Tag Archives: Cambodia

{Live to the point of tears}

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I saw this wonderful quote by Camus on Twitter today and the first thing that came to my mind was a scene that I witnessed at the Kabal Tralac Village in Cambodia. We were playing ball with the kids when one of the SSF volunteers got them to gather around and they started singing this song. I was struggling to hold back my tears as they sang. Their voices were so beautiful and so energetic, and it was really a wonderful moment.

I’m aware that my language is getting simpler, simply because I cannot find the right words to justify how I felt in that moment.

富有生命力的局面, 让我很感动。

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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!


Reflections: Art Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap

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“What the hell is that?!” were the first words that I uttered when I saw the crazy couch that was completely covered with soft toys. I mean, these soft toys were the couch.

The crazy couch that caught our eyes

WB and I were so intrigued, we walked in and ask if it was a restaurant or ..

“A new boutique hotel! Let me show you our rooms!” The manager, Hea, was quick and enthusiastic in showing us around despite us telling him that we were leaving the next morning and wouldn’t be able to stay the night there.

Reflections Siem Reap is the epitome of eclecticism. Described as an “art hotel” by its designer, Anusorn Ngernyuang, it has elements of art deco and pop art that border a little on kitsch. But what is most impressive about this hotel is the crazy amount of thought put into every nook and cranny. As each of the rooms has a different theme, guests are treated to a visual orgasm of colour, motifs and paraphernalia. The creation of each room is also unique. For example, Anusorn hired disabled artists to paint “Hope for Cambodia”. With names like “Secret Garden”, “Moody Moods”, “What A Cat Think?” and “Trash Chic”, there is a room for the movie aficionado to the barbie-crazed. It is also noteworthy that several rooms, such as “Hope for Cambodia”, were beautifully painted by disabled artists. “Trash Chic” (probably not what you were thinking there), on the other hand, comprises of stylish lifestyle products made from recycled materials.

There's definitely Hope for Cambodia

You're not gonna feel too moody when you enjoy the jacuzzi in this room

Secret Garden (One of the rooms with a jacuzzi)

Gotta love a "Life in Plastic"

Outdoor verandah for events

Swimming pools! They were still filling up the pool with water when we were there.

Good news is, the rooms are available at the wonderfully affordable rate of 80USD per night. If you fancy spending some time in a private jaccuzzi, be prepared to part with an additional 40USD (though I think this could be well worth it as the jaccuzzis are positioned under a skylight). If not, the hotel also has two pools for its guests and a cafe in the compound. There are also plans to include two dorm rooms for the budget traveller. Located along Wat Bo Road, which is just across the main river in Siem Reap and a 15-minute walk from Psar Chaa (Old Market), it is surrounded by trendy bars, cafes and designer boutiques.

WB and I with creative (and brilliant) designer, Anusorn!

For the love of art, check out Reflections: Siem Reap (for now, this link takes you to its sister hotel in Bangkok) at #0545 Wat Bo Street, Sangkat Salakamreuk, Siem Reap.