An Ecotourist’s Paradise

Cambodia was once described by their own Minister of Agriculture as “a nation of forests”.  That was pre-Khmer Rouge.  Since then lawlessness and corruption have created an environment in which both illegal and government sanctioned deforestation now occurs at alarming rates.  Today it is estimated that only 3% of the country remains covered in primary forest.  It is very common to see truckloads of logs being transported across the country and 2,000 square kilometers of ancient forest is estimated to be lost each year.

Caz was keen to “see mountains and jungle” and the most obvious from Battambang, although not by any stretch of the imagination a straight forward plan, was to make our way down to the Cardamom Mountains near the south coast.  There is a Wildlife Alliance near the seaside town of Andoung Teuk (“An-dong Turk”) in Kaoh Kong Province who run an ecotourism project.  Public transport would have taken days so we made our way to the so-called “taxis” at Battambang’s Central Market, where some hectic conversations and debates took place before a driver was allocated to us for the job.  He insisted that Caz’s Google Maps route through the mountains was not an option but that he could definitely get us to Andoung Teuk.

An eight hour drive the next day following the length of Tonle Sap Lake and turning west not far out of the outskirts of Phnom Penh, saw us land on the wrong side of the river from the picturesque little town of Chi Phat.  After standing on the dust-track boat ramp for about an hour, our ferry finally made it’s way over the water to collect us.

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Chi Phat is one of the most captivating places I’ve ever visited.  Once animal poachers, many villagers have retrained to become tour guides or rangers, thanks to re-education programs and a shift in the village’s economic structure as tourism has started to provide a stronger appeal.  I have so many enchanting memories of this beautiful little village who looked after us with such precision and charm despite their limited resources.  With no electricity in the village from 10pm to 5am we drove on the back of our bungalow host’s moto in pitch black along country lanes, our bags piled around us.  The evening we arrived one of the girls drove her moto to meet us off the ferry.  They were not expecting us and she heard we were dragging our cases up the spaghetti-western-style dusty high street and wanted us to know we were heading the correct way.  Villagers cooked and served us meals at an open air kitchen in the One-Stop-Shop known as the Visitors’ Centre where we could chill in the bar, eat dinner at the long tables beside the kitchen corner, and book our accommodation and tours.

On our one full day at Chi Phat we walked a 20km round-trip to O’Teuk Vet waterfall accompanied by the most wirey, cute, funny guide I ever met.  About 25yo and perhaps 35kg, he scuffed along in his plastic looking loafers asking us English questions and typing our answers into his phone.  He cracked jokes with us, pulled fruit off trees for us to sample and escorted us over river crossings, under trees and down rocky slopes.  Very early on in our day together he disclosed that he had been an animal trapper from a very young age, perhaps 10yo (he wasn’t sure).  His family were poor and he was required to earn an income for their survival.  He would spend many days or weeks in the jungle with teams of trappers.  As the smallest he was responsible for setting the traps, “not killing the animals”.  He talked about being arrested, escaping and running from the police, and that the same policemen who once chased him, now laugh when they see him walking through the jungle with tourists.  He dubbed me “Teacher” within the first hour, took my number and has taken to calling me for English lessons which I am more than happy to be a part of because I am utterly beguiled!  At one point he bent down to take a stone from his loafer and as he did so, he looked off into the trees beside our path.  When he stood up he said “there are many traps in there.  I told the police to go there and take them away.  I don’t know if they did”.  At another point he stopped Caz and told her to listen to a sound in the distance.  Once she heard it he identified that it was a crying female gibbon and explained that the male gibbon does not cry.  His knowledge and confidence in the (very denuded) jungle was as natural and easy as my knowledge and confidence in speaking English.

On our trek to the waterfall we detoured through someone’s property to view bats in a cave (but the bats had disappeared).  Returning from the cave we sat at a wooden picnic bench beside the elderly man’s shack to have a drink and a rest.  Our guide signed a book with the old man to mark that we had passed through, so that he could receive a small incentive for allowing us onto his property.  We asked about the old man, curious about his apparently solo existence and was there some way we could help him?  “Okay, if you want to help him that is okay.  Why do you want to help him?  The tourists do not do like that?”.  Caz gave the surprised man a small token of our appreciation and our conversation moved to the neighbour of our guide, a 90yo man whose family were all killed in Khmer Rouge and he has noone to support him now.  We suggested that we give our guide some money to support this man and he agreed.  That afternoon he purchased a blanket, plate, cutlery and some food for his neighbour, returning to us with photographs to show he had done as planned and offering to give us our change back!  That night our bungalow host came to pick us up and agreed for me to start walking while he dropped Caz home first.  Out of the dark, our guide appeared, he had been sitting with our host and was ready to take me on the back of his moto so I didn’t have to walk!

One of the reviews I read about Chi Phat before we went said “this is the most amazing place I have ever been”.  I concur – it was a highlight, not only of this holiday, but of my life, to experience a place where the local stories are so transformed, where wildlife programs and social programs are working alongside each other to improve their small patch of our planet.  They have recently received two ASEAN awards, for community-based tourism and homestay. They deserve this and so much more.  I will definitely return to Chi Phat and write more about it.

After two unforgettable nights in Chi Phat we took a two hour boat ride down the beautiful Piphot River, through seemingly untouched jungle, to Andoung Teuk.  The bus picked us up here for our onward journey to beautiful Kampot, which I’ll write about separately.  I try not to make this too much of a travel blog but our holiday is worth (for us), recording.  It may also prove useful to other travelers, especially anyone interested in ecotourism who could be drawn to the relatively unknown Chi-Phat.

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Boating to Battambang

It has been the best holiday but it is about to come screeching to an end for me while Caz moves onto a Yoga retreat.  It’s about two weeks now since Kelly and Caleb returned to Melbourne.  From Siem Reap they traveled to Phnom Penh on the same morning as we caught a boat to Battambang.  After the pick-up bus forgot us, we had a mad dash in a rickety tuk tuk to the boat dock, where we were told at the top of the ramp to “get on the blue boat” and at the bottom of the ramp, faced 20+ blue boats, only one of which was ours.  More shouting and we finally found the right blue boat, where about 50 other passengers had been waiting for our arrival for the past hour.

Mum, Ruth and I took this same boat in the opposite direction three years ago and second time around, watching life on the water in the floating villages had a similarly powerful effect.  It takes about two hours to cross Tonle Sap lake and another four or five hours on the Sangker River, which is wide and flowing near the lake with many floating villages, fish and crocodile farms, pagodas, mosques, homes, government offices and restaurants.  Children run excitedly to the water’s edge of their unfenced floating wooden verandahs to wave and shout “hello” at the tourist boat, and I wonder how many drownings must occur.  Produce galore makes it’s way on narrow motorised canoes from one location to another, water taxis speed past and locals paddle out to our boat to collect a bag of rice ordered from town or pick up a family member returning home.  Everyone is agile and confident on the water.

The river narrows and dries upstream towards Battambang, where residents become embankment dwellers and live in some of the most impoverished homes I have ever seen, many of which can hardly even be called “shacks”.  With the Dry Season well underway, as the river narrowed we began to run aground regularly.  At first our driver pushed us off the banks with a long bamboo pole, but he soon stripped down to his underwear and jumped in the mud to use his full weight against the boat.  What a job!  A small cargo boat loaded with plastic jerry cans pulled up alongside us, tied a line of rope to a hook on our bow and towed us a short way until he too, ran aground.  What seemed like moments later, a man appeared on the riverbank, shouting and pointing.  We moored a short distance along and our bags were thrown in chain gang style from the roof of the boat out onto the embankment, about six men up the muddy bank to the field above while the passengers formed a line alongside the chain gang, clambering to dry land where three utility trucks awaited us in a crop field.  Our bags were tied securely onto the back of the tray backs and we all climbed aboard for an hour-long drive into Battambang.

When I first came to Cambodia I spent months feeling highly amused at the way people travel on the backs of utes, roofs of trucks and buses, hanging out of the back doors of minivans, and even sitting on motorbikes secured to transport vehicles.  I slowly came to a realisation that this is less amusing than it initially seems.  A much cheaper form of travel, people do it because they have no choice, not because they have no insight into the dangers.  I pondered on all of this as I climbed onto the back tyre and hoisted myself clumsily onto the tray back, squeezing in amongst about 20 other tourists, all looking as amused as I felt!  Most of my fellow passengers spoke Spanish or French so our only shared form of communication was hysterical laughter as we ducked under trees, lurched uphill and down dale, and leaned around bends on the bumpy dirt tracks, plus more laughter as locals did a double-take at the overcrowded tray back full of Barang, not Khmer.

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Battambang is an interesting city and we found a lovely little hideaway bungalow in a forested setting with a pool, not too far from town.  The Night Market beside the river has lovely alfresco restaurants serving quality Khmer food and there’s an attractive colonial town centre with bars and restaurants catering to expats and tourists.  According to one Australian bar tender, Battambang has the biggest artist population in all of Cambodia.  The gap between wealthy and poor is visible with beggars and shack-dwellers living alongside the tourist and expat population.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-profit organisation based in Battambang who not only provide social support and education to 1000 young people, they also founded the Cambodian Circus.  At US$14 per ticket, a troupe of perhaps 20 talented young locals enchant tourists a few evenings each week and we had the privilege of seeing them.  Not only agile gymnasts, they were cute and hilarious and anyone going to Battambang or Siem Reap should absolutely treat themselves to one of the most fun nights you’ll have, while contributing to a wonderful cause.  You can read more about them at Phare Ponleu Selpak where they say in part, Today in Battambang, children and families still face many social problems. Children drop out of school, experience domestic violence, drug abuse, and migrate illegally to work in extremely poor conditions in Thailand where they face exploitation and abuse…. We take a holistic approach to solving social problems through the arts, education, and social work. Phare Ponleu Selpak seeks to provide education, access to the arts,  vocational training, and professional pathways to the children and young adults of our community.

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Sharing the Love Bug

Perched on the toilet in an open air bamboo treehouse on a hillside above the seaside village of Kep last week, a short wall separated the smells and sounds of my dysenteric squirts from a sleeping Caz.  I’m poolside at our Phnom Penh hotel now while she sleeps off her third bout of squirts in as many weeks, in another shared room upstairs.  We were in Kampong Cham for the last four nights, where we decided to have a room each for the first time since the holiday began over three weeks ago.  Thanks to our joint bouts of diarrhoea, there is little decorum left between us and tonight it seems will be her turn to relinquish her dignity yet again.  I remain hopeful that perhaps I’m immune to the latest invading bug.

A couple of my family/friends added (very generously) to the house fund, but Caz and her networks have been instrumental in funding the majority (US$3,000).  We knew by the weekend that we had enough for the build to proceed, so we got Dan to take us out to “Eye Village” to let them know, find a builder and talk logistics.  I’m not sure how they knew we were coming but Dan informed us we were invited to lunch, so he must have forewarned them that good news was on it’s way.  The family’s usual over-enthusiasm greeted us, which I interpret as a sign of their desperation.  Meeting people from “the other world” when you live in such despair, would naturally arouse an excitement, but being the object of their adulation sits very uncomfortably with me.  I am merely their equal, I want for them to see themselves as such, and I feel for them that they are so convinced of their lowly status in life thanks to never knowing anything but destitution.

We entered the “big house”, where a baked whole chook (head, feet and all) sat on a tray alongside a chicken stew, a pot of rice, a bowl of pepper with lime juice and a bowl of fermented fish sauce.  Sitting on the bamboo slat floor around the tray of food, we were instructed to eat, eat, eat!  This delayed the news we had to share, but with lunch polished off I started the conversation.  I explained that my friends and family were already giving me a lot of money to help other people, so Caz had approached her family and friends, who had donated enough for the family to have their small, decaying second home replaced.

Outside we scrutinised the termite-ridden supporting poles of the big house.  In November just before he died, Joe expressed concern to me that his house could fall down because of these gorged supports.  Next door we checked out the smaller (so-called) home.  Simona has lived here since it was put together at the time of her marriage six years ago, but it is very unsafe.  She would not let us climb the ladder up to the inside, intimating that the whole house could fall apart with our weight (admittedly neither of us are Cambodian Sized!).  She then walked away, returning a short time later with a young man who was introduced as the husband of their cousin, and a builder.  Caz talked to him about costs and the plan was formulated.  The “big house”, now 30yo, will get new support poles; the “shack” will be replaced with a small, sturdy bamboo house; a toilet built for both homes to share; electricity will be connected to both houses.  The builder walked us a short way up the dirt lane, to a small house he built last year.  Bamboo and wood with a tin roof, this house is probably identical to the one he will build for Simona and her daughters.

We continued walking through the village.  Along the way Caz stopped to add various instructions based on the house models we were passing – guttering like this, a water tank like that.  We were led up the stairs into Joe’s sister’s home where a large crowd of family joined us on the bamboo floor.  Not understanding much of what was being said, I felt we were semi-oblivious, but that the gathering was the extended family’s way of meeting and thanking us.  It was a happy, almost party atmosphere.

Dan, employed as Project Manager, met with us today before we left Kampong Cham.  Plans were confirmed and money exchanged hands before he dropped us to the bus.  He planned to travel to the village to speak with the builder.  As we arrived in Phnom Penh Caz received a message from him “I hope you are already in PP.  The start of our project will be tomorrow”.  We feel we are missing out on the excitement, but we’ll likely be able to return to Kampong Cham in the next few weeks and see the finished product.  With any luck, before her Cambodian holiday ends at the end of next month, Caz will have photographs to share with her donors (and me with mine!).

Quick Fundraise Update

So far, re raising money for the blind woman’s house, we have the approximate equivalent of US$1,000 specifically for this project.  This is separate to the other projects I’ve talked about, which I will also update on when they take shape.

Anyone interested in adding to the house build, please contact me.  If you do donate please let me know so that I don’t lose it as things are hectic here and I am not able to check my account regularly.

We are about 1/3 of the way there, although official building/material cost quotes have not yet been sourced.

THANK YOU!

Where Love and Hate Collide

Joe died in his home three weeks ago, unknown to any health service.  His family do not know why he died.  Joe also did not know why his legs became weak/deformed as a young child.  All he could tell me when we met, was that he got a fever and then stopped walking “during Pol Pot”.  The story fits with Polio.  His death fits with Post-Polio Syndrome.  The Mayo Clinic’s website states that “up to almost half the people who had polio at a young age may experience certain effects of the disease many years later — post-polio syndrome“.  They talk in detail about the syndrome at Mayo Clinic Post-Polio Syndrome.

When I saw Joe in November, lying in a hammock tied to the supporting poles of the family’s thatched bamboo/banana leaf hut, he was anxious.  His legs had become progressively weaker and painful, he had trouble swallowing, seemed even thinner than usual and was constantly exhausted.  He was no longer able to get around in the wheelchair we had sourced for him about 13 months earlier.  I was only on a fleeting visit and so I asked if, when I returned in February, he would like to go to a doctor or clinic with me?  He was extremely keen on the idea.  I am sad that he died before this could happen, but I am also sure that there would likely have been little anyone could do for him.  I left a very large supply of Acetaminophen, Tramadol and some other painkillers for him, which was probably as much as he could hope for in this environment.  Certainly physiotherapy or other such treatments were not a realistic option.

Previously I have referred to Joe’s daughters as Simona (blind widow with two small daughters) and Sophia (single with a bad strabismus).  There is a third daughter who is married and lives with her husband in his family’s village.  Dan drove me to Joe’s village on Monday morning.  We arrived as Simona, whose vision impairment improved slightly after the operation in Phnom Penh in September 2015, was pulling into the driveway with Maia, her youngest daughter, on the carrier of her bicycle.  She has enough distance vision that she can transport the children to school on a bike with the girls acting as her eyes on the finer details.  There was much excitement to see me, which always makes me very uncomfortable as it illustrates just how desperate these young women feel.  When I visited in November, Sophia was living in a different town, working as a cleaner but she returned home when it became apparent that her father was about to die.  As Simona was busy telling me through Dan, that she “can no longer live here, it is too terrible now, since Sophia got married and brought her husband here”, Sophia slammed into me from behind, holding me in a gridlock and squeezing me such that I thought we would both topple backwards.  We all admonished her until she stopped, then Dan told them “you should not fight, you have to live in peace together”.  Sophia looked tearful and walked away.  Weeks from their father’s death, emotions are obviously running very high.

The dynamic between the sisters is fractious and complicated as Simona relies on Sophia as the breadwinner for herself and her daughters since her husband drowned in the Mekong in January 2015.  We went inside the little house together and sat talking.  Joe’s hammock has disappeared and his absence was sad.  I explained that I believe I know why he died, and that even in a rich country, he would probably have died.  Sophia has married a man who looks at least ten years older than her.  He was quiet and pleasant but he has quickly replaced Joe as the man of the house and the second breadwinner in the family.  He has also brought his own stock of cows to the family home, which must add to his financial power in the situation.

There are two houses on the family land, both thatched huts.  The smaller, younger hut is in bad disrepair.  Simona lived in this hut when she married her (now deceased) husband.  She has returned there now, but has to vacate during rain or strong winds.  She can’t move far from the family as she is not able to cook / fend for herself without assistance.

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The family’s bigger, better home

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Simona’ current residence

When I asked if the family had food Dan said that they are living on dried fish and rice.  We climbed down from the house and with Simona holding my shoulder, walked across a dirt track, around a corner to the village store.  I told her to buy what she needed and was dented $7 for a week’s worth of meat and vegaetables.  As I stood in the verandah shade of the wooden hut shop, a lady looked down at me from the doorway of the house next door, grinning from ear to ear and calling out.  Before I could even pay, Simona took my hand and led me to the bottom of the ladder.  Dan took his shoes off and I asked “are we going inside?”.  Yes!  At the top of the ladder I was introduced to Joe’s sister and her husband, and instructed to sit down under the fan.  They talked at length with Dan about losing Joe, how they knew of me and thanking me for my help, and that they were so happy when Joe got his wheelchair but he no longer needs it and I should return it.  “Okay, we can do that, but do you know anyone else who might use it?”.  A double amputee in a neighbouring village had been waiting for a long time for a wheelchair and they didn’t want to put me out, but if I wanted to, they could not possibly thank me enough.

On return home with the groceries, Sophia had already lined the wheelchair up alongside the tuk tuk.  Dan somehow managed to jam it into the back seat space before Sophia, Simona, 5yo Maia and myself squeezed in with it!  About 5km of dust road later, we pulled up to the sight of a wheelchair sitting underneath this man’s home.  Foiled!  En route home again Simona pointed to my shoes and preceded her otherwise unknown words with “som” (please).  She wanted some shoes.  So we stopped at a local shoe store and 3 pairs of shoes / $6 later, for her and both of her daughters, we were back on the road.  Just near the village temple Dan pulled over and turned off his engine.  “Helen, I think that maybe we should give this wheelchair to the monks because maybe they know someone who can use it?”.  So we detoured through the Wat grounds, where we were liberated from a very congested tuk tuk!

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Yesterday during poolside cocktails in our very plush Siem Reap hotel, Caz and Kelly came up with a cunning plan that the US$3,500 Dan suggested it would take to replace Simona’s little shack with something more solid and safe (using the same materials), should not be such a difficult feat?  It would inject a little into the village economy if we can use locals to do the building, which I think will be possible.  The house is Simona’s most pressing problem, it would remove her somewhat from the power disparity she faces with her sister.  Her lack of income generation is going to be much more difficult to find a solution for in her circumstances.  So once more I find myself engaged in my most un-favourite activity, raising money for a good cause.  It’s funny how I can be so passionate about good causes, yet so repelled by the activity which makes my good causes come to fruition!  Anyone reading this who wants to donate, or even run some sort of a fundraiser (Caz suggests entrance-fee “high tea” at your home is a good option), towards this cause, please contact me!  The GoFundMe page is still open, but as they take a 3% fee, if you’re in Australia, NZ or UK, then putting it directly into my bank account would be a better option.

Tourism With a Local Edge

Wat Opot and Phter Koma have been the tip of the iceberg of our holiday so far.  I am traveling with a nursing friend who left Alice Springs a few years ago, who I’ll call Caz and the sister of my neighbour, who I’ll call Kelly.  Kelly’s 8yo son “Caleb” is with us so we must look like a mixed bag getting around together.  The reason I have time to blog right now, is that they have traveled to Siem Reap a day earlier than me so that I could do a couple more jobs in Kampong Cham before following on today.

We traveled all day Saturday from Takeo Province south of Phnom Penh, to Kampong Cham north-east of Phnom Penh.  A meal stop in Skun elicited excitement as Caz and Caleb ate fried spider.  That night we sat above the much loved Bamboo Bridge watching the world go by before making our way to Night Market for an al fresco dinner.  On Sunday Caz and I left Kelly and Caleb behind and took a dusty road out of town with “Tuk Tuk Dan”.  Our first stop was to John and Sara’s little wooden hut, which I always liken to a Cambodian “Little House on the Prairie”.  As it came into view I pointed to the little concrete outhouse as “one of the toilets I built”, much to Caz’s amusement.

Pulling up at the ramshackle gate, the two older children appeared in the doorway before six year old big sister returned lumbering her c.18mo baby sister.  The children explained via Dan that Mum and Dad had traveled to town to have the wheel pump machine fixed.  This orange punp is a common sight in front yards of rural Cambodia where for abut 2c you can have your bicycle or moto wheels filled with air.  Handicap International supplied it to John as an income generating option.  His wife Sara is the young mother who proposed to “make a business” with me via my purchasing a cow which they might use for breeding before returning it to me once the calf comes along.  I have received enough support from friends and family that this is going to be possible, but need time to work out the logistics of actually purchasing a cow in a country where I neither understand why you’d really want a cow (certainly not for the milk and apparently as a work animal), or how to purchase a healthy animal.  There are various options and I’ll talk about it once we start making it happen.

We left the children and continued on our way towards little Dara’s village, where there was much excitement as we turned into the dusty front yard of their bamboo hut.  After time catching up with everyone, including Caz pulling a bottle of bubbles from her bottomless bag of all-things-useful, we piled back into the tuk tuk with Dara, grandma and 16yo big sister, for a treat visit to Phnom Wat Hanchay, also known as the Fruit Temple, a large hillside complex famous for it’s large statues of animals and fruit, about 25km north of Kampong Cham.  It was my way of meeting my obligation to Dara after promising last time I saw him, that “next time” he could come with me.  Wat Hanchay is in the general vicinity of Paula’s village, so we made a detour to visit her where Caz got to meet the healthy young woman behind the amazing story.  The family were keen to host and feed me despite our impromptu visit, which is exactly why I prefer to “pop in” as a friend would do, to try and avoid too much fuss or expense.  I always love visiting them and this time we stayed on the roadside directly opposite the mosque, as various villagers congregated around us to listen in.

Limping around on his prosthesis, Dara loved the Fruit Temple and climbed onto various statues, telling me the names of things in Khmer as I told him their English names.  After a meal of fried rice and sugar cane juice at one of the open air restaurants on the hillside, he forced himself awake in the tuk tuk en route home by singing, learning some 1950s-style hand-dancing from us, staring or smiling shyly and then closer to home, tickling me wildly.  Caz and I had purchased a 25c strip of checked kramar material each from a vendor driving past us in the opposite direction on a rural track, to cover our faces from the dust.  Grandma tried to teach us how to wrap them around our heads with much hilarity from all sides.  She seemed to enjoy the day more than anyone after living for 70+ years within spitting distance of this famous temple which she had never had the opportunity to visit.

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There is more to come, mainly about how I spent yesterday at Joe’s village.  He passed away a few weeks ago and I spent a few hours with his daughters and other family, which deserves a blog post to itself.  Meanwhile I have a breakfast date before jumping on the bus to Siem Reap so I will catch up at another time.

Throwing The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Almost a week ago I returned to Cambodia for another extended stay.  In a few weeks I begin my second assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres, this time in Phnom Penh.  Meanwhile a holiday with friends, tripping around the country, is underway.

Two nights at Wat Opot Children’s Community was as boisterous as one might expect of a place where 50 children who have lost their parents/carers to AIDS reside.  It is difficult to find words for the beauty of Wat Opot.  Their website might do it more justice than I could – Wat Opot.  We arrived on the same day as a new resident, a 12yo girl who might pass for 7yo, with severe malnutrition, spinal scoliosis (I have a high suspicion that this may be caused by spinal Tuberculosis), struggling to walk on tiny pin legs, and all alone in a sea of new children.  Another new resident, 2yo and a shockingly tiny 6kg, has recently started her lifelong course of anti-retroviral treatment.  Her misery is likely a combination of medication side effects, which should subside and her new and overwhelming environment.  Otherwise, every other child plus “Number 51”, as we labelled our 8yo Australian travel companion, was robust, active and thriving in this world of organised, joyous chaos.

I learned of Wat Opot through my friend and about-to-be-colleague-again, Dr Theo, when he identified it as a refuge for three brothers orphaned by AIDS/Tuberculosis in the final months of the MSF project here in Kampong Cham.  It was amazing to meet these brothers again, and after one year since we last met, be able to converse in English with them!  While most of the children were in school, we walked to and climbed beautiful Phnom Chisor (“Chisor Mountain”), where we explored the hilltop temple grounds.  Lunch inside the ancient walls consisted of sitting in an unwalled bamboo hut within sight of our cook who promoted her fried chicken with lemon grass option.  Said chicken made a noisy but swift departure from this world, thankfully from behind the open fire so that we didn’t quite witness it, about twenty minutes before being presented to us on a plastic plate, infused and tasty, with a pot of boiled rice.

Anyone looking for a worthwhile cause, whether for fundraising, donating or volunteering, would be hard-pressed to find better than Wat Opot with it’s impelling history of quite literally “rising from the ashes”.  Yet there is a growing movement against orphanages, most famously perhaps, the arguments put forward by JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame.  Rowling founded Lumos, an organisation dedicated to closing all childrens’ homes, arguing that “No child should be denied a family life because they are poor, disabled or from an ethnic minority. Lumos works to support the 8 million children in institutions worldwide to regain their right to a family life and to end the institutionalisation of children.

Voluntourism and Orphanage Tourism are phrases coined from the arguments raised – rightly – against the exploitation of children living in institutions.  The issue is especially pertinent in countries such as Cambodia where corruption can permeate through absent and/or poorly governed regulations.  I have written on this topic before, for example at An Infinite Learning Curve in August 2014.  There certainly are children who should not be living away from their families and there certainly are institutions which exist for the wrong reasons and/or exploit the children in their care, often in shocking ways.

Yet there is another side to the coin.  There are institutions which exist for the right reasons, who are doing the right thing for the children in their care.  There are children who, without those institutions, are either dead, or abandoned to their own devices.  It is not uncommon to see “street children” in Cambodia, existing in dire circumstances and without care and support.  Wat Opot in Takeo Province or the residence where the children from Phter Koma now reside in Kampong Cham, have strong and valid reasons to exist.  The twelve year old girl newly resident at Wat Opot is a visible example of what can happen to stigmatised and rejected HIV+ orphans when they lose their parents in communities which are already struggling to survive impoverished circumstances.  Without Wat Opot, she and so many of her fellow Wat Opotians would die.  The same can be said for the children of Phter Koma.

Today I visited the Phter Koma children who, along with their Khmer carers, have moved to another establishment after Phter Koma, as was always their aim, transitioned to a local organisation.  The children are focussed on their studies, accept their routines including continuing English classes and twice yearly visits where possible, to extended family in their home towns. Each of them appears thriving and happy.  Much like an aunt from another place, they know and trust me yet also understand that I am not a primary carer, connecting me instead to speaking English and having occasional treats.  When will we go swimming next, when will we eat at Night Market next, can I advocate for them to have improved internet access so that they can send emails to myself and the French founder.

Wat Opot and Phter Koma are two excellent examples of institutions serving a valuable purpose in the community.  Both employ local staff who dedicate time and skill to identifying family, assessing the ability of family to receive the child back into their care, if not permanently then at least for visits, and maintaining a safe and nurturing environment for those children who cannot return home.  The children at both of these institutions are engaged in school with opportunities to advance through trade school or university which are inaccessible to so many of their peers.  Volunteers are or have been an integral part of both institutions, for the purposes of offering exposure to new languages and skills.  The children have uninterrupted relationships with long term carers and do not suffer from separation anxiety around short term volunteers.

Far from exploitation, the children at these two examples of valid residential institutions, are protected, cared for and flourishing despite histories of extreme loss, illness and suffering.  They have only benefited from the input of overseas volunteers who are vetted and work within set boundaries relating to the needs of the children rather than the needs of the volunteers.