Through the heat and dust I finally made out the roof of what I knew must be the Brookline Samlahn School. When we arrived at the front drive way, we saw two lines of young children facing each other. We were greeted by the principal and other officials from the region, then led in between the two rows of children. What happened next left us speechless. It's difficult to explain what we felt at that moment, as sixty cute, young boys and girls clapped and smiled as we entered the school yard. All of us will agree, however, that it is something we will never ever forget.
After an opening blessing from two monks of the Samlahn Village, we took seats behind a table set up at the front entrance of the school, facing a crowd of one hundred or so residents of Samlahn Village packed under a colorful tent. The school principal, the Deputy Chief of the Department of Education of Preah Vihear, the governor of the district of Sangkum Tmei, Mr. Green, and Ms. Boynton all gave speeches. The mic was then passed to me, then to Dan, Hannah, Sabine, Yijin, and Kate. At some point during the opening speeches, our guide, Chamruun, walked tot he outskirts of the school yard, picked up a "Danger!! Mines!!" sign, and propped it up on a tree stump. We learned from him later that the grounds directly in front of the school where the villagers were sitting under a tent, which was thick jungle until recently, needed to be thoroughly de-mined before it was safe. Chamruun placed this sign for all of us to see to remind us that the dense forest surrounding the school was still heavily mined. The mountains in the distance served as fortified hideouts for Khmer rouge soldiers when they retreated into the wilderness.
To see the Brookline Samlahn School, meet some of the teachers and students, and see the results of our efforts was truly surreal and fascinating at the same time. The moment I left I wanted to return, and it is very special to be involved in this hopefully on going relationship between Brookline and Cambodia. Our visit was meant to not only see the school but to also plan out our next steps. I am thinking simply building a fence around the school grounds would make the Samlahn school feel more comfortable and safe. The forest surrounding the school is studded with destructive mines, and I believe the great the barrier there is between violence and education, the more hope there will be for restoring a solid foundation in Cambodian communities, both rural and urban.
After a ceremonial ribbon cutting performed by us and local officials, we visited the Samlahn village, which was a short distance from the school. We walked around, and eventually found ourselves talking to a very kind, old woman, who spoke to us through Chamruun, who translated Khmer to English. She explained how she, as well as her ancestors, grew up and lived their entire lives in Samlahn village. Her bright, gracious, gold-toothed smile faded when she described the life during Khmer Rouge regime. "It was very difficult," she said. "There was no food. It was bad. It was bad."
The next day, we visited a school for second to sixth graders across the street from our villa. We sang English songs with them and had basic conversations. Interacting with these children could have been one of the most heart-melting experiences I have ever had. We soon drove to Siem Reap. Around 3 in the afternoon, we went to the Pre Rup temple in the Angkor city complex to watch the sunset. The temple was constructed using volcanic rock, marble, and bricks. The volcanic rock came from the mountain 150 km away, carried by elephants and ox carts. It has a deep reddish hue, and the deep orange light from the sunset illuminated the stone and surrounding landscape. It was a perfect way to end the evening, and an even better way to begin the next stage of our adventures in Cambodia.