Packing for a Purpose in Cambodia
One of the most rewarding aspects of my position with Luxury Link is serving as the day-to-day contact with our incredible non-profit partner, Pack for a Purpose. Over the past year I've had the privilege of working closely with the organization's founder Rebecca Rothney, learning about the simple yet profound way PFAP connects travelers with communities in need and helping advocate its "Small Space. Little Effort. Big Impact." message via Luxury Link's social media channels and online community, the Luxury Lounge.
Personally, I've encouraged friends to Pack for a Purpose when heading abroad, and delighted when several Luxury Link colleagues before me delivered supplies for non-profit organizations in destinations as far-flung as Costa Rica and India.
Finally, this November it was my turn. I planned my first-ever trip to Southeast Asia, with my first stop being Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the incredible Angkor Wat temples. Immediately after confirming my itinerary, I visited PackForAPurpose.org and learned that they have two non-profit partners in Siem Reap, including The Future of Khmer Children's Organization which is supported by Luxury Link partner Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Cruisers can simply drop off supplies at the start of their River Saigon cruise, however since my itinerary was completely on land I outreached Future of Khmer Founder and Executive Director Leng Theany with news that I planned to deliver a large duffel bag of supplies to her organization.
Theany enthusiastically replied within hours. She offered to pick me up at my hotel the morning after I arrived and drive me to the school she founded in 2008 to provide free education and primary health care education for children of all ages. The plan went off without a hitch, as the 30-pound duffel bag I bid farewell to at LAX almost two days earlier greeted me at the Siem Reap airport, filled to the brim with schools supplies and sports equipment generously donated by friends and co-workers.
Siem Reap is a town heavily dependent on tourism, with flashy new hotels, international restaurants and well-paved roads leading to the cash-cow of Angkor Wat, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. However, the real Cambodia began to reveal itself the moment our truck turned off of National Highway 6 onto a muddy road lined with single-room family homes, wild chickens and emaciated cattle. That was merely a prelude to what I was in store for upon reaching The Future of Khmer Children’s Organization…
Immediately after exiting the truck, I was surrounded by dozens of smiling faces, all dressed in white shirts and blue pants or skirts. I felt like a rock star sans electric guitar, only a big black duffel bag in tow! These students were an inquisitive bunch, curiously rubbing my forearm (apparently Western men are a bit “fuzzier” than our Cambodian counterparts) and asking me three standard questions that they had obviously learned and recited in class: “What is your name?”, ”Where are you from?” and “How old are you?”. In fact, I was a bit embarrassed as their English-speaking skills dwarfed mine in Khmer, as I could only muster a simple “sues'day” (“hello”).
One of the teachers excitedly ruffled through my bag of goodies, pulling out a soccer ball which we used to play an informal game of volleyball. When the ball flew into a lily pond abutting the school, my heart stopped as one brazen student crawled through a barb-wire fence and into the pond to retrieve it!
Thoroughly drenched in sweat (it was my first day in the tropics), I was then asked by Theany to give a math lesson using flash cards donated by my kind-hearted Luxury Link colleague Kat. The subject was multiplication tables – specifically multiples of five – and I’m pleased to report that Future of Khmer students did not miss a single answer written on the dry erase board. I must confess that when 5x8 came up I had to confirm with a teacher that it was in fact 40, making me realize just how reliant we are on calculators as adults!
The entire school then lined up to sing a song about frogs (so I was told) and then headed home to their villages surrounding Siem Reap (mostly via bicycle); a second group of students were set to arrive for the afternoon session. Meanwhile, Theany and her husband kindly drove me to the airport where I was scheduled to meet my traveling companion for the next two weeks.
Two things struck me about my incredible experience with The Future of Khmer Children’s Organization:
- I learned just how easy it is to make an impact while traveling by Packing for a Purpose. I bought a duffel bag, filled it with requested supplies, and set up the delivery with just a couple of emails. The process is even simpler when travelers carve out five pounds of space in their luggage (which is all Pack for a Purpose requests) and drop off items at a PFAP partner hotel.
- More importantly, my visit reaffirmed that people don’t need much material wealth to be happy. The students I met came from very poor families, yet you would never know it from their collectively sunny disposition. One child who stands out was wearing the most ill-fitting, mangled pair of secondhand eyeglasses, but had a smile from ear-to-ear every time I saw him. I believe it’s all part of the Cambodian psyche; throughout Siem Reap locals would gather on the streets and exchange laughter, seemingly without care that they live one of Asia’s most economically-depressed countries.
The rest of my holiday in Cambodia and Thailand was spent exploring Buddhist temples, sampling exotic cuisine and – frankly – enjoying a lot of beach time. However when people inquire about my vacation, the memory I share first is the magical, surreal hour I spent with those students in Siem Reap. I may now be 8,000 miles from Cambodia, but thanks to a connection made through Pack for a Purpose I was able to leave behind empowering, educational tools that will benefit a special group of Khmer children for years to come.