I finished my final exam on Friday afternoon, said my goodbyes to my friends that evening, and flew to Cambodia on Saturday morning. It didn't fully sink in that I would be staying for 6 weeks in Cambodia until I stepped out of the arrival gates of Phnom Penh International Airport and into the heat of the midday Cambodian sun. None of the planning, the emails, or the research had fully prepared me for the emotions that came with making my first steps in Phnom Penh. It felt like a fever dream walking through the arrival gates into a sea of Khmer. I felt the excitement of landing in a completely new environment, as well as anticipation for all that I would experience over the coming weeks. However, I also felt the intense uncertainty of not knowing what lay ahead. What would I learn in Cambodia? How would I react to what I was going to see? Who would I be at the end of my 6 weeks?
As I wrestled with these thoughts while waiting for a taxi, I saw some of the local children staring at me. I wondered what they thought of me; what did they think of the foreigners that fly in and out of their nation? Was I welcome? I looked back at them and saw a little boy wearing a bright yellow top with a Spiderman logo. I saw another with a Manchester United football top. After we stared at each other for a bit, they quickly lost interest in me and went back to running around with their friends. Seeing and hearing the children play made me smile; it reminded me that even 10,000 miles away, the joys of being a child playing with their friends were unrivaled.
As I stepped into my taxi, I wondered what I'd learn about the children of Cambodia during my 6 weeks at the Children's Surgical Centre (CSC). In that moment, I felt incredibly grateful that I was not just visiting Cambodia as a tourist but as a medical student who would get a rare glimpse into what life was like for the patients of CSC. I remembered writing in my application that medicine was a true privilege; it allows us as doctors to learn about the lives of patients in their most vulnerable moments. I would never have envisioned while writing where I would be now. Medicine had taken me to a whole new country and given me the opportunity to learn about patients from an entirely different culture.
If I wasn't sure what to expect when my plane landed in Cambodia, the taxi ride into Phnom Penh quickly showed me a glimpse. It may sound clichéd, but honestly, seeing the motorcycles and tuk-tuks race past me made me feel like I had entered a surreal alien world. I saw motorcycles with two, three, or even four passengers weave past one another in heavy traffic. I saw a man on a motorbike with two large electric guitars strapped on his back; I saw another woman with four large boxes of scarves stacked on the back of her tiny Honda moped. Tuk-tuks quickly became a part of my everyday routine in Phnom Penh, but seeing one for the first time when I arrived left me without words. Was it a motorcycle with a roof? Was it a tiny taxi? What were they used for? I saw small ones which more resembled motorcycles, as well as larger ones that were almost carriage-like.
Observing the chaos outside while inside my air-conditioned taxi, I knew that what I was used to as being 'normal' was quickly about to fly out of the window and that life was going to be very different for the next 6 weeks.