by Matthew Owen-Flood, Grade 11
Having a thirteen-hour plane ride gives you time to think.
On the flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, I thought about the fact that I had never been to Asia before. Although I had met a significant number of boarding students from the continent through SMUS, I had only heard about it. Along with fourteen students and two chaperones, I was on a Model UN and service trip bound for Singapore and Cambodia. Despite the research before going, nothing compared to actually being there, meeting the people and taking it all in with my own eyes.
When I got out of the airport, I was stunned. Singapore was filled with colours. The cars, especially the taxis, formed a rainbow on the highway surrounded entirely by flowers. It seemed as if I had stepped into the country-wide equivalent of the Butchart Gardens. As we walked from the hotel, past countless skyscrapers, through a nine-storey mall, and up to Smith Street in Chinatown, I was constantly reminded of how I was so far from Victoria, questioning how I could be so close to Malaysia and Indonesia. As the jet-lag was starting to set in, we had an incredible meal and were given an opportunity to explore the neighbourhood.
Singapore is not a large country; in fact, it’s smaller than Greater Vancouver. Naturally, when we were given five hours to accomplish everything on our list of things to see, we were overjoyed. We biked along the waterfront, saw Singapore’s unofficial mascot – the Merlion, ate incredible food such as ramen and crab, and explored the area surrounding the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. One of the most spectacular sights was the view from the top of the hotel. To the south were hundreds of tankers waiting to get inside the harbour. To the north, nearly the entire country was on display.
Up next was the Model UN conference at the French School of Singapore. Each member of the SMUS Delegation represented either Ethiopia, Portugal, North Korea, or the “Nonviolent Peaceforce” at the fourteenth session of the Singapore International Model United Nations (SIMUN). The conference was based on the “Hague Model” of debate, a style new to all of us as it is rarely used in North America. For many, it was a steep learning curve and required time to understand. Singapore’s past Ambassador to the United Nations, Tommy Koh, gave a thoughtful speech. He stressed the importance of hard work, negotiation, and consensus-building. Such words set the tone for the conference. I found his ideas very inspiring.
The next three days were filled with intense debate, passionate speeches and meeting new friends from all over the world. I represented Ethiopia in the UN Security Council as a double-delegation. The experience was certainly one of growth, learning about the “Hague Model,” the Security Council topics at hand and the culture of the people around me. From this experience, I realized delegates at SIMUN are similar to delegates in our local Model UN community, as we all aspire to improve the world around us. The generosity of the friends I met in Singapore was evident after the conference when they gave us a tour around their city, taking us off the beaten path to show us places we would not have seen otherwise. Meanwhile, over the course of SIMUN, our group became more comfortable with one another. This group dynamic and synergy would be crucial in our next destination: Cambodia.
Stepping out of the Siem Reap International Airport, many in the group were anxious. None of us had been to the country, but we were all aware of its history of colonization, genocide and conflict. We hopped on the humid bus, drank lukewarm water and looked out the window as the long journey to the lodge began. The first thing we noticed was the rules of the road, or lack thereof. In every direction, there was a sea of cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks. The bus was silent as we sat in awe, taking in our new surroundings. Thankfully, we met our tour guides, Amy and Silong, who gave context to everything surrounding us. This was crucial the next day when we were exploring the city and learning about the history of Buddhism with the added help of a few of the monks. Later, we visited the Night Market. Bargaining and haggling for souvenirs enabled many of us to put our newfound negotiation skills to the test.
Now halfway through the trip, our group visited the Landmine Relief Fund, a Cambodian NGO, which I consider to be a highlight of the trip. Our tour guide, Bill Morse, a commissioned officer during the Vietnam War, shut down his business in Palm Springs to move to Cambodia in 2007 to, as he told us, “concentrate on clearing mines in low priority villages in Cambodia.” He tied the history of landmines in the country to the history of Cambodia more generally, offering us a comprehensive account of Cambodia from French colonization to King Sihanouk, and later the brutal Khmer Rouge regime all the way up to the situation today. Hearing the history of oppression and autocracy was eye-opening and put into perspective the great privilege and corresponding responsibility we have as Canadians.
During our stay in Siem Reap, we went to a different market and practiced the official language, Khmer, in order to ask the stall owners about the local area and the prices of different products. Later in the day, we took a tuk-tuk across the city to the PEPY Empowering Youth, a non-profit organization that connects youth to educational opportunities that can, in turn, help them lead a better life. At the organization, we met people our own age and talked one-on-one about academics, music, and our favourite parts of Siem Reap – topics that we could all relate to. At one point, I was asked to present about Canada. When I spoke, I focused on the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the ocean, showing photos of our beautiful province. Meeting such bright and persistent students, many of whom were the first in their village to leave and pursue higher education, was a striking experience. We reverently recognized the resilience and tenacity of the people around us.
On our last day in Siem Reap, we left before dawn to watch the sunrise at the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The air was still and the traffic non-existent. Our group toured the temple, which we learned was the former bastion of the Khmer empire and once the largest city in the world. Walking through the ruins of one of history’s great civilizations allowed us to appreciate and learn more about the culture, history, and the language of the country, which would play a crucial role in the upcoming homestay.
The next day we took a three-hour bus ride out to the homestay in rural Cambodia. Passing by smaller and more isolated cities not listed in our guidebooks, we made it to Banteay Chhmar, our destination. Our last two full days in Cambodia were packed with exploring, cultural expeditions and service work. We toured the village, farmed Cassava Roots, and met the elder of the village who gave us advice on the value of persistence when farming. During our final dinner near the historic site of the Banteay Chhmar Temple, our group reflected on insights gained from our trip thus far and discussed the respective historical, political and economic situation of Singapore and Cambodia.
In the early morning, we left Banteay Chhmar for the airport. We passed by hundreds of stalls on the side of the road, everyone selling something that was a little different from their neighbour. As the sun began to rise and the vendors and buildings whizzed by, I reflected on what I had experienced over the past few days whilst learning the history and gaining a deeper appreciation for their culture. I developed an appreciation for the grit, tenacity and perseverance of the Cambodian people. Despite the country’s oppressive history and economic situation, the people nonetheless have an unrelenting optimism for the future of their country.
Descending into the Victoria International Airport, I looked out the window at the pine trees below and the snowy mountains in the distance. This trip made me realize I have taken for granted many things simply by having a Canadian Passport, such as stability, liberty and safety. Then I thought about the students that I met in Singapore, Bill Morse, and the locals of Banteay Chhmar. They all shared one thing in common: every day, with optimism, they work hard to create a better future. It is these experiences that give perspectives, vision and meaning to my life.
Fellow traveller and Grade 11 student Nathan Yang also wrote about the Spring Break trip to Singapore and Cambodia. You can read his reflections here.