Life Changing in Cambodia

Life Changing in Cambodia

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.

It all ends up with even more

Rob O’Byrne from Logistics Bureau in Sydney has been busy not just painting but continuing his massively appreciated ritual of being the videographer recording personal observations along the way — and Hashima’s adding lovely colourful designs that the children are trying to emulate. And Freya and Lara are doing a brilliant job creating masses of colour over the newly created ‘tyre’ swings. Andrew, Vanessa and Jason are doing everything — judiciously leaving all the high bits to Jason. And poor Noel is suffering from something he ate the night before.

And Masami is leading it all — even to the extent of rushing to the store to buy more uniforms for the paint-effected clothing of the children.

Lunch is special too. Jason announces he and his customers are contributing to another playground for 104 children and more plans are mad by the Child’s Dream team to make that happen.

Then it’s goodbye to the morning children — hello to the afternoon children (significantly though, some morning children don’t go home — they’re loving this as much as we are).

Then, all too soon it seems, it’s time to exhaustingly hand everything over with a few short speeches plus some strange Cambodian games with all of the children and us.

And then something equally great awaits us for dinner — a dinner with the Child’s Dream team and 4 of the Senior Students they sponsor.

Dreams beyond

We discover some amazing things as the students — two of whom want to be doctors, one of whom wants to be a teacher and one of whom wants to be a ‘VERY GOOD Doctor’ — tell us more about their lives. Classes that begin at 6 in some cases, take a break for lunch at 12, back to school for ‘tuition’ until 8. And that’s 6 days a week.

They live together and are given funds to do that by Child’s Dream — they’re expected to mange those funds properly. They cook themselves and look after each other.

And the tuition is the key bit — teacher’s in Cambodia get between $30-$50 per month so they have to make it up with extra classes — classes that have to be paid for. And according to those that know, it's here where the real learning takes place.

Of course, there’s no internet and they’re staggered by the iPad that expands photos. Not surprising though. Keep reading for why …

The night is about connection. And the Child’s Dream team (led admirably by Yem) do that well. To hear Yem’s story about life just after the Khemr Rouge with 4 armies still in the village and the use of landmines plus bullets to play with in the classrooms was compelling yet totally frightening stuff.

And then there’s pictures and handshakes, smiles and hugs as we head to the lift. And then we discover that the students have never been in a lift before.

Sleep comes easy again — just as well, tomorrow begins with a Siem Reap ‘must do’ — the visit to Angkor Wat to catch the sunrise.

The weight of history versus the light of spirit

So it’s off at 5:15 to join thousands of others. And along the way, you’re asked if you’d like tea or coffee by wandering young men and ladies. When you say ‘yes’, they say, ‘Great, my store is number 3 up there and I’m Angelina Jolie,” And they’re not kidding, the stores are labelled Mr. Rambo, Harry Potter, James Bond and yes, Angelina Jolie.

But there’s no ‘sunrise’ as such in the sense of the sun coming up like an range ball behind the temple. Instead, the idea is to catch the reflection of the temple in the lake before the sun actually comes up. And when that happens (which all of us found underwhelming) people leave missing the glorious actual sunrise.

Angkor Wat is impressive — no doubt about that. But if before you visit there you do what we did, visit the magical Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm where trees literally grow out of the stone in the most surprising of ways, then even with Rock Star’s impressive commentary, it’s still underwhelming in many ways.

After the visit to Bayon (which we squeezed into Day 1) Andrew put it like this, “Well, I’m no temple person and I wasn’t really looking forward to this part of our tour. But I tell you what — this is just spectacular — I am so glad I came.” And then, increasingly fascinated by all the twists and turns of Ta Prohm he got lost!

So from Angkor Wat to Sala Bai for lunch. It’s a stunning French restaurant that operates as an NGO. Fully 30% of its operating budget is met by the restaurant — it could easily be more if only they’d increase their prices — the rest by supporters around the world.

Lifting lives to unlimited potential

And it’s likely there’ll be more after this B1G1 Study Tour visit. This is one impressive place. Each January they start the search for just 100 late teenagers — kids who are really poor and generally speaking living rurally. They aim to find 100 people, look after them, teach them basic school skills, language skills and hospitality skills in the space of a year and then find them jobs in leading-edge hotels in Cambodia — as they put it ‘proper jobs, not slave jobs.’

And they way they do it is stunning. The selection criteria are staggering. The only students they look at on each application are those whose total family income is …….. wait for it ……. $300 PER YEAR.

Then the short-listed students have to do two tests, one on motivation and one on language and general knowledge. And if they pass that they then have a visit at home by one of Sala Bai’s people.

And when you meet the people, you’d have to say they love it. The students learn the basic school-type skills when they finish their shifts. They’re looked after in two houses and they do get paid! And tips are used to fund joint days out on holidays for the entire team.  

The restaurant even has 4 hotel rooms so that the students can be trained as housekeeping staff as well as chefs, waiters and so on.

And the team at Sala Bai create the most motivating environment and one that has awesome systems in place too — as I said, I sense there might be lore supporters coming from around the world as we look to integrate them into B1G1.

Finally… sharing the joy of giving

And then two more trips still to go on this our final day — first to the fishing village where, as Noel pointed out, the water is 15 metres higher in rainy season.

So the houses here are built on massive wooden stilts. And its obvious here that poverty is rife too. One staggering difference — when you wave at people here, they don’t wave back; it’s as if the smiles you see everywhere else don’t exist here.

And then it’s out to the massive lake to head to a boat for our final cruise into the sunset (quite literally) with Freya and Lara emulating that famous scene in the Titanic movie. It’s a most beautiful sunset too.

Just the perfect setting for our final dinner with masses of reflections all around. ‘Life-changing’ sums it up in words and faces that no words on paper can.

People are stunned too to have been able to take the tour with B1G1 Founder, Masami Sato. And having been with her all week, they understand even more about the phrase they’d heard Masami use on a movie clip: “B1G1, a simple idea. Sharing the joy of giving — every second, every day and in every way.”