Giving Back in Cambodia
I've been mulling over what to post as a "Best Travel Experience Story" as we've had so many memorable trips, but this one day in Cambodia really stands out for me as it was one of the first times we took a bit of time to really give back (a little bit) to the community we were visiting, and it was so rewarding that my husband and I hope to do something similar on future journeys.
When I was making plans for a few days visit to Cambodia last August, a fellow Luxury Link contributor referred me to a wonderful local tourguide in Siem Reap and Angkor, Ponheary Ly. Ponheary is not only an excellent tourguide (her English is superb and she really knows her stuff!) she is incredibly devoted to helping out the local schools in her community. As a child Ponheary survived the horrible days of the Pol Pot regime, and she believes that if the younger generation of Cambodians are not properly educated to learn about the country's history they may easily fall into a similar fate. For that reason, she is devoted to her duties as a tourguide in order to solicit the help of visitors from around the world who can donate time and money to the local schools and really improve the facilities and provide supplies to the children.
I originally contacted Ponheary to secure her help as a tourguide but unfortunately she was already booked! She did however have a good friend who could guide us. I mentioned in my email to her that we'd love to do something to help her with the schools and she suggested that we host a lunch for the children at one of the more rural schools - apparently school was out of session for the summer and most of the children worked with their parents in the fields; they generally had much less food to eat during summertime than when they were in school (and when at least a decent lunch was provided for them daily). For what seemed to me to be a rather minimal fee, she would arrange for enough food - chicken soup, rice and drinks - to be prepared to serve all of the schoolchildren she could round up. From her rather casual attitude about the details of the meal, I was expecting maybe 30 local kids to come by for lunch that day.
The time for the trip arrived, and we had a wonderful couple days touring Siem Reap and Angkor with Ponheary's friend Sopheap. Because Ponheary herself was busy with her own clients, we didn't get to meet her until the day of the lunch, but we did speak with her a few times beforehand in order to finalize the details of the day. Finally the day came, and we drove with Sopheap to an area about an hour from Siem Reap proper and arrived at the school. Lo and behold, there were approximately 300 children there waiting for us (and, more so, for the food to be served), with all of their desks pulled out and neatly arranged in rows and all in their school uniforms. We were blown away!
We met Ponheary, who is truly a wonderful and warmhearted person, and she was busy with a dozen local villagers cooking huge vats of soup and rice in a makeshift lean-to kitchen in the back of the school. I was blown away by the amount of work that had gone into this day and I felt so honored to be a part of it, and so humbled that such a small amount of money had provided for it. Really the amount of work Ponheary and the villagers put into the day far exceeded the piddly amount of money we gave, and the reward was so much more.
We weren't the only visitors to the school; Ponheary and a couple other tourguides had brought their clients (all Americans and Europeans) to enjoy the lunch as well and to learn more about the school. She gave us a tour of the school, beginning with the tiny thatch-walled-and-dirt-floor hut that was the original schoolhouse, moving onto the more-substantial-but-now-condemned building that housed the second phase of the school and finishing with the brand-new nice looking and much more modern schoolhouse where the children now can attend school in a light, clean and appropriate space. Thanks to the donation of some of Ponheary's recent clients, water pumps (operated by bicycle) have even been installed that allow the toilets to have running water. Although she had the help of some relief organizations, Ponheary was very instrumental in bringing the school from the days of thatch and mud to the much nicer facility the school has today. She hosts lunches like the one we had that day once every couple months, and also spends a lot of time allocating the funds donated to her organization to bikes, uniforms, books and school supplies. She once even hosted an ice cream party - a huge hit with the kids! - but from her funny story about the melting ice cream I think the logistics of that event were a little overwhelming so that might not happen again.
My husband and I had decided beforehand to haul a big bag of toys, sports equipment and school supplies from the US for the children and the school. Although perhaps we would have been better off purchasing local products or giving the money paid for the supplies directly to the school itself, it was also so fun to share the frisbees, kites, bouncy balls, toothbrushes, pencils, etc. with the kids directly and to play with them throughout the afternoon. Although little English was spoken by the children, we had a lot of fun playing catch, frisbee and attempting to fly the little kites through the trees on a windless day! It was also wonderful to see how neatly they put everything away at the end of the day; all of the athletic equipment went right back to the teacher for safekeeping.
The kids seemed to really enjoy the delicious meal and the day, and they were very sweet and thanked everyone as they got on their bikes or began the walk back to their homes. Ponheary declared it a very successful day. And we left a little teary-eyed to have to say goodbye to everybody, thankful for Ponheary's enormous heart and also thankful for what we have here in the US.
Of course, what we gave and what happened that one day is by no means mind-blowing or life-changing for us or for the children. But it was so wonderful to have a little time with such an inspirational woman in Ponheary and to spend some time with the locals and get to know what life is like in that part of the world, away from all of the tourists and commercialism. If anybody is interested in learning more about Ponheary and her contributions, visit www.theplf.org.