part iv: faces of happyland

Happyland is a volunteer run school in the Prey Sandek Village about 50 miles south of Phnom Penh. The school offers english classes and a safe place to for the children of this rural region to come and play. For a portion of my travels I had the opportunity to spend time living and volunteering at Happyland, teaching english and getting the chance to step outside of the touristy, backpacker filled areas and really appreciate the culture of Cambodia for all it has to offer. 

It was so special for me to spend part of my travels at Happyland. A place where the kids come as they please and can just escape. While spending time here it was hard to ignore that many children come from families where domestic violence and alcoholism are common, when beer costs less than food it's unfortunately not a surprise. Not to mention that many of these families are still deeply affected by the genocide, almost everyone knows someone who was close to them killed during the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. After so much horror and acts of evil it has been hard for Cambodia to rebuild their country and re-claim it's once progressive identity. There is still so much devastation and corruption. Many women and children are victims of sex trafficking; KTVs: karaoke clubs that are fronts for brothels, can easily be found, sometimes two or three within a short distance of one another, all with their bright pink and red lights outside to welcome customers in.  The government and police are still very corrupt and if one has enough money they can easily be paid off. The darkness cannot be easily ignored. 

However, the people of Cambodia are working diligently rebuild their country with hope, grace and peace. Happyland is a place that shows such hope. This is a place where kids can come be with friends, escape for a moment whatever is troubling them, regain and reveal in their innocence all while being offered education; something that had once been completely stripped from the country during the Khmer Rouge. Still to this day acess to education can be limited. Happyland offers the kids living in the Prey Sandek region the opportunity to come study English at no cost. 

While at Happyland the kids are truly happy and excited by the simplest things, like being brought to the nearby high school to play a game of basketball on the court. They are also excited to share with you parts of their life; sharing their food, introducing you to new fruits and really share with you things you may otherwise not have the opportunity to experience had you just stayed in the tourist hub. A couple of the students invited me to get up with them at 3:30am and join them in going to the nearby Buddhist pagoda to celebrate Pchum Ben, a 15-day religious holiday where Cambodians honor their deceased ancestors and bring them an offering of food. I decided to leave my camera at home the morning I went to the pagoda, it was more important for me to fully immerse myself and be present, taking the opportunity to learn and experience something new. 

The students of Happyland are so eager and willing to teach their culture to those that come to teach them. It is truly a place of learning for all and a place where happiness is abundant. During my time spent there I felt so welcome and home, happy to appreciate life and the willingness to learn what we can all teach eachother. I hope one day to return to Happyland and have the opportunity to spend much more time there with the wonderful community, living and growing with eachother.