Tag Archives: Teaching

back to cambodia

back to cambodia

I’m not the kind to usually retrace my steps in a country. I like exploring new cities, meeting new people – in fact I consciously make the effort to avoid going back to the same place (especially within the span of a year) because I have so many other destinations on my wanderlust list. But of course, this being a school trip with very specific objectives, I couldn’t afford to only consider my personal inclinations.

In a way, it was good because I did promise the kids at SSF that I would be back. We told them June previously, so technically I’m half a year late. It’s amazing how much things can change within a year – the guesthouse that looked dark and foreboding with its shutters is now an inviting blue. The room we stayed in no longer exists – in fact it is the lounge area for backpackers to rest while waiting to use the computer. There’s wifi access at the cafe and the toilets have heaters while the rooms are air-conditioned. Simple, but definitely functional. The food served up by the students was excellent, although I must admit that I was so glad to go back to the noodle stall and indulge in that bowl of sweet beef noodle soup. The kids at the protection center are still the same – the older ones ask, “This is not your first time here right?” even though we only spent an afternoon together at the village. The younger ones don’t remember, but they are as cute and mischievous as ever. The scary dogs at the office are no longer there, but during this trip I somehow lost that fear of dogs or insects. Perhaps it has to do with having to maintain a facade of bravado in front of the students. The people are still the same – Vichetr and his lovely wife, Panna, Narong, Varonika – all speaking with much better English now. It was so touching when they shared with my students their dreams and how they believe that change starts from the individual, and not from the context or country.

Our route in Phnom Penh was similar too – the killing fields (minus the ATV) and Tuol Sleng. The survivors are still surviving. The scenes evoked are still as harrowing, although I’m not sure my students are old enough to understand the gravity of the massacre. If ever there was the sensation of a parallel universe, this has to be it. The dissonance lies in how much things have changed – and this constant comparison between what has changed and what has remained felt like I was submerging myself in hot and cold water simultaneously.

Of course, there were some differences. We visited a different village this time and got to spend more time interacting with the villagers. I (thankfully) did not waste anyone’s rice this time while rice husking, even though one of our students dropped a metal hook into the well … We also visited a high school and a slum site where the people are so poor they live under the large electric cables.

This entire trip was like .. sitting under a giant Bodhi tree. I feel strangely zen after this, in the sense that I no longer feel that attachment to material goods. My obsession with new things and gadgets seems to have faded away (for now, and hopefully for good) and I would like to dedicate the time that I have to investing in relationships and health instead. At the end of the day, the riches we have on earth really matter more in the lives we’ve touched and the people we love, rather than the objects that wear, tear and fade away.

As we left the protection center, I walked away quickly, struggling to hold back my tears. But even though I made no promises this time, I have a very strong feeling that I will be back again.


Sao Sary Foundation


“The day before I set up the office for SSF, I had a dream where many children came running to me and asked me for help. I’m still looking for these children.” – Vichetr Uon

When we were kids, most of us were able to take comfort in the fact that we would always be able to turn to our parents for help and protection. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many children in Cambodia, some of whom are in high risk of being trafficked, abused or sexually exploited because their families are so poor.

When Vichetr Uon first visited Kampong Speu in 2006, he was shocked to see a family of 9 huddled around a bowl of rice water and living in conditions that were “15 years behind time”. Shortly after, he established Sao Sary Foundation, which now runs a child protection center in Kampong Speu and has undertaken several community projects to help the rural villages around the province. Despite many difficulties in getting through to the villagers at the beginning, SSF has come an incredibly long way and is now an esteemed partner in the community. Apart from being provided with a safe haven, the children are also given opportunities to study and some are even given scholarships to attend university.

WB and I were extremely fortunate to be able to accompany the teens from SSF to a few of the rural villages in Kampong Speu, where we witnessed first-hand the wonderful work that they are doing with their Bio-Sand Filter project.  Within a week of their installation, these bio-sand filters will provide potable water to the villagers, a luxury we have long taken for granted in Singapore.What we found most remarkable was the sense of empowerment given to the children and teenagers of SSF, as they are now the ones bringing out about change in the rural communities. That was our happiest day of the 9 we spent in Cambodia.

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SSF is currently transforming a three-storey building into a guesthouse that will also serve as a training center for hospitality. Slated to be done by end-January, it will have 6 bedrooms, a cafe, a large meeting room and several lounge areas for its guests and volunteers to hang out. I can’t wait to stay there!



One of the reasons I love the underwater world so much is the absolute serenity of silence. No matter how the waves crash over you or how a school of fish swim past your feet, the sound of silence is constant and therapeutic for that half an hour or so. Yet as much as I love it, that feeling of breaking through the water’s surface and hearing the cacophony of the earth rush back into my ears is always welcoming and energizing. That sensation reminds me that I’m back in reality again.

For many of the students at Anusarnsunthorn School for the Deaf (Chiangmai), their reality is like life underwater, 20ft deep. The sound of silence, whilst overwhelming to us, is familiar to them. Yet their actions do not reflect the stagnancy of silence. Instead, these children are constantly engaged in a dizzying array of activities. Be it dancing, playing volleyball, creating artistic masterpieces or even performing in a band, there is rarely a moment in which they are not making meaningful use of their time. I would even say that the average student there is a lot more “all-rounded” than our students in Singapore.

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Percussion performance during cultural night

Some of the dances put up by the students (:

(Videos courtesy of Glen Liang)

I must admit that I went there thinking that we would be able to impact these children’s lives with our fancy math and science educational manipulatives and our fun silk-screen printing techniques. Yet I was humbled by how their techniques in art far surpass ours. Their patience and attention to detail is amazing, and I believe that the inner serenity they possess plays a part.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not meet a single student who perceived their inability to hear as a disability. This, I believe, is credit that is largely due to the teachers who never allowed them to feel inferior to “normal” students. As educators, we are more than likely to encounter students who are “imperfect”. Yet instead of  being quick to condemn or place our own limitations on them, with patience and faith, we can help those who can’t hear to see meaning in producing beautiful music.

Click here to look at more photos of my time at Anusarnsunthorn (:

Updates from Flora Tristan!


Can’t believe it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve started teaching at Flora Tristan! Teaching has really been a joy here because the kids are so enthusiastic about learning. Here are some videos of the games we play in class:

Prepositions class:

On giving directions:

The kids are split into 2 teams. One member from each team is blindfolded and assigned to be either ‘cat’ or ‘mouse’. Their team members have to direct them through the maze to either catch/avoid being caught by the other member. This was such a big hit with the kids!

Also, more pictures of adorable kids to whet your appetite:

Daniel & Rodrigo playing "Restaurant" in class.

Top-spinning whizzes.

Weibiao teaching the older kids Mandarin.

Oh my heartbreaker.

Our blur babies.

Only 2 weeks left ):

The Magical World of English;


Welcome to the Magical World of English!

This is the sign greeting the children at the gates of the Flora Tristan school, located in a pueblo joven (i.e. new town) in the Northern outskirts of Arequipa. An hour’s drive away from the city center, this community is right in the cradle of the mountains… and the accompanying construction work that is being done to develop the area. There’s a lot of dust, and rows and rows of half-built brick houses where most of the children and their families live.

Had my first local initiation on yellow bus A, struggling to keep my balance on the first step of the swerving bus as the conductor casually swung his body in and out of the half ajar door. Slowly made my way in, squished between flushed and sombrero-donning children, newspaper-reading grandpas and senoritas with their multiple bags of groceries. All this while the live broadcast of the Brazil v. North Korea match was playing in the background, but of course, I couldn’t understand scant except for when the commentator screamed GOAALLLL! No one cheered though. People here don’t seem to like Brazil much. And then at some point, the conductor jumped down the bus, ran to a counter to get his ticket stamped and then jumped up the bus again as it turned the street corner. Bus conductors here probably have to pass some form of IPPT before they qualify.

This is where we get off the bus.

The school is about another 100m away, past two mama shops, several giant holes in the ground which are supposedly for plumbing, and a basketball court. The good people who built the Flora Tristan school also built a basketball court/play area for the kids nearby, and we spend an hour each day after class playing with them. The school compound and classrooms are beautifully decorated with paintings done by past volunteers (WB is itching to paint as well) and they’ve recently also installed a toilet. But there are several problems with the flushing so apparently it gets pretty nasty towards the end of the day.

"Head, and shoulders, knees and toes! Knees and toes!"

The kids who come to the school range from ages 2-25. This is after-school enrichment for them, but they come with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Was slightly overwhelmed when they started speaking very quickly in Spanish and all I could say was, “No entiendo, habla espanol un poco!” Not that it really matters because it doesn’t stop them from being effusive. The kids are divided into 6 classrooms, generally according to language ability:

  1. The ‘Junior group’, where the students learn sounds, numbers and simple words;
  2. The ‘Basic group’, where focus is given to developing basic vocabulary and communication;
  3. The ‘Elementary group’, with emphasis on enabling students to converse confidently; and
  4. The ‘Intermediate group’, which focuses on higher-level communication and application.

I’m teaching the advanced basic class (bit of an oxymoron) with Sheri, a Canadian who’s had experience teaching English in Japan for two years. Emphasis is largely placed on practical application of the language for vocational purposes, so this week we’re focusing on food and the  typical conversation between a waiter and a customer in a restaurant. The kids are also designing a mock menu for their mock restaurant.
After class, students get an hour at the basketball court. You really get a sense of community from the kids by the way they take care of and look out for each other. Spent a gorgeous hour bouncing kids on my lap; teaching Julio how to play ‘scissors, paper, stone’ and trying in turn to learn this Spanish chant that he was trying to teach me (which strangely enough, none of the native Spanish speakers understood as well); teaching adorable little Valery how to take pictures; and being completely awed by the sunset over the basketball court.

Basketball with one hell of a view.

After playtime and a water parade, the kids walk back home on their own, hand-in-hand. Some are siblings, others just older kids bringing the younger ones back. So sweet.


On a separate note, am also teaching Teochew Biao how to speak English in a way that the English, American, Canadian and Australian volunteers can comprehend. He’s whining that no one can understand his accent. Oops.