For 2 weeks in July 2016 I went to Cambodia as a student engineer and participant in the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Humanitarian Engineering Design Summit.
We were a big cohort of 55 aspiring engineers from all across Australia.
Upon arrival we split into one of three groups; Ibis, Banana or Turtle. I was a member of Team Turtle, with 20 of the greatest human beings in Australia. Within a matter of hours we became a family.
During the first week of the summit, we spent almost all of our time together as a team, from meals and shopping to workshops and design challenges. As well as sharing cultural experiences and being tourists. Together we ate crickets and tarantulas as a ‘detour’ on our Amazing Race around Phnom Penh and got the opportunity to go dolphin watching along the Mekong River.
Throughout the summit workshops were run to introduce us to Cambodian culture. In these sessions we learnt to speak and understand a decent amount of Khmer. We also did engineering work on understanding community development and the importance of appropriate technology. Additionally a day was spent learning about the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot Regime – I personally found this to be an extremely emotional and insightful day, regarding the history of Cambodia.
At the start of the second week, team turtle along with a group of translators, travelled a total 7 hours by bus and needle canoe, from Pnomh Penh to the rural island of Koh Dambang. We stayed here for 4 days and 5 nights, immersing ourselves into the lives of our homestay families in order to empathise with them and gain greater insights into the needs and wants of their community.
Team turtle with our homestay families:
This meant using squat toilets, no ‘proper’ showers, no beds and hardly any power – so no A/C, fans or lights all through the dehydratingly dangerous heat. All of this was accompanied by a traditional diet of rice, noodles, fish and morning glory.
On our last day on the island we attended a blessing ceremony, where the village monk showered us with blessed water. At night there was a full moon/rice harvesting party, which was such a great experience, getting to sing and dance with all the locals.
The community’s livelihood comes from farming and fishing. Activities both done under harsh sun rays. Unfortunately sunscreen is too expensive for them to use to protect their skin. As a result many villagers get heat rashes while working on their farms. The rashes can last up to a month when not treated. Consequently after returning to the mainland, three other members of team turtle and myself decided to tackle this issue of sun protection. We began by building upon the community’s pre-existing resources of Aloe Vera. Followed by educating community members on how to grow and maintain more aloe vera plants and the the medicinal uses of Aloe Vera gel in terms of sun treatment and heat rash.
After arriving back in Pnomh Penh we had a graduation ceremony followed by a 3 hour karaoke session.
Being surrounded by such like-minded and amazing future engineers for 2 whole weeks was a truly amazing experience. One that i would highly recommend to anyone who is interested. EWB holds these summits regularly during uni breaks, traveling to Cambodia, Nepal and India.
Our last sunset in Cambodia: