My recent week in Cambodia was all too short. However, I did manage to sneak a lot in. In addition to playing house in Phnom Penh, I was lucky enough to get a truly behind-the-scenes look at two organizations making a big difference in the lives of the Cambodian people.
Kampong Trach Middle School
Betsy is one of a small group of adults that was just always around when I was growing up — at every birthday party, graduation, holiday, and many a random Wednesday. Technically, she’s my older sister Margaret’s godmother, but she just feels like family.
Years ago, Betsy learned of an organization called World Assistance for Cambodia and their Rural Schools Program, which, you might guess, builds schools in rural areas and aims to lift the country out of poverty through education. Betsy and a friend raised enough money to start a school in Kampong Trach, and in 2010, ever the world traveler, she journeyed there to attend the opening.
When I told Betsy I was returning to Southeast Asia once again, she asked if I’d be interested in taking a trip out to the school to give her a first-hand report of how things were going, and to gather stories and photos for future fundraising efforts. I jumped at the chance.
I was picked up in the morning by Sok, a well-spoken Khmer man who remembered Betsy instantly. “very elegant lady,” he recalled, and I nodded and smiled in agreement. We had almost a three hour drive out to Kampong Trach, so we had plenty of time to chat. He was proud when I told him how much I loved Cambodia, but shared his grave concerns of what visitors to Cambodia must think of all the dust. I tried to reassure him that I think there are other things of far greater importance to travelers, but he remained uneasy. “What must they think when they see these dusty roads outside the airport?,” he asked. “I want my country clean.” I liked him immensely.
When we turned onto the actual dirt road that the school was set down, I could see how far we’d come from the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh. These were the homes of children who attend the school — simple one room stilted bungalows with the laundry strung up, often with a cow or hog sleeping in the shade beneath.
an unconventional school bell; left
When we pulled up at the school, a teacher named Reaksmey was waiting to greet us. She was only nineteen but was extremely enthusiastic about her position as the school’s English and computer teacher. When we walked into the classroom I was greeted with a blast of hospitality as the 40+ students jumped up to shout out a big welcome greeting in English. Their English was limited and they shyly struggled to introduce themselves and give their ages. I was absolutely gobsmacked to find these students were between the ages of thirteen and fifteen — I would have guessed they were around the age of nine. They were so small.
The school has over 200 students and just one computer. Still, Sok assured me, this would be invaluable. In some rural areas, students have never seen a computer before and refer to it as a TV. Just learning how to put their hands on the keyboard and use programs in the most basic sense will give them a huge leg up in continuing education or the job market.
I think I was quite the distraction to both the teachers and students. The students were too shy to speak to me but stared wide-eyed. Even kids who didn’t go to the school were pressing against the metal bars of the windows, just staring, confirming my suspicion that blondes are few and far between in this area.
I enjoyed speaking with the teachers, though, whom I regaled with stories of snow days and of learning instruments in school. They were all eager to do well in their positions and some had fascinating backgrounds — one was a part time musician and lyricist and the others confirmed they heard his lyrics on the radio often! The teachers were shocked to hear that back in New York, we were taught things like art and music in public school.
I asked what these students could aspire to, and the answer was that the girls were most likely headed to factories — there was a big news story the week I was in Cambodia that the factory minimum wage was raising from $90-95 per month to $140-170 per month, for six days per week of work. Girls that were studious might become teachers. Boys could hope to find office jobs in Phnom Penh. Those that took to English could aspire to work in tourism.
the temple in the school complex
It was an eye-opening visit. In this extremely rural part of Cambodia, children seem happy and grateful to be in school — many of them are there for only a half day as the rest of the time they are helping their parents farm the rice fields or care for younger siblings.
Before this school was built, the students in attendance either didn’t go to school at all or had to travel more than ten kilometers away to the nearest one. It is without question that their lives are improved by the existence of this school.
Betsy tells me her next fundraising project will be for Girls Be Ambitious, another program run by World Assistance for Cambodia, which gives stipends to families for every month their daughters have perfect school attendance.
The Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic
I spent years confused over what exactly my friend Wes did for a living. I knew it was an intense, important kind of job that involved lots of travel to places where it’s hard to get a visa, and it maybe had something to do with public health on the global scale. Then he did an Earning Abroad interview, and things started to click. Then, I went to Phnom Penh to visit him, and we stopped by a rehabilitation centre that Wes studied at in university. It all started to make sense.
The Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic lies just outside Phnom Penh, a short tuk tuk drive away from the city. Open for 23 years, the goal of the clinic is to assist disabled Khmer — disabled not just by landmines, a cause that brings a lot of money but neglects a lot of the population — but also by genetics, by disease and by accidents like motorbike crashes.
As Wes wrote in his interview, “I know I am doing my job well when my colleagues feel confident and skilled to take over. ” Kien Khleang is run by an all-Cambodian staff, making it an example of the final goal of that model — and they were, notably, the first organization in Cambodia to hire workers with disabilities.
The day we dropped in on the center was a quiet one. The wheelchair basketball court sat silent and the exam rooms were empty. Most of the employees were attending a conference, and there were just a few patients around — a group of Australian physical therapy students were working with infants born with genetic diseases, and one young girl, a double landmine amputee from a rural village, was learning how to walk again.
But, an artist as heart, I was fascinated just to wander through the workshops and see the process through which these life-changing prostheses are created. Wheelchairs, walkers, and custom-fitted prosthetic body parts are lovingly constructed here using simple yet innovative and effective methods.
In a country with virtually no social services, programs like this one are essential. Patients are housed and fed onsite at a free dormitory, and travel stipends are provided. Patients who hear about the center are able to come, receive a diagnoses, be fitted for custom prosthesis if necessary, attend physical therapy, and live on site for the duration of that treatment. All services are free, and it is the most comprehensive physical rehabilitation program in Cambodia.
The goal, as Wes explained, is simply to allow people to live with dignity.
It was a privilege to visit both these organizations and be inspired by the work they are doing. While neither accepts visitors or volunteers on a regular basis, donations are graciously accepted and put to wonderful use.
Many thanks to Kampong Trach Middle School and Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Clinic for the fabulous work their do, and for allowing me to share their stories of hope and healing.
I love the picture of you with all the children – they do look quite small and young! What determines whether they attend school or not? Is it their parents or being able to pay for it?
The school is completely free! Often, however, the parents keep children home regardless in order to help with household tasks or farming work. Hence why the Girls Be Ambitious program is so interesting — it pays a stipend to parents with daughters who have perfect school attendance.
Such a great story and an eye opening experience, I can imagine. It’s nice to hear the stories of hope and recovery from countries like Cambodia, where they tend to get more negative press than positive. Kudos to your friends for being involved in these organizations!
You are right, there’s a lot of negative news out there — but I love hearing these positive stories of hope. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for sharing these visits Alex! We’ve looked to give something – anything back – when traveling. Mostly volunteering as we are on a limited income. In Cambodia we found lots of options for dining in establishments that sponsor local NGOs, and we also bought a few craft items from NGO stores. I was wondering, however, if Cambodia has organizations similar to Big Brother Mouse in Laos, which publishes books that travelers can purchase for local schools? Or opportunities to volunteer to teach English?
I too love all the social enterprises in Cambodia, from boutiques to bakeries! I’m not sure of any specific programs like the ones you mention in Laos… though I do know that after years of corruption Cambodia is rightly cracking down on any short term positions that put volunteers in contact with children. Those that are legitimate generally involve a long time commitment, but I’m sure are amazingly rewarding!
Okay, I’m still catching up on your posts and you’re one of my favorite travel bloggers so naturally I enjoy all your posts, but this one is by far my favorite! I’m a huge advocate of educating girls. Educate a girl and you can change the world. It’s so simple, but so many countries and cultures still treat women as second class citizens or property. Makes me so angry. If you haven’t seen it yet, I HIGHLY recommend watching “Girl Rising” on Netflix. It’s truly amazing.
I will have to hack my sister’s Netflix so I can watch that when I have a decent internet connection. Thanks for the tip, Katelyn!
Oh my goodness, those Cambodian girls make you look TALL! 😀
…. and why do you think I like Southeast Asia so much
( 😉 )
This is so wonderful! It’s great that you had the chance to see these places from an inside perspective – it’s usually so hard to see or get involved with NGOs as a tourist without feeling icky.
Exactly — I loved that these were really organic experiences and I’m so grateful for the inside look!
Such amazing stories. “Goal is for people to live with dignity” Is there anything more noble? The size of some peoples hearts never ceases to amaze me.
Great organization, fantastic mission statement!
I am not a frequent traveler and yet, I find myself checking back here every so often. I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on your blog but I have a feeling I’ll be a regular here. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that you went above and beyond the usual interest of a tourist. Now this is truly immersing yourself in discovering who Cambodia is as a country, going beyond culture and really exploring the state of the people. I love, love, love NGO stories!
Thanks for keeping checking back in, Dani 🙂 Glad you guys enjoyed this non-traditional travel post!
What a wonderful experience for you Alex! Thank you for sharing this story and bringing it to our attention. I hope we get to see more posts like this from you in the future!
Thanks Michelle! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
The 2nd post I’ve read this week highlighting the great work of some unsung heroes!
Thanks Chris! They were great experiences.
Oh my goodness what a wonderful post! The work these people do is so inspirational.
Indeed. I love reading stories of positive change.
Love this post Alex! I like to be familiar with the issues affecting the places I visit but don’t often get to connect with these issues on the ground. I recently made a pact with myself to do so going forward!
So impressed with the comprehensive services offered at the rehab clinic. And am reminded of this amazing collective called “Not Impossible” you might want to check out. They creates innovative solutions to healthcare issues in developing nations & then turn each invention into an amazing, often tear-jerking short film:
I can’t wait to watch, Becky! You always have the best finds. Thanks for sharing!
I love getting a glimpse of how foreigners are working to help Cambodia. When I was in Phnom Penh in January I was blown away by how many NGOs there were in the city. It’s really nice to see people giving back to the community and it’s something I really liked about Phnom Penh. But to be honest, I really know nothing about how these organizations actually operate. So it’s nice to hear an insider’s perspective 🙂
Actually one of the things I loved about these organizations (the second, especially) is how little foreign involvement there is — they are really nationally-run, if at this point internationally funded. I think that should always be the end goal! And I totally agree — I love all the social enterprises in Cambodia and in Phnom Penh specifically. I realize that cynically they point to a lack of social services in the area, but they are inspiring nonetheless.
Cambodia is heartbreaking, and I really can’t find other words to describe it. Sure, it’s beautiful as well, but there is always a cloud of sadness – at least I felt that way.
The damages made in the past by the regime and the one that a corrupted system is still doing, are countless. Countless are also the fake organizations that, not only are doing nothing, but are damaging Cambodia even more.
Finally there is a gleam of hope; there are people, like the one that you mentioned, that are making the difference and I’m so glad to ear this.
Thank you for sharing some hope.
You are welcome Carlotta. Interesting to read your perspective — I understand it completely, but I always feel filled with hope when I am there, hope that a group of people could endure so much and still persevere so unbroken in spirit. I do agree there is a lot of corruption to combat and societal ills to cure, but there is so much hope, and so many smart people who care.
Ahh reading about the amazing kinds of projects that people take on just makes me so happy–its always a great feeling to be reminded of how many caring and innovative people there are in the world. That rehabilitation center is just awesome!
It’s definitely a nice pick up! I love being inspired by stories like this — grateful to be able to share a few today.
Just for the record, I had exactly zero to do with the success of this program. I was a student of it all, and was enormously lucky to have that opportunity.
Neither I nor the mob I work for (incidentally listed with Jackie Chan) had anything to do with Kien Khleang other than being grateful partners and collaborators with them.
The program is a great model of what I/we aim for, which I think is the point AIW is making here.
I think you said it best in the sentiment I stole from your interview, that programs are successful when they can operate fully without you.
A brilliant post and what a fabulous opportunity to see some of what’s really happening there – how great that you had these two contacts to help you get inside the real Cambodia. I’m so fascinated by what you saw. Thank you!!
Happy to share, Amanda! I loved having these two learning experiences.
Aww, seeing the photos of the school and the children in rural Cambodia brings back such fond memories of my time there. I visited quite a lot of school like that in my job and I always loved it. The remoter I went, the more curious and shocked the children were by the color of my skin and my blonde hair. They would always ask my Khmer colleagues why I was so pale. 🙂
Ha, yup, such a mystery indeed. I don’t like being stared at by adults (I squirm under scrutiny!) but with kids it is pretty entertaining.
I also did a volunteer visit at Palm Tree Orphanage when I was in PP. Best part of my trip around the world!
Worst part: Not meeting Alex despite being in the same city (damn you SVV and your ban on iPads!)
Btw that picture of the drills is great.
I love that they reward parents for good attendance – such a nice incentive to get them education and money so that they don’t have to stay home to earn.
Two really great places, thanks for sharing! xx
You’re so welcome Amy! Loved having the opportunity to write something like this.
Thanks for these great actions from these 2 NGOs and great sharing through this blog. I got a chance to visit Kompong Trach, Kampot and know some friends from there as well moving to continue education and work in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. Hoping by time all the parents will understand and send their children to school for future life in this developing country.
I love the photos along with the article much!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Kiaheng! I love Cambodia and hope to return very soon.
Another great post and thanks Alex on a subject close to my heart.
I mentioned in a previous comment my family had fallen in love with Cambodia and are planning our 4th trip. We have found 2 schools that were opened and run by a generous American couple who were also moved on a vacation (spitlerschool.org). My family raise donations and help out at the schools in the poorest part of Siem Reap. Despite a terrible recent history that has effected everyone in the Country, abject poverty, corruption, no social services, etc, we find the Cambodian people incredibly uplifting. Cambodian’s are the happiest and most generous people I have met anywhere in the world who face hardship with such positivity.
My 2 daughters aged 13 and 15 get so much back from helping out at the school (as do my wife and I) and learn it isn’t “things” that make you happy, that you can decide how positive you feel despite factors outside your control. Helping out at the school is always the highlight of the holiday for the girls.
I’m glad you found an organization that moved you and that you continue to be involved long term. That, I think, is the very best way to make a difference! It sounds like you have gotten a lot back from it as well.