the makings of a great adventure. My intention was a month spent out of my comfort zone, in a country completely different from my home in the USA. With majestic Angkor Wat, delicious food, and the Red Road Foundation, Cambodia was the perfect place to explore.
When my plane touched down at Siem Reap International Airport, I was jittery with anticipation. It was by far the smallest airport I had visited, and I was momentarily overwhelmed by the bright sun and crowd of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, waiting for new arrivals. Feeling quite out of place, I emerged from the building to see Boreth and Rachel, the former holding a Leap Gap Year sign and the latter with a brilliant smile on her face. They whisked the nine other Leapers and me into the vibrant city, the beginning of an adventure that would teach me much about myself, the world, and my goals for the future.
Rachel had an incredible volunteering and adventure itinerary planned, beginning with a trip to Kulen Elephant Sanctuary the very next day. Upon arrival, we were greeted with yellow tea and taught to make sticky rice, tamarind, rice bran, and banana treats for the elephants. As we fed them breakfast, I gazed in awed bewilderment at the five elephants just a few feet away from where I was standing, and I enjoyed every moment of a walk through the jungle with them and their mahouts. Between jet lag and the heat, we were all grateful to return to the hotel that afternoon for a few hours of rest before heading into the city center to explore. The day culminated with a lovely dinner near Pub Street, where I was introduced to the wonders of Khmer fried rice. As we Leapers and Rachel laughed and shared stories over heaping plates of food, I could feel the group melding together and knew I would return home with ten new friends.
The next couple of days passed in what now feels like a daydream. From swimming in the beautiful Kulen Waterfall to wandering through the markets of Siem Reap, each moment was fascinating. For me, the highlight of Siem Reap was by far the Angkor Wat temple complex. I arrived thinking Angkor Wat existed alone yet soon learned it was merely one of many ancient temples in the area. Beginning our temple exploration day at Angkor Wat for the sunrise, Rachel and Boreth showed us Leapers around Ta Prohm, the Baylon, and Preah Khan, each incredibly elaborate and surreal. It was fascinating to see such a large piece of Cambodian history. Leaving the complex, I stumbled upon one of my bucket list items for my gap year in Southeast Asia – friendly monkeys. With giddiness akin to a toddler, I watched, fascinated, as monkeys scrambled up vines and drank water directly from a bottle in Boreth’s hand. It is most definitely one of my top ten memories from the trip.
Sadly saying goodbye to Siem Reap, the group and I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. At Mad Monkey Hostel, I was introduced to Southeast Asia’s friendly, loud, and joyful backpacker culture. In stark contrast, our visit to the Killing Fields was horrifying, yet essential. Seeing the cruelty that the Khmer people experienced so recently gave me a greater appreciation for the principles of joy, gratitude, and generosity around which the Cambodian people live every day.
Clambering into a minivan, the group and I began our long journey to the Red Road Foundation and the next phase of our trip.
I will admit, my introduction to the Red Road Foundation was a bit of a shock. I will be the first to say I am not much of an outdoorsy person; I’ve always pictured my future as skyscrapers and stilettos, not mountains and mud boots. Yet, despite the numerous bathroom spiders, pesky mosquitoes, and the threat of unseen snakes, I soon grew to love my time at the Foundation.
To my shock and delight, I was immediately surrounded by several dogs as soon as I stepped out of the minivan at Red Road. Sweet Lulu and Leop bounded up to investigate, with little puppy Pepe trailing in their wake. As a die-hard dog lover who’d had to restrain from petting every single street dog in Siem Reap, I was immediately in seventh heaven. Following in the wake of the dog pack, our hosts, Bong Da and Seray Sera, welcomed me and the other Leapers with open arms and bright smiles. We spent that night settling into a beautiful bamboo bungalow, eating delicious pumpkin curry, and getting to know our hosts and their friends.
Day one was spent in the village, deciding upon which project to embark. After much deliberation and discussion, we settled upon building a house for the village grandmother, whose house was in disrepair. We returned back to RR for a lovely lunch and siesta. No wifi meant no calling home and no - gasp! - Netflix, so I resolved to take advantage of the opportunity to unplug by diving into my book. Never before have I been more grateful of my tendency to pack an excessive number of books on every trip.
The next few days were some of my favorite at Red Road, spent getting to know the kids at the school while Rachel and Bong Da ironed out the details for yeay’s house. The students were all smiles and excited about everything, from playing football to making bracelets. It was at this time, with the school filled with eager pupils and the yard filled with laughing kids, that I saw the full impact of the Red Road Foundation. It’s truly admirable, the community that Rachel created around the school.
On Monday, the hard work began. We Leapers rose bright and early, had a delicious breakfast, and headed into town to begin the building process. Yet, before the house could be built, the old one needed to be taken down. I watched awed trepidation as several bongs, local men helping build, began disassembling the house with only two hammers, two axes, and their own hands. Uncertain but eager, I internally shrugged and dived in along with my fellow volunteers. It was dirty and quite humbling but also very rewarding to see the concrete impact of my effort at the end of the day. In the course of a few hours, the building was reduced to a pile of wood beams and aluminum sheets. With each beam that came down, the instability of Yeay’s house became more and more clear. The wood floor was so damaged by bugs that it caved in during the disassembly process, and the siding easily fell away after a few good hits of a hammer.
The next two weeks passed in the same fashion; early to rise, and out to the village or the field to begin work. We spent the morning mixing cobb, assembling bricks, lacquering bamboo, and cleaning and painting wood beams, then returned to Red Road for lunch and a break before heading to work again around three pm. Little by little, Yeay’s house came together.
On the weekend, Red Road was again filled with smiling kids. I had the opportunity to join Teacher Jason in the classroom for an English lesson and had a wonderful time helping the kids with worksheets, practicing English introductions, singing and dancing to vocabulary songs: “Five little ducks went out one day, over the hills and far away….” You could see in the kids’ faces how much they loved being at the school.
Like every aspect of the trip, Red Road had its ups and downs. One day after work, I remember stumbling across a giant spider in the bathroom at least the size of my palm. Now normally I’m not scared of bugs, but this one was HUGE. In a moment of either extreme courage or absolute stupidity - I lean towards the latter - I picked up a glass of water and threw it near the spider. The intention was to scare it away. Only, I did not throw the water near the spider; I accidentally threw it on the poor thing. Horrified, I turned around to see my friend Immie doubled over laughing at me. She even captured the moment on camera - a hilarious memory and not my finest moment, or the finest moment for that poor spider. On the bright side, the bathroom was spider-free that night.
Yet for every creepy-crawly I chased away, there were ten times as many magical moments at Red Road. Perhaps one of the most incredible experiences was when I had the opportunity to attend a wedding. Together with Bong Da, two French volunteers, and two other Leapers, I headed into the village late one night on the school’s tuk-tuk. January nights are magical in the Cambodian countryside, with the light hum of bugs and a calm breeze, and we all smiled at each other in anticipation, completely unsure of what to expect. We were soon greeted with loud music and an elaborate entryway of bright lights and flowers. All the men were dressed casually but smartly; all the women were decked out in beautiful, brightly-colored ball gowns. The field ahead was filled to the brim with round tables, capped by a raised stage where a pair of singers were performing a duet among backup dancers. It seemed the entire village had turned up to celebrate the newlyweds. Winding our way through the many chairs, we sat down to dinner. No sooner than the last person finished, my friends and I were pulled up to join the crowd that formed below the stage, and we spent the evening dancing and smiling. Everywhere I looked, guests were having the time of their lives. The wedding was completely different from anything I’d anticipated or ever experienced before, wonderful in every sense of the word.
All too soon, my time at Red Road came to a close. After one last push building Yeay’s house, we returned to the Foundation sweaty yet content. Rachel, Bong Da, and Seray Sera held a small going away party for us Leapers, and all of the bongs we had met came together for a night of delicious food, music, and laughter. It was sad knowing my time in the Cambodian countryside was ending. I truly love Red Road and all the wonderful people that make up its community.
The next day we said our solemn goodbyes and piled into the tuk-tuk, off to visit Kampot and Koh Rong Sanloem for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
Upon arriving at the harbor and seeing our ride to Koh Rong Sanloem, I had a momentary panic attack. Spiders I can deal with, albeit reluctantly. Boats? Now that’s a whole other matter. Mustering my courage and reminding myself of “carpe diem,” I climbed into the small ferry, and the group and I headed off to our island paradise. To my great surprise, I soon came to love the watery journey. Sitting on the prow with the sun on my skin and my favorite music blasting in my ears, I felt euphoric.
As Sunset Beach came into view, Rachel called out for her dog Harley. The beautiful little pup ran out of the jungle to the water’s edge, and we pulled into the cove with a warm welcome from both Harley and Andre, Rachel’s boyfriend. After splitting up to settle into our island abodes, the Leapers and I reunited at a lovely pizza dinner at one of the local resorts, where owner Palo surprised us all with a plate of his legendary brownies. And legendary they truly are; a trip to Cambodia would be worth it just for one of these delectable brownies.
As I awoke the next morning, the ocean breeze ruffling the mosquito net above my bed and monkeys squawking in the trees, it hit me that I was in paradise akin to a Stock Photo. From the clear turquoise ocean to the lush green jungle, Sunset Beach was ripe with natural beauty. I spent the following week reading in hammocks and playing pool, interspersed by hiking to Sarrasin Bay, swimming with bioluminescent plankton, eating delicious food, kayaking, boxing, and snorkeling. It was a wonderful week, and I was sad to see the island fade from view as the group and I headed off to Phnom Penh and the end of The Leap.
On our last day on The Leap, the group and I had a lovely breakfast in Phnom Penh, and I reflected on how far we’d come. A month before, the ten people around the table had been complete strangers; now, I count them as good friends. We said our bittersweet goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and all headed off to wherever came next.
With all the ups and downs, the trip was one of the craziest, most exhilarating, stressful, joyful, and rewarding events of my life to date. By the time I arrived at Red Road, I knew didn’t want to leave Southeast Asia, and I extended my trip with Immie, a fellow Leaper. After the program ended, we spent a month traveling up Vietnam and through northern Laos before I flew home from Bangkok. In forcing myself out of my comfort zone and traveling to another world, I became a more surefooted person, with faith in my own resourcefulness. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to make the most of each and every moment. The Khmer people are some of the happiest I’ve ever met, and I’ve resolved to follow their example by appreciating the little things in life. As cliché as it sounds, my time in Cambodia, and my time in Vietnam and Laos, truly made a large impact on who I am.
A few weeks ago, I returned home with over fifty new friends, a couple of new scars, and a smile on my face. Most days the trip feels like a dream, but then I’ll pick up my phone and find a message from a new friend or glance at my wrist to see a souvenir bracelet. It was an incredible adventure, and I couldn’t be happier I took the leap.
on 25 / 04 / 2023