Thoughts on heading back to Cambodia


To visit Cambodia is to confront the deepest of life’s questions

I wrote this in September 2013.

This October I head back to Siem Reap some 28 months after I last visited, and 9 years since I first visited. I head back with mixed feelings this time because if anything the journey will be accompanied with more emotional baggage and greater responsibility.

When I first landed in Siem Reap one hot sunny afternoon in 2004 I was immediately uplifted by a sense of freedom and the exhilaration of being somewhere totally new for me: the beginning of an adventure.  Over the years that feeling has diminished as the project I’ve been involved with has grown in scope and become more complex for the same reason. The first impression most visitors get in Cambodia is that of the delightful smiles of the locals – but these days I ponder more often the complicated layers (cultural, interpersonal) in dealing with Cambodia.  Deep down I try to keep a perspective on my own motivations and my own ability to make a positive difference.

The truth is, the project sometimes breaks my spirit, as it did in 2011, when I saw Savong’s school and childrens home both in good heart, but in need of systems: in need of stronger day to day management. The organisation had grown to the point where the existing systems were not keeping up. How I wanted to implement this and suggest that, but in my two week sojourn I met resistance and I was deeply hurt that Savong seemed to be fobbing off these discussions. Tomorrow brother, tomorrow.  And tomorrow finally arrived, just 12 hours before my flight out.

In hindsight I didn’t handle the situation particularly well. It didn’t help that I was very ill and at one stage slept for something like 30 hours straight.

When we finally made the time to have the business discussion I realised that my approach – my didactic style of “you have to do this! you need to do that!” was a serious affront to Savong who is, after all, the Director of the project. I’m well aware of cultural differences and how they affect management styles, so I’d walked into a trap of my own making, alas.

Since then we have both discussed our communication styles and we have also restated, as we do in most conversations, our commitment to the children of Bakong, just east of Siem Reap: the children at the school and the children’s home.

Even so I look forward to our next meetings about as eagerly as a new recruit looks forward to their first-ever 6-monthly review.  The agenda this time includes those things I wanted to raise 2 years ago: the systems and procedures that the NGO requires to keep all stakeholders happy.  In fact Savong has raised these items and these days he’s making concerted efforts to constantly improve the project. For me the meetings will involve a little bit of letting-go because the project is now too large for me to keep underwriting – making up any shortfall we might have in fundraising. Some months the gap is too big for me to manage alone. So we have some serious thinking and planning to undertake together, especially now I’m approaching retirement age.

So that’s my baggage and my burden. What I look forward to, quite apart from seeing my friend – my brother – Savong once more, is the prospect of meeting the school students once again, and the children at the SOC. Whenever I’m feeling down, my thoughts turn to them and I realise that, excepting for my wife Susanna, these children give me the heart, the courage and the life-meaning I need to get by.

In some ways that’s why I feel trepidation about this particular journey next month. Once more I’m coming face to face with my own doubts and depressions. Once more I’m confronting the question we all consider: who am I?

Since writing this I’ve been on the trip and found my fears unwarranted. Here’s a first reaction on that journey.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on heading back to Cambodia

  1. Your thoughts are always so honest and insightful Duncan. It is a challenge to provide support in a thoughtful and meaningful way, that empowers and also at the same time encourages accountability and strength. The success of this project is testament to your ability to navigate these tricky shores, and to the strength of your relationship with Savong. I am sure your return to Cambodia will encourage further discoveries and allow you to acknowledge your contribution to this wonderful project, and to the children that now have very different opportunities and futures. Thank you as always for sharing and keeping us connected.

  2. I am so, so looking forward to meeting the man who made this dream come true. My work here will be a success if I can bring back that sense of freedom for you that this country holds, and that you deserve to feel.
    I can’t wait to see you soon Duncan, I am determined to ensure this trip is everything you imaging you want it to be.
    You are a true inspiration for all that you do. Don’t let any burdens hold you down.

  3. Who you are – You are the kindest, loyalest, most self-depreciating chap I have ever had the privilege to meet. (You’re also sharp as a tack and hilarious with it.) Once again your generosity leaves me speechless. Savong is your brother – agreed, but he is your younger brother. Meaning that you will always consider his needs and sensibilities more than he will yours. That is natural. But you are not a rich man, and you are not Superman. In this respect you are just an average Joe, with your own family, responsibilities and forthcoming retirement to consider. Cut yourself some slack Pet. You have already been involved with this project for 9 years! That is one hell of a commitment. And, you have never faltered; even though you’re the one tearing your hair out trying to plug the gaps, while your little brother is already off writing cheques for the next project! This is no longer just a tiny village school in the middle of a field. In many ways that’s a sad thing. In many more it’s a good thing. With success comes change. You will always be Savong’s friend. You will always be his brother. Your commitment to the children is undisputed. But this is a sizeable NGO now and needs to be managed like one.
    p.s – If you are flying via Bangkok – let us know. We will also be in Siem Reap from 19th Nov if you are still there.

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