On Saturday 29 June, I flew from my tiny island of Tasmania, stopping briefly in Melbourne to pick up the mainlanders and then we all flew onto Cambodia for the 2019 Cagliero Immersion trip. Our trip lasted around 2 weeks with 10 days spent at the Don Bosco Technical School (DBTS) in Phnom Penh and the other 4 in Siem Reap. Our trip focused on the charism of our founder and inspiration St. John Bosco; service to the young. We did not build a classroom, rather we spent time with the youth of DBTS to learn about them and their day to day life, their struggles and aspirations and of course, to have fun and dance together a lot!

Ever since returning home, my friends, family, teachers and even regular customers at my part-time job have all asked me the same question – “How was it? What was the best part?” I have found these questions hard to answer as it is difficult to find just one thing that could be the ‘best part’ of such an incredible experience. Having said that, when pushed, my answer, without fail, is always the people of Cambodia!

All who visit DBTS are always impressed by the joyful culture that resides in the school.

The people we met along the way on our trip were always so kind, hospitable and happy. From my time spent in Phnom Penh with the students and teachers at DBTS, my incredible homestay family and the people we met out in the city, to the staff at the Golden Temple Hotel in Siem Reap, I could always feel the love and joy of the Khmer people. A testament to the hospitality of the Khmer is their way of greeting each other; they will bow slightly with their hands pushed together held up to their mouth with each greeting – or at least they did every time I would pass them. I could not walk past someone without being greeted with a ‘chomreab sour’ (Hello) or ‘suosdei’ (Hi).

On our first night in Cambodia, we experienced our first dance party. The boarder students and staff put together and presented small program with traditional Khmer song and dance. We quickly moved into a couple of rounds of musical chairs until someone grabbed the biggest pot plant they could find to sit in the middle of the ‘dance floor’. As everyone started to dance around the plant, I found myself surrounded by students who were trying to teach me how to follow along and instead found us all laughing at how terrible I was (but only to begin with, because I practiced when they weren’t watching).

Musical chairs is a very popular game at DBTS!

I was very nervous to go on homestay but very excited at the same time. The thing that made me most nervous was the mode of transport to my homestay family’s house. My homestay mother, Vichika, informed me that we would be going to her house by motorbike. This was my first motorbike ride ever and the traffic on the roads of Phnom Penh was crazy – massively different to Australia. I couldn’t hear Vichika instruct me on how to hold on through my helmet, so I very loosely held on to her shoulders as we drove down the school driveway. When returning to DBTS the next morning, I became aware of how silly I looked by my friends who had left school after me.

Vichika, her husband and two children were extremely hospitable, providing me with a real insight into their daily lives including their work, school, study, culture, traditions and even benign aspects, such as grocery shopping. My host father had attended and now taught at DBTS, so it was amazing to see the tangible impact DBTS had on his life. It provided him with the skills he now uses in his workplace and filled him with the aspiration for his children to receive the best education possible. To finish our homestay experience we invited our homestay families to join us on a beautiful river cruise, which, in true Khmer fashion, resulted in even more dancing. This time however, we made sure to teach everyone the Nutbush and Vichika downloaded the song on the spot so that she could dance to it again!

The immersion group walk side by side through the leafy grounds of DBTS

During the weekend in the middle of our trip, DBTS hosted over 90 youth from various Salesian schools all around Cambodia, in the school’s oratory. The weekend was designed around how to be good leaders in our Salesian communities and therefore focused on some of the important teachings of Don Bosco. The central themes were presence, youth empowerment, peer to peer leadership, the Salesian family and finally, Salesian joy and optimism.

Although on the surface, us Aussies seem so different to the Khmer and vice versa, it was easy to see we all had one major thing in common – the Salesian Spirit. We all had some form of leadership position in our own youth groups and/or schools’ back home and were able to share our experiences and our understanding of Salesian leadership. On the following Monday, most of the participants from the weekend who could stay another day, joined together to run an activity rotation day for the rest of the students of DBTS. The rotation day was an incredible opportunity for everyone put the skills they had just learn practice, creating an environment of fun for the school! Trish (another participant on the Immerison) and myself ran a rotation based on dancing and it was clear to see everyone enjoyed themselves, although it is also very safe to say that after 6 hours of dancing we were exhausted!

Trish shows off some of her dance moves outside a local market

Our time in Phnom Penh went by in a flash and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye and head off to Siem Reap for some more cultural immersion, relaxation and to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat. Over the immersion trip we experienced delicious food, beautiful scenery, interesting history and culture, and the most kind and joyful people. It is clear to see the people of Cambodia put the wonder into the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’.

The immersion group are dwarfed by the immense Angkor Wat

It’s quite clear I did not want the immersion to end. I do miss waking up at 6am and having to claim the end shower (as it had enough space to keep my clothes dry) before anyone else could. I miss the small moments of rest-time when we would walk down to the local café or sharing fried bananas while we chat. I loved every moment I got to spend and get to know everyone from the immersion team. I am so happy and grateful that I was able to experience this immersion with them and can easily say I love each and every one of my immersion family. Cate said it perfectly in our final g’day (Aussie mix of a Salesian good morning and goodnight) “although we said goodbye, it just means we get to say hello again” and I cannot wait to say hello again!

The group stops for a meal at a non-profit cafe that focuses on rescuing young girls from violence