PHF Returns to Siem Reap
At least once a year, PHF returns to the countries that they have been supporting to feel the ground, perform their audits and relook at the programmes it hopes to embark to support the local community. This ensures that we are not only kept up to date with the latest developments in the country and note the changes that have occurred but also to ensure that our programmes and projects are most relevant and helpful to the local community.
The following chronicles our trip to Siem Reap from 21 – 26 June 2011:
Our trip started out with a meeting with ConCERT (Connecting Communities, Environment and Responsible Tourism) – a non-profit organization based in Siem Reap that connects local NGOs that need help to the people who can provide the help they need. ConCERT not only provides information about these local NGOs, but also ensures that these NGOs are well managed, financially transparent and work in partnership with the local people – key criteria for PHF as we are selecting the NGOs we plan to support.
Through its Founder and Chairman, Michael Holton, we find out about the realities of the ground and how some NGOs have been set up but have soon exploited the system to benefit themselves instead of the local community. He shared with us tips of caution as we proceeded to identify organizations we hope to work with (on top of those we already have planned to support).
Read here more about Responsible Tourism as shared by ConCERT.
Visiting Angkor Thom Village with Shinta Mani
We started out Day 2 of our trip bright and early with a trip to the villages in the Angkor Thom district – the villages that touched the hearts of co-founders, Grace and Deborah on their first trip to Siem Reap, that got PHF all started.
Shinta Mani, a boutique hotel that runs itself as a social enterprise, arranged the visit for us. It was a surreal experience for all of us once again as we went from family to family to understand the situation they were in and how Shinta Mani has helped them improve their lives by installing water pumps or building a concrete home for shelter over their heads.
Through the visit, we learnt that majority homes in the Angkor Thom district look old and dilapidated because the Apsara Authority (which protects the area in and around the Angkor Wat area) forbids any form of construction in areas that fall within the zone surrounding the Angkor Wat. Since the Angkor Thom district falls within this zone, the villagers thus can only do minor repairs to their homes.
Making a Difference with MaD Cambodia
Lunch was one with a difference as we headed to the MaD Eatery to meet up with Founder of MaD Cambodia, Phillip Starling.
Not only was the lunch wonderfully delicious, it was also one without any price tag on the menu. We simply paid what we thought was worth the price, and the money goes towards funding the activities of the MaD Cambodia. A novel idea indeed.
Our lunch meeting with Phillip and his partner, Concetta, was not only informative but delightful. One who speaks his mind and believes in approaching problems in a non-conventional way, Phillip shared with us the good things they were doing for the Prolit Village – ranging from providing after-school programmes that teach not only life skills but also stimulates the mind, to introducing a novel idea of compost toilets that not only prevents pollution, but also provide a rich source of organic fertilizers for the local farmers.
Phillip welcomed us to visit the Prolit Village anytime we wanted. “We don’t have to get the poor people to show you that there are really poor people there,” he said in a tongue-in-cheek manner, referring to some NGOs who stage poverty in order to benefit from unassuming kind hearts.
Purchasing Slippers at Phsar Ler (All Market)
Rattana from Shinta Mani picked us up from our the MaD Base Camp and together, we headed with her to the local’s market where things are whole lot cheaper than if we had gone to the old market (where tourists typically visit). There, she efficiently made her bargain and we purchased 130 pairs of slippers (sponsored by staff members at Robinsons) for the school children we were planning to visit the next day.
Getting in Touch with Siem Reap Hostel
We had recommended some of our friends who had made the trip earlier to Siem Reap to put up at Siem Reap Hostel since it provided very affordable and clean accommodation. Not only was the location pretty near the Old Market, the hostel also has recently put together programmes that are helping the local community and we wanted to find out more.
Tiani, General Manager at the hostel, met up with us and briefed us of the small programmes they have begun to undertake, specifically supporting the efforts of Green Gecko, a home for street kids, as well as their micro-financing project for Tuk Tuk drivers.
She highlighted that perhaps one of the needs for the local community was to provide skills-based training to ensure they not only are equipped with technical skills (e.g. construction, electrical, plumbing), but also the safety awareness so that they do not harm themselves.
Slippers for Sambour School
Our friends from Shinta Mani met with us, and together we made our way to the Sambour School in the Angkor Thom district. Shinta Mani supported the construction of the school previously and has been supporting the school in whatever ways they can since.
During the long (and very rocky) journey, we learnt more about our Shinta Mani friends, Kol (Front Office Manager) and Saoline (Culinary Instructor). Both Kol and Saoline were beneficiaries of the programme at Shinta Mani. Years ago, they had undergone the training provided at Shinta Mani which selects individuals from underprivileged communities, and puts them through a training programme in either culinary or front of house skills. During the programme, they had also learnt the English Language.
Today, both Kol and Saoline are both very successful individuals who have managed to escape the poverty cycle and even managed to bring their parents from the village to stay with them in the city. It was certainly heartening for us to see them now trying to give back to the community in what way they could.
At the Sambour School, we promptly unwrapped the slippers and put them on the feet of the 130 children there, something we were glad we were able to do since at least 95% of the children were without footwear. Some even needed our help to put on the slippers – it seemed it was the first time they were wearing footwear in their lives.
Sala Bai with Shina Mani
Since Shinta Mani was under renovation (it is expanding its hotel to accommodate more guests and a bigger training school for its trainees), Kol recommended we have lunch at Sala Bai, a restaurant with a concept similar to Shinta Mani (or KOTO in Hanoi).
We invited our friends at Shinta Mani to join us for lunch, during which we learnt more about their lives, and their future plans.
Grace collected a load of industry related books from her colleagues from Temasek Polytechnic, and these were donated to Shinta Mani to stock up their new library for its trainees. Kol and Saoline received the books with gratitude, commenting that they were really good books for the trainees who were to come in.
Meeting with This Life Cambodia
If there was an organisation that we’ve met that was the most structured, we’d say it was This Life Cambodia (TLC).
During the meeting with Mr Sen Se, TLC’s Assistant Director, Ms Chea Borany, Programme Coordinator and Mr William Brehm, Research, Evaluation and Monitor Officer, we learnt about the comprehensive programmes that they had, in particular the lower secondary school development programme where they empower the community to better the education provided at the public schools. We loved the idea that whichever programme TLC embarked on, there was an exit strategy – which meant they plan to make the system self-sustaining, or one that allowed the local community to continue the work themselves.
The programme came complete with a breakdown of objectives, tasks and checklists, complete with who in the community was responsible for each task. The local community was held accountable and for that reason, gave them a sense of ownership of the programme.
Taom is Developing Well
We headed to the St John’s Church in Siem Reap to meet up with Fr Stephanus and Thon, who was overall in charge of the developments of the 6 villages that the church supported. In particular, we had wanted to know about the developments in Taom, the village that received the most support from friends of PHF since 2008.
We were heartened to know that the library that was built there was utilised not only by the children in the Taom village, but those in the nearby regions as well. The two ladies who were receiving our scholarship to be trained in pre-school education will be graduating and will be starting lessons for the younger children in the village.
The next plans for the village is to look into a water sanitation project as well as to equip the area with electricity – perhaps using solar panels. It gave us room to think about how we could support their efforts.
At the end of the meeting, Deborah presented USD 790 – part proceeds from the Chefs for a Cause project to Fr Stephanus to support the rice soup programme that runs once a week across 8 learning centres for 6 villages.
Innovative Ideas from Trailblazer
Our meeting with Mr Rattana from Trailblazer Foundation turned out to be one which was highly informative.
Mr Rattana promptly brought us to their backyard after a brief introduction – it was here that all their hard work laid.
Trailblazers help the local community (specifically the Sras Village, which was identified as one of the poorest villages in Siem Reap) by introducing innovative ideas that help them sustain in their own environment. For example, they research and experiment on crops that can grow well in their local soils, and if successful, introduce the crops to the community of mostly farmers, who can either grow them for sustenance or for sale. They take into consideration things like duration of growth, ease of growth and cost of growing the crops. They look into possible demands from restaurants and hotels to ensure that while they are producing a supply, there is also a corresponding supply. We were especially impressed to see how they have begun to experiment the growth of mushrooms using saw dust from rubber trees.
Mr Rattana also showed us how they produce a filtration system at their backyard that allow villagers to gain access to potable water. The innovative invention requires no electricity and provides clean water almost instantly, thereby reducing illnesses relating to drinking unclean water. Costing USD 50 each to install, Trailblazers charge USD2.75 per filtration system to the household that requires it. This money however doesn’t go towards Trailblazer but towards a community fund that functions as a micro-loan facility to villagers who need it.
MaD Cambodia’s Outreach at Prolit Village
We had arranged to visit the Prolit Village after our meeting with Phillip from MaD Cambodia. Rith, our local guide, came to pick us up on his jeep and brought us to the MaD Base Camp. From there we met up with General Manager, Songhy, who led the way to the Prolit Village in the Puok District some 25 km from the Siem Reap city centre.
The journey brought us to feel the air of the country side (literally!) as we were duly bathed in a cloud of red dust on the way to the village.
Once there, Songhy showed us how their team, who have been working at the village for the past 8 months, installed water pumps, a task we learnt that wasn’t as easy since it wasn’t always that they could find a water source. Sometimes, even after hours of drilling and finding a water source, the water cannot be used as it contains harmful substances. The team will then have to find an alternative source and the drilling begins all over again.
Songhy also showed us how the compost toilet worked. We were surprised that the toilet wasn’t foul smelling despite not having any means of flushing.
At the village, we also visited the learning centre, as well as saw the growing of the Moringa plants, which offered a rich source of protein, minerals and vitamins to the villagers who were more often than not malnourished.
Visiting Little Angels
Our guide Rith invited us to visit his farm after our visit to the Prolit Village. On the way there, we stopped by the Little Angels Orphanage, set up by his friend Sery Rathana, an orphan himself who had lost his parents during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Sery had set up the orphanage to help mostly boys who have lost either one or both parents. Besides ensuring they go through school, have three meals a day and a bed to sleep on, Sery also teaches the boys the Khmer art of carving on cow’s hide. It was clear that the boys there loved what they were learning as they earnestly punched through the cow’s hide, creating pieces of art. “I tell them, if they don’t go to school, I won’t teach them,” Sery said smiling.
We scoured through the place and took our notes. It was clear that Sery had a heart for these boys he is genuinely helping. But he could do with more help from us, and we were eager to create a better learning and living environment for him and the boys at the orphanage. We were inspired by him – a local who felt that he was in a better position than others and wanted to help those who were worse off then he.
Visiting a Friend’s Farm
After a visit to the Prolung Pottery and Weaving Centre, Rith drove us towards his farm.
“Welcome to my farm,” he said proudly as he drove us into the compounds of his farm. Off the main road, the one hectare piece of land was surrounded mostly by large fields and a flowing river. The breeze was surprisingly cool as we stepped out of his jeep.
Rith proudly introduced us to his wife and then, his family of poultry – from chickens (at least five different breeds!) to ducks, to geese and even a turkey! He explained how he bred his free-range poultry, and how he had learnt to rear the poultry himself by attending free courses conducted by NGOs.
“That’s my fish farm,” he pointed to a big pond of still water.
“There’s fish?” we asked.
Rith began beating his drum and all of a sudden hundreds of fish started splashing out of the water. We learnt that Rith beats his drum each time he feeds his fish with a mix of feed he cooks himself.
We were surprised when Rith invited us to sit in a hut by the fish pond.
“Let’s have lunch,” he said, pointing us to the hammocks he had bought on the way to his farm.
Within a few minutes, lunch was served – Char-grilled chicken with rice and black chicken soup – a meal that was simple but homely and delicious. We were touched by his gesture of hospitality. It was clear that Rith didn’t treat us like a usual client, but as friends.
Over lunch we learnt of Rith’s plans to use his farm as a means to train less fortunate Cambodians in farming. His daughter came to join us and we were glad to hear that he has invested much in her education. “Big investment,” he chuckled as he looked at his two daughters.
Rith came to pick us up from the hotel to send us to the airport.
“Thank you for helping us Cambodians,” he put his hands together in gratitude as he waved us goodbye. “Please keep in touch and come back. We can do a lot more together.”
Our trip this time didn’t involve us visiting village after village giving out handouts, yet it was equally if not more fulfilling and inspiring. We noticed a change in the local scene since our visit to Siem Reap in 2008. The local community is a lot more motivated to get their fellow counterparts out of the poverty cycle.
At some point, the credible NGOs realised that handouts could possibly create a culture of reliance. They realised that it made no sense to develop a system that was imposed on the local community, or went against the government. They realised that if they really want to help, then they should do so by empowering the local people – teach them a skill, give them a job, let them have a sense of ownership, let them make decisions as a community, provide platforms for change to better their lives, let them try, let them experiment and through that process, allow the change to take place.
What this means for us is that we need to re-look at how we support our friends in Cambodia. Sometimes, it’s not as simple as giving slippers or donate clothes, or decide to build a library or paint a wall of a village school. When we do extend ‘help’, perhaps we should first ask ourselves, “Are we really helping them?”
We can certainly do more together. But first to think of the best way how.
Visit the photo gallery of our trip on our Facebook Page here!