Mission trip a world away

The country sits in the heart of what was the ancient Khmer empire which encompassed most of southeast Asia. They have a very rich heritage of which the people are very proud. In the 1970s however, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime brought a reign of terror to the country that effectively sent the country back to the Stone Age. The effects of this terror are still impacting life in Cambodia. Thirty years later and the country has not fully recovered yet.
As the date approached for our trip, I became more and more excited to experience this ancient land  and learn about the Khmer people who hold so much promise. I was also anticipating seeing the amazing work of the missionaries we would be working alongside. These are my thoughts and reflections upon my 12 days in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
DAYS 1 and 2: The day that wouldn’t end
Wake Up: 3 a.m. /Leave Conway: 4 a.m. /Leave Little Rock: 6:15 a.m.
On Monday, July 6, a group of five from Central Church in Conway left for two weeks in Cambodia. As the sun came up that morning, I had no idea it would be chasing me all day.
After a quick flight to Chicago, we were soon boarding another plane headed to Seoul, South Korea.  This was my first trip to Asia and the longest flight I had ever taken. I wasn’t sure how well I’d cope, sitting in one seat for over 13 hours, but once they close the door, you’re committed.
The flight was good. Some new experiences. Bibim Bap…at least I can now say I’ve tried it. I also never knew that a flight attendant could make an entire plane of people obey her every command simply by smiling and waving her hand indicating what you were to do. But everyone complied.
At what would have been 1 a.m. Tuesday, we landed in Seoul…and still had not seen night. The day would never end. Two hours later, we were boarding yet another plane for a five-hour flight into Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Another airline meal, parts of a movie and a couple hours of shut-eye and the trip passed quickly.
I knew southeast Asia would be humid. But there really is no way to prepare other than to experience it. Looking out the plane window before exiting, the plane wings were even sweating. Once you step off the plane, it hits you and instantly it is more difficult to breathe. Thankfully, our team was able to adjust quickly and the humidity was not a big factor for most of the trip. You just learn that as soon as you step out of the air conditioning, your clothes will be wet with sweat.
10:00 p.m. We arrive at Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We went through customs, which was more difficult than necessary since the immigration officers didn’t pay any attention to the attestation documents we gave him. Because we would be working with a recognized NGO, our visa fees would be waived. So what should have been a three-minute process turned into 30 minutes. Eventually everything worked out and we are able to meet Dr. Fil Tabayoyong and Bro. Neil Mamon, the missionaries we worked with while in Cambodia.
We drove to the hotel in downtown Phnom Penh. We settled into our rooms, plugging the key into the switch to turn on the electricity, and finding the “on” button for the a/c. (That’s the only button). Thirty-plus hours after leaving home, finally it is night.
DAY 3: Majesty and murders
royalpalace.JPGToday we toured the city of Phnom Penh. We finished breakfast, left the hotel and divided into two Tok Tok’s (motocycle taxis). We started our day at the Wat Phnom, the namesake of the capital city. (Phnom= Hill; Penh is a lady’s name.) We saw a sign that would be a recurring theme throughout the trip – “Foreigners please pay $1.” The first time we had to pay what they call the “white skin tax.”
We paid the fee and headed up the hill to the Wat or temple. The scent of incense was almost overwhelming. When you step inside, it increases in strength. There are, of course, the ever-present beggars and vendors, many of which probably are victims remaining from the Khmer Rouge or land mines they left behind. Vendors sell everything from postcards, sunglasses and cold bottles of water to fruits and plants to use as an offering to the Buddha.
After touring Wat Phnom, we travel across town to the Royal Palace. This complex stands in stark contrast to most of the rest of Phnom Penh. It is a beautiful complex that is a must-see on any visit to Cambodia. There are statues and manicured lawns in every direction.
The first building you see is the coronation hall. Its gilded roof and ornate detail seemed to “pop” against the dark sky of the day. Inside is the king’s throne. He only sits on it one time in his life, on coronation day. Other times, he uses arm chairs in front of the throne. It is a beautiful building that is only used occasionally for official functions.
Exiting the coronation hall, you can catch a glimpse of the king’s residence and pass by the “Elephant Building.” This is where, in times past, they would keep the decorations for the king’s elephants and also get them ready for use. Due to Pol Pot’s terror, there is only one elephant left in all of Phnom Penh today.
We moved across the plaza area by a building that was donated to Cambodia by Napoleon Bonaparte of France. It was built in France, disassembled, moved to Cambodia and reassembled. They are restoring this building to be used as a museum on the palace grounds.
Moving on, we came to the Silver Pagoda. The Khmer call it the Emerald Pagoda because of the emerald Buddha inside, but westerners refer to it as the Silver Pagoda because of the hundreds of solid silver tiles that cover the floor. The building is full of statues of Buddha and of artifacts and precious relics of the Khmer monarchy. This building is highly revered by the Khmer and it a national treasure. (It is also listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before you Die.”)
After the palace, we headed to the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. This is a former school that the Khmer Rouge used as a prison to house, interrogate and torture prisoners. These were not people who had committed crimes, but their reason for being there was they were educated or seen as “opposition.”
It is a numbing place. You go through rooms where pictures of tortured victims are on the wall. Then, you notice the bed and the floor you are standing on bear the same markings that are in the photo. 
The next building is full of photos. There was wall after wall of photos of the victims, many of them children. The next building had been converted into private 4-foot by 6-foot cells of brick. The upper floors were covered in chain link to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. The whole complex is an emotional journey through the mind of a madman and the people who blindly followed him.
After leaving Tuol Sleng, you felt emotionally drained, but it in no way prepared you for the Killing Fields memorial. As you arrive, the first thing you see is a tree called the “magic tree.” They used this tree to hold a loud speaker to play music to drown out the cries and moans of the victims being executed.
As you continue to walk, you see area after area where mass graves have been unearthed. They say that every time it rains, more bones and clothes appear at the complex. We saw this firsthand. Fabric scraps peeked through the dirt, and in the middle of the path a bone had begun to peek through. This burial ground is still being excavated and bodies are still being discovered.
We walked around to the “Killing Tree” where executioners would hold children by their feet and beat them against it to kill them. As we were standing there, sick to our stomachs, we began to hear the sounds of children in the school yard next door, running, laughing and playing. The juxtaposition of the two seemed eerie at times. 
There are more mass graves and more descriptions around the field showing the structures that were formerly there. In the middle of the field is a stupa, a memorial to the victims. Its sides are glass. Inside are the bones of many of the victims who have been discovered at this site.
After touring the city, we returned to the hotel and freshened up for dinner. We had dinner at the restaurant that shares a building with the “Happy Heart and Wellness Clinic.” Dr. Fil, one of our hosts, runs this clinic in Phnom Penh for the poor and disadvantaged Cambodians, although it isn’t just the poor and disadvantaged that he treats. He spends many hours counseling as well as treating physical ailments. He is currently working to help promote a culture of life in Cambodia, by working to illegalize and eliminate abortions.
Dr. Fil has many connections in Cambodia and throughout southeast Asia. He is a former director for the World Health Organization who has now committed his life to Christ and to treating not only people’s physical conditions, but also their spiritual condition.  He is developing project centers in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vanuatu, Palau, the Solomon Islands and many more nations in the Asia-Pacific region. God is truly using him to change this area of our world.
DAY 4: A van and a plan
We crowded into the van loaded with all the luggage, supplies and lunches. It is four hours until lunch and nine hours until we arrive in Banlung, Rattanakiri Province, Cambodia. To say it was a “van ride” would be a gross understatement. Our driver, much like most drivers in Cambodia, had no apparent need for street regulations or guidelines. His only driving rule was “if I’m in front and my horn is louder, I have the right of way.” There were a few moments during the nine hour drive that he didn’t honk his horn. Most of the ride is on good road, even the last four hours were on “good” dirt road. But 70 mph on even a “good” dirt road is fast, I don’t care what country you’re in. We survived the journey as did the cows, water buffalo, chickens, motorcycle drivers and children playing in the street that we honked out of our way.
We arrived at our hotel and rested for a few minutes before heading to the Banlung Project Center for dinner. This was our first time to see where we would be working the next few days.
missionteaching.jpgDAY 5: “Good morning teacha, good morning classmates!”
Ms. Jean, wife of Bro. Neil, leads the English classes at the project center. She runs a tight ship, but the kids love her and they have learned from her. But she does not tolerate “lazy” English. So every time someone says “hello” or “good morning,” the kids respond: “Good morning teacha, good morning classmate.” We come to love this and wish the kids back in the states had this type of respect and joyful attitude regarding being in class (especially since these English classes are in addition to their regular school day.) There is commitment to these classes by all the kids because a good working knowledge of English will ensure a decent job and good income for a Cambodian.
We taught our first day of English lessons. We sang some English songs and we taught English words by using the biblical account of creation. The kids caught on quickly and also memorized well. They memorized a verse of scripture each day to help them with their English, and to help them learn the Word of God.
For lunch, we headed to the Gecko House Restaurant. We grew to love this place. It was full of character and had a great Cambodian feel. Lunch was always good, and for $4 for a plate full of stir-fry and a cool Sprite, who could complain?
In the afternoon, we taught English lessons for the teenage students. They are just as polite and respectful as were the children. They are very interested to learn about our language and our culture. We did the creation lesson again with the teens. However, with them we did conversation groups instead of the crafts. This was a highlight each day getting to sit and visit with just a few kids. You never realize how many words we take for granted. Trying to explain “sprout” to someone who has a limited ability to communicate is not easy.
DAY 6:  English Camp Day 2
We returned today to the project center for Day 2 of the English camps. Today was very similar to the first day, only today we used the gospel message to teach English. The kids listened and were very attentive. The children made “salvation bracelets” to help them remember the story and help teach the colors. We also taught the kids to play “Duck, Duck, Goose” but it ended up just being “dok, dok, go.” They had a blast either way. The teens continued in the afternoon with more conversation groups. It was a blast getting to relate and visit with the kids. We know we were able to share the gospel, we hope they understood…even if they never could say “v’s” and “w’s” correctly.  For some reason they switch the two sounds consistently. So heaven is heawen and wooden is vooden.
DAY 7:  Market, church and lake
On Sunday, we woke up early to go to the market to see it in early morning. You have never smelled anything foul until you have smelled a Cambodian market on a humid, muddy morning. The dried fish and fermented fish paste smells are ones you will never forget. We were able to walk around a bit and experience a market morning. It is not that much unlike any other open air market I’ve been to, only with the smell of fish paste in the air. You just can’t think about the market when you eat, otherwise you wouldn’t eat because you know your food came from that market that morning.  We went back to the market later to finish our shopping.
After leaving the market, we went to the project center for Sunday worship. Sunday morning starts early with children’s church at 8 a.m. We had music and a lesson which reviewed what we had done earlier in the week.
After children’s church, the project center offers a weekly feeding program. They give the kids a bowl of something (we never really found out what it was) that is high in protein and other nutrients. They would also get a cup of powdered milk. The kids all loved the milk, but were typical kids with the food. Some would try to sneak the food into other bowls or some would just spit it on the ground. I can’t say that I blame them too much. The sad part is that this might be the only milk they would have all week and the only protein all day.
After the children’s worship, we attended the weekly worship service of the mission. They have a small congregation of mostly teens who are faithful to the work. They are slowly building a faithful church in Banlung. Bro. Moses will eventually take over the full leadership of the work in Banlung. They are hoping to send him to the Philippines soon for more training. The teens led the worship, including a special song in Khmer with the traditional Khmer apsara style dance. After a time of music, I was able to bring a brief message to the group there. I wanted to encourage them to keep up the good work and to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.
missionbaptism.JPGAfter the worship service, we went to a local lake for a baptism service. This was one of the high points of the entire trip for me. Being able to baptize Nok, Alex and Supeep was an honor. These guys had been waiting months for baptism and they are some of the leaders of the congregation. I even battled my dislike for dirty lake water.
That night they had a teen “get-together.” We reviewed what we had talked about in English camp all week. We played “Win, Lose, or Draw” (in English) with them. After the game Bro. Neil asked them what they had learned that week. Most said English, about creation, about America, or something like that.
But the best moment of the entire trip was when, Thoudat, a teen girl, stood and said that she “had learned about Jesus and she had never heard of him before.” She knew now who he was and how she could go to heaven. That moment made all the money, effort, time and sweating worth it all. 
After the group time, we had a fellowship with Tang and durian (probably the most stinky, most disgusting fruit on earth) flavored cookies. They loved it!
DAY 8: Over the river and through the woods…
On Monday, we loaded into two rented 4×4 vehicles and headed to In Village. It is about a two hour drive on dirt road/trail to the Seisan River. We were about 30 miles from the Vietnam border, and this is where the road ends.
missioncanoe.JPGAt this point, we had to unload from the vehicles and get into a canoe that took us across the river. We carried “goody bags” to the people at the village and were weighted down in the canoe. So much, that the “captain” said we might want to just squat instead of sit in the boat because water might come in. Not very reassuring when there isn’t a life vest in sight. 
We arrived to the other side and walked up the bank to the village. We carried the trunks to the community building and waited on the people to arrive. Slowly they began to appear, but most were still in the rice fields working. We passed out the bags and gave the remainder to the chief’s wife to give out later. We did have to explain to them how to use the deodorant and not to eat it.
Our trip was cut short because the canoe captain had said we had 30 minutes or he wasn’t coming back to get us because the water was moving too fast on the river.
On the way home from In Village, we stopped at the Weaving Village, where we saw a woman weaving by hand beautiful wool fabrics. We watched for a while as she diligently worked. We purchased some fabrics from her and will treasure them. It isn’t often you are able to buy something of this quality and see the person who made it. The realization of the state of the Khmer people sank in when we realized that this blanket that had taken her about 40 days to make only cost us $15. While we were standing there, we had about earned back home what we paid her for over a month’s work.
After the Weaving Village, we stopped at the Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake. It is a beautiful lake in the top of a dormant volcano. It is perfectly round and clear. It is spring fed with no outlets. It is a tourist attraction in the area and is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon. I wish we’d had more time to stay and relax there. I also wished this was where we had come for the baptism.
DAY 9:  Hospital and monks
We headed this morning to the local hospital. It is the only hospital in the entire province. The first stop was the emergency room, although only the name over the door indicated that there was any urgent care needed.
There was only one hospital bed, the rest were just bed frames with wood slats. The patients must bring their own mats to lie on. We toured the minor surgery room and the operating room. The OR was the only room in the entire facility that would be considered anywhere near sterile by American standards. Next to the obstetrics unit, skipped the tuberculosis building, and then the pediatric ward. In these rooms you would have about 12 beds, and each bed was assigned to a patient and their family.
We handed out the bags of treats we had brought from the U.S. The kids at our Vacation Bible School in Conway prepared stuffed turtles to be given to the children. We were able to see many kids playing with them before we left. 
We saw the general medical wing, then the laboratory. For Americans we can’t imagine seeking care in a facility such as this, but it is sobering to realize that for a majority of the world, this is what is available for medical care. One bright spot of the hospital was the telemedicine. If the local doctors are unsure of a condition or a treatment, they can email a H&P, photos and a description of the conditions to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and be connected instantly with a doctor. This no doubt has drastically improved the quality of medical care for this region.
After the hospital visit, we headed to the market to finish up shopping. Students from the English school served as our translators. After shopping and a quick lunch, we headed to the monk village, where we met a believer who was a former Buddhist monk. He showed us around the area and inside the Wat. He was able to tell us what all of the murals depicted and what they meant to the Buddhists. We were able to visit with a few monks briefly and talk with them about their life and let them practice their English. Bro. Neil goes weekly to this village to teach English with the hopes of building relationships and creating opportunities to share the gospel of Christ.
DAY 10: On the road again
We again loaded into the van for the 12-14 hour ride to Siem Reap. We were headed to see the ancient Angkor temples before departing Cambodia. This was yet another adventurous trip. Again, 70 mph on a dirt road….never fun. 
The ride was “unadventurous” until we made the turn toward Siem Reap on the main highway. We heard a pop and a hissing. Soon it was evident that the van tire was flat. So, we got out, looked and just watched as the driver changed it. We’d have helped, but we didn’t know where anything was or what he needed done next…and we couldn’t talk with him. It was no wonder that the tire went flat – there was metal showing all the way around. After changing the tire we headed on our way.
We stopped in the next town for what we thought was for the driver to make arrangements to get the tire fixed on the way back. However, we soon realized that fixing the tire was more imminent when they began jacking up the van with all of us inside. Soon, the tire was fixed and we were on our way… not much else different about this trip except for the large trucks stuck in the muddy road that we had to work our way around. 
We arrived at our hotel, the Angkorianna, about 8 p.m. and went to our rooms, grabbed a quick (expensive by Cambodian standards) and tolerable meal in the hotel restaurant and then crashed.  Tomorrow would be a busy day.
Day 11: Adventures at Angkor
The next morning after breakfast we went to see a few of the Angkor temples. There are hundreds of sites that we could see, but we would only see a few today. We were able to see Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Wat temples. It was amazing to see the level of skill involved in carving and building these massive structures 800 years ago. Every flat surface was intricately carved. Angkor Wat is a massive, impressive structure. It is the largest religious complex in the world, eclipsing even the Vatican in Rome. (This is the other of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in Cambodia.)
It is a huge complex of which the Khmer people are extremely proud, and rightly so. Yet, as beautiful as it was, it was sad to know that all of this effort and beauty was for the purpose of worshipping a false god.
After walking (and sweating) all day, we went back to the hotel to rest and clean up before our 11 p.m. departure for home. We went to a local mall for dinner at the Lucky Burger restaurant and stopped for ice cream before heading to the airport. We arrived at the airport at 8 for our 11 p.m. flight to find that it was closed and didn’t open until two hours before departure. At least we were first in line. Although our cleaning up at the hotel had done little good as we had to sit outside and wait. But, soon enough we were on our way home.
childrenholdmag.jpgDAY 12: A stop in Seoul
We arrived in Seoul, South Korea, at about 6 a.m. We had about a six hour layover and we planned to make full use of the transfer lounge at the airport. We all took showers and got massages in preparation for the 12-hour leg home.
We would see sunrise again on our way to Chicago and the scenery while flying over Alaska and Canada was beautiful. The sun glistening off the snow-capped mountains was absolutely gorgeous. It was good, however, just to be back in North America.
We stopped in Chicago for a couple of terrible hours and then were on our way back to Little Rock where our families were waiting.
We were tired, glad to be home, but glad God had been able to use us in a small way to share the gospel with the Khmer in Banlung, Rattanakiri Province, Cambodia.

For more information on Central Church, please call 501.329.9283 or visit http://www.conwaycentralchurch.org/.