University of Washington athletes learned “…how we need to help, work with others, and it’s okay to be vulnerable” in Cambodia

June 2019

Our trip began with a 1:00am flight; with student-athletes from various sports joined together, we were ready for this life changing trip. Meetings leading up to the trip were quiet and so were the first few minutes at the airport. However, by the end of our trip we were inseparable and truly saddened to be separated from this new family that we’d become a part of. 

We had a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong on our way to Cambodia where we took every method of transportation possible to get to Victoria Peak: a plane, subway, bus and ferry. There, we saw the entire skyline of Hong Kong, and after enjoying one last American meal (pizza), we headed to the airport for Siem Reap. After almost two days of travel, we arrived at our hostel in Siem Reap.

The next morning, we drove two hours out of the city through the bumpy roads to a small village called Run Reung. Throughout the drive we waved and saw countless smiles from the children inside their homes. We also saw many confused faces wondering why there was a large bus going through their village. When we arrived at the high school, we received the warmest welcome from the boys and girls who applauded and smiled from cheek to cheek. As we settled into our sleeping quarters (the gymnasium and library), the students prepared traditional Cambodian dishes for lunch. Traditional meals consisted of white rice, fried duck eggs, fried fish, types of soups and a meat dish all placed in the middle to be shared. 

We were told by our Peace Corps volunteer, Josh, that Cambodian people were extremely resilient, kind, generous, and hardworking people. I remember him saying that if a Cambodian only had $2, they would be happy to give you $1. The hard work was shown clearly with the way the court was prepared for our group: on time and ready for cement to be poured. The plan was to start Sunday, but with the progress that the community had already made, we started pouring cement on Monday morning.

Sunday afternoon we walked around the community as a group, and greeted locals saying “chom reap suor” (“hello”) and  “soksaby” (“how are you?”), with our hands together and a slight bow. A lot of grandparents and children were in their homes, relaxing on hammocks or biking around the streets. Once we got back to the school, we heard karaoke and music coming from the room next to the gymnasium so we peeped our heads in. They invited us in to sing together but as we piled in, they instead dragged a massive speaker outside for all of us to dance along! The students who stayed at school showed us some traditional Cambodian dances while we showed them a wide range of dances, from the cha-cha slide to the dougie. We danced together for hours, sweating and laughing until it was time for the students to head home. 

Each day started about the same way with the national anthem at 7:00am, followed by breakfast and then straight to working on the court. Building the court started with sand, gravel, cement and water thrown into a mixer and then poured out onto the ground. Then we shoveled cement into small buckets to be carried and poured onto the court. We didn’t have designated stations, instead we all coordinated and took each other’s’ shovels when someone needed a break. It took a bit to gather a rhythm but less than an hour later, we were throwing buckets and working faster than our cement mixer. During our breaks, students shared traditional Cambodian snacks which consisted of variations of sweet sticky rice, fruits, jelly and crickets! Crickets were a big favorite among our team and some compared them to barbecue flavored potato chips. On breaks we also hung out with students and teachers, learning more Khmer, hearing their stories and whether some of the students had girlfriends or boyfriends. But many of them were too shy to admit it… 

On Monday and Tuesday evening, we experienced stormy weather with some lightning later at night. It was warm, but the Seattle-like weather didn’t stop both UW students and those of the Run Reung high school from playing soccer in the pouring rain and mud. Almost every night we danced together, learned more Cambodian dances and taught some of our own American dances. One night, due to the storm, we couldn’t eat outside and the power went out, so we all enjoyed our meals on the ground in the gymnasium with our headlamps on. We even lit some candles and gathered around them for our hang out that night. 

On the last day of building the court (Wednesday), we formed a celebratory line of UW students and local kids to pass down the final cement bucket to our Peace Corp volunteer Josh and the high school principal so they could pour the last bucket together for the court. This brought so much excitement and energy to everyone, it was the ending of a project and the introduction of a new sport for the community. We celebrated together with hugs and high fives all around. 

Later that afternoon we biked around the village with some of the students and teachers, exploring more of the community and visiting their homes. As kids saw us bike by, they hopped onto their bikes and joined the group, making us a massive swarm on the streets of Run Reung. We biked to a pagoda (temple), where we met several monks and learned more about their Buddhist culture/religion. The temple was small, but extremely detailed. Each animal and carving represented something unique and the temple took about three years to build.

The following day was a day to explore Run Reung, but with a bus this time. We drove to another pagoda, which was historically a killing field during the Khmer Rouge that took place from 1975 to 1979. Survivors of the regime shared their experiences, although their goal is to forget the occurrence of the event entirely. Cambodians do not mention this event ever, and prefer that perpetrators and victims live peacefully together. Prior to this trip I had heard about the Khmer Rouge period, but entering this killing field and actually seeing the piles of bones in a room with windows created a different feeling. The country suffered a lot during those years and the ones to follow as well. The movie called “First They Killed My Father” shares the story of a young girl during the Khmer Rouge regime. 

Friday was the most exciting day! We started the morning by gathering all of the local students, and their grandparents on the court. We exchanged speeches and the monks blessed our court. Soon later, we spread out onto the soccer field, volleyball court and basketball court to play games and do drills together. We had a group of girls who were afraid to play volleyball with the boys who were spiking, so thanks to Natalie (The CFK Representative), we were able to kick them off and teach the girls how to bump. This made them so excited and ready to learn how to play! 

The following morning, we packed our bags and headed down the same path they greeted us on, but in tears this time. Students ran to give hugs, some in tears but still a lot with smiles. It was sad to leave behind a community who we have grown so close to and who have been incredibly kind to us. We are so grateful to have even been a part of their lives and to have collaborated on something that will hopefully be there forever. 

Our final trip was to three temples in Siem Reap: Angkor Thom, Angkor Ta Phrom, and Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. During our tour we learned about the long history of the temples, the details of the mural on the temple walls and the stories as to who the temples were built for and why. We learned the differences between the “good” and the “evil”, and the do’s and don’t’s in these temples to make sure you have the best of luck.

This trip was one of the most challenging trips that I have personally done, but the rewards and relationships that have come with it is incomparable. It pushed me outside of my comfort zone and allowed me to be truly immersed in a new culture. During our week in Run Reung, I could really notice the way Cambodians were able to find joy in the small things. Whether it was a simple smile or wave, kicking a shuttlecock around, dancing, or playing sports, the joy and energy was contagious.

Without the complexity of having our phones, we were able to be completely present with each other and ourselves. We had no other responsibilities and felt like we had no worries for a week. I found that to be the main contributor to the strong relationships that we have built as a team and with the community. Relationships were built on authentic conversations and the ability for us to be vulnerable with one another. This was a new feeling for a lot of us and definitely added to the experience. 

To see a community that does not have much for themselves continuously give and spread positivity was warming. Despite the language barriers, we were able to communicate through our common goal of spreading kindness and happiness with everyone. The relationships that we have built with the community and with each other are ones that we will hold onto forever. 

I would like to thank Courts for Kids and the University of Washington for this opportunity to learn and continue to develop as individuals. I would also like to thank the Peace Corps volunteer of Run Reung, Josh and our incredible Courts for Kids representative Natalie for being so much fun and making this trip such a great experience for all of us. 

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” – Vanessa, student

“What I learned from this community perseverance and grit. They’ve been through so much and continue to go through things but they keep their head down and always press forward. They are some of the hardest workers, as well. Each of them contributed to the court project from the smallest kid to the oldest man.” – Myles

“What I specifically enjoyed about this project and community was that we were helping provide young girls with the opportunity to play sports – something they hadn’t had before. We showed them that they too can be athletes and play sports. The whole week the girls would chant the words “women are strong” and that is something I will never forget.” – Emma

“Something I understand after this trip is that Cambodians are a resilient bunch who are also kind and loving people.” – Dalton

“I learned a great amount of humility. Going into this trip, I felt we came here to serve and help the community. In leaving this trip, I realize we had just as much, if not more, to gain.” – Michael

“I learned that there are many different ways of life than the ones we live and even though they might be tough for us, we learn to appreciate them.”  – Cassidy

“After this trip, I really have a deeper understanding about vulnerability. Even though we as student athletes – who are always strong and ready to go – this trip allowed us to learn more about how we need to help, how to work with others, and to know that it is okay to be vulnerable!” -Wenyan

“The world is so big and there are all kinds of lifestyles. It is cool to be able to experience the life in Cambodia and I certainly enjoyed it a lot! I hope in the future I can go more places and help more people.” – Wenyan

“I have learned so much about myself on this trip. This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life. My first bucket shower, my first squatty potty, and my first time trying many foods. I was able to endure more things than I ever knew that I could. I have also made some of the best connections, not only with the community, but with the other student athletes on the trip, also.” -Makayla