Category Archives: Volunteering

back to cambodia

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back to cambodia

I’m not the kind to usually retrace my steps in a country. I like exploring new cities, meeting new people – in fact I consciously make the effort to avoid going back to the same place (especially within the span of a year) because I have so many other destinations on my wanderlust list. But of course, this being a school trip with very specific objectives, I couldn’t afford to only consider my personal inclinations.

In a way, it was good because I did promise the kids at SSF that I would be back. We told them June previously, so technically I’m half a year late. It’s amazing how much things can change within a year – the guesthouse that looked dark and foreboding with its shutters is now an inviting blue. The room we stayed in no longer exists – in fact it is the lounge area for backpackers to rest while waiting to use the computer. There’s wifi access at the cafe and the toilets have heaters while the rooms are air-conditioned. Simple, but definitely functional. The food served up by the students was excellent, although I must admit that I was so glad to go back to the noodle stall and indulge in that bowl of sweet beef noodle soup. The kids at the protection center are still the same – the older ones ask, “This is not your first time here right?” even though we only spent an afternoon together at the village. The younger ones don’t remember, but they are as cute and mischievous as ever. The scary dogs at the office are no longer there, but during this trip I somehow lost that fear of dogs or insects. Perhaps it has to do with having to maintain a facade of bravado in front of the students. The people are still the same – Vichetr and his lovely wife, Panna, Narong, Varonika – all speaking with much better English now. It was so touching when they shared with my students their dreams and how they believe that change starts from the individual, and not from the context or country.

Our route in Phnom Penh was similar too – the killing fields (minus the ATV) and Tuol Sleng. The survivors are still surviving. The scenes evoked are still as harrowing, although I’m not sure my students are old enough to understand the gravity of the massacre. If ever there was the sensation of a parallel universe, this has to be it. The dissonance lies in how much things have changed – and this constant comparison between what has changed and what has remained felt like I was submerging myself in hot and cold water simultaneously.

Of course, there were some differences. We visited a different village this time and got to spend more time interacting with the villagers. I (thankfully) did not waste anyone’s rice this time while rice husking, even though one of our students dropped a metal hook into the well … We also visited a high school and a slum site where the people are so poor they live under the large electric cables.

This entire trip was like .. sitting under a giant Bodhi tree. I feel strangely zen after this, in the sense that I no longer feel that attachment to material goods. My obsession with new things and gadgets seems to have faded away (for now, and hopefully for good) and I would like to dedicate the time that I have to investing in relationships and health instead. At the end of the day, the riches we have on earth really matter more in the lives we’ve touched and the people we love, rather than the objects that wear, tear and fade away.

As we left the protection center, I walked away quickly, struggling to hold back my tears. But even though I made no promises this time, I have a very strong feeling that I will be back again.

An introspective look into voluntourism in Cambodia

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This begs the following questions: how do we ensure safety in these projects? How can we make such projects more sustainable and beneficial to the people? As someone who considers her voluntourism experiences to be priceless, I’m in two minds about this growing trend as there are certain profit-making organizations that are simply exploiting the good intentions of volunteers. In addition, when such projects are embarked on just for the feel-good factor instead of for sustainability, the people who ultimately suffer are the supposed beneficiaries.

Check out this website for more discussions on voluntourism.

Sao Sary Foundation

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“The day before I set up the office for SSF, I had a dream where many children came running to me and asked me for help. I’m still looking for these children.” – Vichetr Uon

When we were kids, most of us were able to take comfort in the fact that we would always be able to turn to our parents for help and protection. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many children in Cambodia, some of whom are in high risk of being trafficked, abused or sexually exploited because their families are so poor.

When Vichetr Uon first visited Kampong Speu in 2006, he was shocked to see a family of 9 huddled around a bowl of rice water and living in conditions that were “15 years behind time”. Shortly after, he established Sao Sary Foundation, which now runs a child protection center in Kampong Speu and has undertaken several community projects to help the rural villages around the province. Despite many difficulties in getting through to the villagers at the beginning, SSF has come an incredibly long way and is now an esteemed partner in the community. Apart from being provided with a safe haven, the children are also given opportunities to study and some are even given scholarships to attend university.

WB and I were extremely fortunate to be able to accompany the teens from SSF to a few of the rural villages in Kampong Speu, where we witnessed first-hand the wonderful work that they are doing with their Bio-Sand Filter project.  Within a week of their installation, these bio-sand filters will provide potable water to the villagers, a luxury we have long taken for granted in Singapore.What we found most remarkable was the sense of empowerment given to the children and teenagers of SSF, as they are now the ones bringing out about change in the rural communities. That was our happiest day of the 9 we spent in Cambodia.

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SSF is currently transforming a three-storey building into a guesthouse that will also serve as a training center for hospitality. Slated to be done by end-January, it will have 6 bedrooms, a cafe, a large meeting room and several lounge areas for its guests and volunteers to hang out. I can’t wait to stay there!


Stop elephant abuse!

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I’m no expert on elephants, but I can confidently say that they were not born to paint.

While most of the other visitors at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai gasped in amazement at the beautiful works of art these gentle creatures had created, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of uneasiness. If it takes humans many hours of practice just to produce a simple painting, imagine how much “training” these elephants had to go through! A simple search online confirmed my suspicions that the elephant training camps in Chiang Mai are far from nurturing habitats for talented elephants.

Elephant painting. If you look closely you will notice that the trainer will use the hook on it or pull its ear to direct the brushstrokes.

National Geographic recently produced a documentary on how these elephants have to go through the process of phajaan, or “crush training”, where baby elephants that are barely 4 months old are removed from their mothers, squeezed into tiny cages, and beaten into submission. In addition, they are also deprived of food and 40% usually end up dying from the ordeal. Reports from tourists on the Lonely Planet forums also reveal that the mahouts ill-treat the elephants by jabbing them in their sensitive inner ear or cutting them with the hook on elephant rides. I saw for myself the hook that these trainers use, and I can assure you that no human will find it acceptable as a tool for “education”.

Mahouts with their elephants. Look at their instruments of torture.

Hence, I strongly appeal to you not to support this tourist venture. If you really do have a soft spot for elephants, consider visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai instead. You will not get to ride the elephants or see them painting, blowing the harmonica or playing soccer there, but you will be able to see them interacting freely with other elephants and you can even volunteer to bathe or feed them.

Just like we wouldn’t want to be forced to walk with our hands or paint with our toes, let’s try to keep it natural for these animals too.

Anusarnsunthorn

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One of the reasons I love the underwater world so much is the absolute serenity of silence. No matter how the waves crash over you or how a school of fish swim past your feet, the sound of silence is constant and therapeutic for that half an hour or so. Yet as much as I love it, that feeling of breaking through the water’s surface and hearing the cacophony of the earth rush back into my ears is always welcoming and energizing. That sensation reminds me that I’m back in reality again.

For many of the students at Anusarnsunthorn School for the Deaf (Chiangmai), their reality is like life underwater, 20ft deep. The sound of silence, whilst overwhelming to us, is familiar to them. Yet their actions do not reflect the stagnancy of silence. Instead, these children are constantly engaged in a dizzying array of activities. Be it dancing, playing volleyball, creating artistic masterpieces or even performing in a band, there is rarely a moment in which they are not making meaningful use of their time. I would even say that the average student there is a lot more “all-rounded” than our students in Singapore.

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Percussion performance during cultural night

Some of the dances put up by the students (:

(Videos courtesy of Glen Liang)

I must admit that I went there thinking that we would be able to impact these children’s lives with our fancy math and science educational manipulatives and our fun silk-screen printing techniques. Yet I was humbled by how their techniques in art far surpass ours. Their patience and attention to detail is amazing, and I believe that the inner serenity they possess plays a part.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not meet a single student who perceived their inability to hear as a disability. This, I believe, is credit that is largely due to the teachers who never allowed them to feel inferior to “normal” students. As educators, we are more than likely to encounter students who are “imperfect”. Yet instead of  being quick to condemn or place our own limitations on them, with patience and faith, we can help those who can’t hear to see meaning in producing beautiful music.

Click here to look at more photos of my time at Anusarnsunthorn (:

The Idiot’s Guide to Paving.

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When Brad, the coordinator at Flora Tristan School, said that he would need help with paving the school, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant since I envisioned a large cement mixer pouring cement over the school yard and some other machine spreading that out. What ‘paving’ actually meant was us being the cement-mixers. Woot!

In case you’re bored or ever feel like paving your own yard, this is how it’s done. Be warned though, it’s an EXTREMELY dusty process. There were definitely times when we could all taste the cement at the back of our throats, and that was not fun at all.

Transporting A LOT of water to be mixed with the cement.

Shoveling and transporting the sand, also to be mixed with cement.

Manually mixing the cement and sand.

Pouring a lot of water to make a huge cement pool.

And the mixing continues... There has to be a gooey consistency before it's ready.

Make sure the ground is level.

Fill it up, buttercup.

And that's how it's done.

Note: You have to be careful not to tiptoe across it because that will obviously leave footprints in the cement… which is exactly what I did. After that, everyone else climbed over the wall.

It was much harder for the vertically-challenged.

And of course, it's necessary to have an awesome team! Go gringos!