LIFE CHANGING IN CAMBODIA: PART I
Creating a B1G1 Study Tour is not the easiest of things to do — it takes months of work — detailed work — connecting with NGOs, making sure schedules match, connecting with guests, with tour companies; the whole enchilada (as our US-based friends would say).
Yet it’s SO worthwhile when you realise the impact the tour has — not just the direct impact on the projects and their beneficiaries, but the impact on the tour guests. Significantly, every single one of them rated this tour as ‘life-changing’.
And that’s particularly true for one family — the Campbell family from Wentworth Falls in N.S.W., Australia. Parents Jason and Vanessa brought 11 year old Lara and 13 year old Freya along. And 24 hours into the tour, you saw why.
KIDS REALLY ‘GET IT’ ….. QUICKLY
Initially, Freyja was like many teenagers, tentative and wondering why on earth her family would choose to holiday in Cambodia. But within a day, she told us “I want every holiday to be like this — it’s so much better than laying on beaches and swimming in the pool.”
And sister Lara after 24 hours said being here “ … made me feel like we can all be spoilt brats. These little children have nothing yet they’re so happy. But we’re not happy unless we have the latest gadget. And once we’ve got that one, we want the next one.”
And Jason, the Pharmacist with his own Pharmacy in Wentworth Falls — all 6 foot 2 of him — teared up when a little girl at a playground we were building accidentally got paint on her very obviously old school shirt.
The little girl was crying because it was the only uniform she had and she felt her parents would be very, very angry because they could not afford another uniform and that meant she could not go to school (all education in Cambodia is ‘free’, but all the kids must wear a uniform).
This is the paradox of things in Cambodia. And when you know the history of it, it’s amazing that it even exists today. And it does so with laws that sound weird to us — like 13-18 year-olds put in adult jails for minor crimes. And then them being ‘rescued’ and worked with by a truly remarkable NGO, This Life Cambodia (appropriately TLC for short).
We met them on the first day of the tour in Siem Reap. And Vanessa I remember was horrified to hear about the jails, but absolutely thrilled by the 100% recidivism rate meaning no re-offenders) TLC was now achieving with its This Life Without Bars program.
HOW THE SMALLEST THINGS (LIKE A LAMP!) MAKE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES
Vanessa was visibly moved many times during the tour, perhaps no more so when she saw how her daughters reacted to the difference a simple solar lamp made. It meant that 18 year old Srey Neang, a TLC-supported student could do her homework at night and that her mother could make more baskets to supplement the families meagre income.
And the old style bicycle in the lean-to shed meant that Srey Neang could actually get to school (it takes an hour on the bike even so). And the simple bike (provided by a TLC program called Pedalling out of Poverty) also allowed us to meet Srey Neang’s friend, 16-year old Jen.
We spoke at length to Jen. And we all saw the Pay It forward kind of culture TLC creates when Jen told us she wanted to be a teacher and then give back not just to her family but also to TLC to give other students the chance that she’s had.
GETTING A CHANCE …. AT A RESTAURANT OF ALL PLACES
We saw that same ‘giving a chance’ give back in action at Friends — Marum, a truly beautifully situated restaurant in Siem Reap. It’s a social enterprise, taking kids off the street and giving them restaurant training so that they have a better chance of getting a job (more in that soon).
And it’s here at Friends where you come face-to-face with some of the harsh realities of tourism in Cambodia and the paradox again.
You see how some ‘orphanages’ are not orphanages at all and you’re faced with the dilemma ‘do I give this child money for postcards’ or stop it so that the parents understand she has to go to school because that’s the REAL way out.
THE BORDERLINE BETWEEN LIFE AND NO LIFE
Day 2, everyone’s up early (including Freya and Lara) for the 3-hour road trip to PoiPet and the Thai border. This is a ‘danger-zone’ for kids and others who can easily be taken advantage of. And again the paradox — 5 casinos in a no man’s land on the Cambodian side of the border (but no police in sight) and relative squalor all around.
We’re fortunate to have frequent Cambodian visitor (and now with a Cambodian son-in-law) Noel Grummitt with us as a participant on the tour. He’s seen Poipet many times and he recounts how the 3-hour journey we’re taking today took an entire day 6 years ago. It’s Noel who first recommended a Poipet-based Charity to us, Cambodian Hope Organisation (CHO) to us.
CHO is one of the most well-respected groups in the area and has many projects. After a briefing (one we weren’t quite expecting) we’re off to experience one of them — the Safe Haven School in the countryside.
When we get there we’re all struck by the diligence of everyone involved — how they keep a place like this going is pretty astounding. But it seems a serious place too as we mingle and interact with the kids and the teachers.
Then one of those things happens that you never want to happen — one of the vehicles gets a flat tire. And there are no tools on board to fix it.
Someone suggests — why don’t we all hop in the back and front of the ute over there. Our amazing tour guide, Raksa (‘but you can call me ‘Rock Star’) agrees and off we go down the oh so dusty road. All is good until a bus overtakes us. And all of a sudden there is dust like a sandstorm. But we survive!
And then we stop in a village to see one of the microloan projects that CHO gets involved with — a young man starting a motor bike repair shop and doing well at it too. A few villages later, we stop, exit the truck and head into the woods.
And there in a clearing you see the stunning School on the Mat — just a large tarpaulin with maybe 30 kids sitting neatly on it — a white board on two sides of the square and a teacher out front.
And why two white boards? Well the children in the ‘school’ range from 6 to 14 — yes, there all in the same class. But different ages use different whiteboards.
‘GANGNAM STYLE’ TRAVELS FAR
The children are, to put it in the vernacular, as happy as Larry. And they’re even more happy when Rock Star takes over to ask some questions in the local language. Question 1: what’s the animal you most associate with Australia? Answers range from rabbits to tigers to elephants until Pharmacist Jason does a brilliant hopping kangaroo impression.
And that’s followed by group dancing brilliantly led Gangnam style to music (on Lara’s iPhone) by Andrew from Sydney. And yes, some of the kids had obviously seen the Gangnam video in the local stores!
And then it’s off to another project, this one in a special hospital for AIDS and TB, such is the ‘reach’ of CHO.
De-briefing that night (as in every night) was just great and everyone seems to be overwhelmed by what they’re experiencing. So sleep comes easy ahead of a 5:30 start for what many are regarding as the ‘main event’ — working with another NGO — Child’s Dream — near Siem Reap and actually building a fully functional, robust (thank Goodness) playground for 400 kids.
SEEING HOW PLAYING, LEARNING AND CONTRIBUTING ARE ALL LINKED
Child’s Dream is a fascinating organisation. They rejuvenate old run-down, overgrown schools and make them new again. And they build playgrounds — playgrounds that we’re about to find out the kids LOVE.
Ahead of time, we’ve paid for two local professional builders to start things moving so when we meet the Child’s Dream school on site at about 9:30, things are already well underway. Ten sturdy swings fashioned from old car tyres are fully loaded (at least 3 children per swing), the sew-saws are ready for painting and the central cubby-cum-slide-cum-monkey bars is already underway too.
The place is swarming with 200 children (from the morning classes). We’re split into the painting and ‘cement’ team. The painting is pretty self explanatory (you’d think) and the cement teams job is to mix it, put it into buckets and transport it to the complex and rugged support system for the central piece.
We begin. And almost immediately the kids want to help on the cement team. Meantime, another team has loosely formed constructing more things with old car tyres — bases for the slide and the monkey bars plus more improvised but solid swings. By now the kids are helping with everything AND playing on everything too — it’s chaotic fun.
And as the children carry the oh-so-heavy cement buckets, I give them a huge “GOOD JOB’ every time. They get that’s good. So now they’re saying it to their friends, their friends are helping now too and “GOOD JOB’ with a Cambodian accent is ringing around the playground.