BATTAMBANG, Cambodia (CNN) -- Cassie Phillips is in Battambang, Cambodia, where she will be working with the NGO Homeland.
"What I am learning and experiencing goes far beyond any expectations I might have secretly harbored."
Homeland is a Cambodian organization that works with local underprivileged children to give them some of the advantages they may have missed out on in their early life.
Cassie will be meeting and helping children from the region who have suffered from a range of afflictions. Keep up with her experiences in her blogs and video diaries.
September 10, 2007
I wanted to come to Cambodia with an open mind and with as few expectations as possible. After all, only when you have expectations can you become disappointed. As it turns out, what I am learning and experiencing goes far beyond any expectations I might have secretly harbored.
I began to try to figure out Cambodia the minute I stepped into the China Airlines line at the San Francisco airport. As I was the tallest person in the entire queue, I easily checked out the different clusters of people and tried guessing who looked Cambodian.
The family in front of me, intrigued by my backpack which stood out from the dollies loaded with cardboard boxes everyone else had, asked me where I was headed. I learned they were from Vietnam and going back to visit family.
Surprisingly, they knew very little about Cambodia, let alone Battambang. When the words came out of my mouth they seemed to be just as clueless about my home for the next 10 months as the majority of my family and friends back in the States. Granted, Cambodia is not their homeland, but I thought they would at least know of Battambang.
After several conversations with people on the plane, I realized that Cambodia is as much a question mark for many other South East Asians as it was for me.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I was pleasantly surprised by what lay beyond the airport gates.
After loading, what seemed like an obscene amount of luggage, judging by the grunts of the three men it took to hoist my body bags into the back of the van, we set off. I eagerly gazed out the large spotless windows of the van, while simultaneously positioning myself in front of as many air conditioning vents as possible.
I was feeling a little sticky and gross. I had been wearing the same clothes for the past two days and was beginning to sweat in the heat.
The friend who retrieved me from the airport did not speak much English. So after a brief exchange of names and establishing we would get food, I was left to quietly observe the streets of Phnom Penh.
I quickly realized my earlier quest to identify the "Cambodian look" was in vain. The faces I saw lining the roads and zipping by on motos were too varied to generalize. I saw people of all shades of brown. Some Cambodians or Khmer, as my friend self-identified, had small eyes and lips while others had full round eyes and lips and flat noses of every size.
As much as I was checking out those around me, people were also checking me out. As I craned my neck to see a group of boys sitting atop a truck piled high with bags that threatened to fall off at any moment, I realized they too were peering down at me with the same amount of curiosity and all had big smiles smeared across their faces.
We stopped at a busy corner and proceeded to haul my luggage from the van, between the large heavy wooden tables of a restaurant on the same corner. Luckily, the menu had an English translation and the waiter could speak English well enough.
I sat, nibbling my roasted chicken and french fries, while chugging the tall bottle of water and politely smiling at those around me, who were busy slurping soup filled with unidentifiable foods and rice for their breakfast -- it was 10 am after all.
Every now and again, a child would come by the table with a stack of papers, a box of sunglasses or some other trinket hoping to make a sale. Not interested, I shook my head to signal no, and after waiting a few more moments to see if I might change my mind they would move on.
Just beyond the edge of the restaurant, the chaotic street buzzed with life. People were busy going every which way. It seemed there was no rule or order to the traffic. A man walked by the railing separating the restaurant from the street and began to wave at me. Not understanding exactly what he wanted, I halfway smiled at him and a huge grin spread across his face.
By this time, my friend, who left to run an errand, returned announcing it was time to leave. We walked my things across the way to the bus station and set out on the road to Battambang. E-mail to a friend