Christmas Day – 2013, Savong’s children’s home Cambodia

Christmas Party 2013 SOC

We hope you had a great get together with friends and family over Christmas. At the SOC the children hosted a visit from Happy Sunshine home for children (based in Siem Reap) as well as the older students supported by Savong – and together they enjoyed a feast and a big Christmas Party. Photo by Buntheourn.

Alex – farewell for now

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Alex Brkljacic is an Australian volunteer who has never been afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in. Alas, her bowl didn’t quite make it – but she is an indelible part of the SOC story.

Alex Brkljacic is the model volunteer, and has been pure gold for the last five months in Cambodia.  Don’t ask how to pronounce that surname, it involves consonants mixed liberally with phlegm, so it is no wonder that everyone just calls her Alex. Visitors, staff members in Savong’s organisation and the kids – the children of the SOC who adore Alex for her patience, her engagement, her humour and energy. She is their big sister.

Alex first came to Cambodia a few years back with a Melbourne family, the Palti clan, who arrived in a blizzard of activity and helped really energise the whole project. Their influence is felt to this day, and among other things the Palti family instituted the first day trips and longer for the SOC children – taking them on excursions that have marked their shared stories. Kulen Mountains, a great water fall swimming spot, and further afield.

Alex, who was a teenager at the time, was seduced by Cambodia. She has since returned multiple times. On her recent stay Alex has primarily served as a volunteer co-ordinator for the SOC, though that’s a rather drab title for the sheer value she has given the organisation. Co-ordinator, communicator, facilitator – she has been a kind of social glue who has bonded dozens of visitors with the NGO.

I only met legendary Alex for the first time just a month ago and was struck by her sharp observations, her quiet ‘let’s nudge this forward’ way of operating and her real humility. I have to say this (and this is hard for a Kiwi) but Alex personifies everything that’s great about Australians – the bigness of their hearts, their optimism, their egalitarian outlook and their generous helping of energy.

She is adored by the children, and it is fitting that on her last weekend in Siem Reap (she’s taking a short break in Thailand,) Alex shared her Sunday with the SOC students on a journey to Kulen Mountains. It is a great ritual: the drive, the hike to see the Buddha, the picnic and then the swim in those deliciously cool waterfalls – and this journey was punctuated by a flat tyre on the way home and a long wait in the heat. It was a feast for the tiger mosquitoes.

Alex’s blog remains cheerful as ever. She’s going to be missed for sure, but the Melbourne Cup bookies are already taking bets about how soon she’ll be back.  Alex is studying for a psychology degree – she has a wise head on her shoulders – but Cambodia keeps calling.  Alex is in no unnecessary hurry to finish uni and join the rat race. Not yet.

Follow her blog. LOVE IN CAMBODIA

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A visit from a Hong Kong family

One day while at the SOC Alex (on the left) and I had the pleasure of meeting a delightful Hong Kong family who had kindly chosen to visit and make a donation to the children’s home.

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It was hot that day, so we took shelter in the office – fan powered by a solar unit on the roof – and we discussed a lot of things. I guess its true that when strangers from other nations meet, we quickly find common points of interest. We talked about China and its differences with Hong Kong, and about different forms of education. The son, a bright student of 14, was I’m sure, looking at the circumstances he was seeing in Cambodia and imagining what it would be like growing up here.

For my part I was thinking about my mother in law, who lives with my partner and I, and the life she had seen growing up in mide-Century China, near Gaungzhou. She witnessed the Japanese invasion and walked, as a child, hundreds of kilometers to find safety.  I think it was a visit to her home village in the mid 1990s that prepared me in some way for my first journey to Cambodia in 2004. Everything connects doesn’t it?

A highlight of the visit was when we introduced the family to student Kimsan and we asked questions about her life, and about her hopes and ambitions. Kimsan took the photo above.

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Our visitor from Hong Kong. We invited him, if he ever considers a ‘gap year’ initiative to stay in touch.

After the family made their kind donation – Alex records all gifting: out system is making our income streams transparent – we walked around the children’s home (the children were having lunch) and said our goodbyes, though the offer was made to leave the son here in exchange for one of “our” students. No?

But seriously, we did invite the visiting student back given that his high school – as is practice with many Asian high schools – will probably require him to undertake a ‘social good’ project. He would be most welcome.

It was a real pleasure to meet this generous family.

Cambodian Zombies – they’re here!

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Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the decades before Pol Pot, but today the low entry price of digital is enabling the Khmer film industry to find it’s feet…and other missing limbs. Run is the first ever Khmer Zombie flick.

The nascent Cambodian movie industry is finding its feet at present – as well as a few other stray limbs and severed heads. This last month a new local movie has been launched successfully: a zombie flick that cost $10,000 to shoot. The name of the movie is “Run.”

Come view the trailer. (CLICK HERE)

While Cambodia has a strong history of ghost movies and supernatural tales, this film represents a 21st Century departure for the once thriving film industry – borrowing heavily from the western Zombie tropes, but putting a Khmer spin on the storyline. The Cinematography is by a western cameraman, but the movie is distinctly a product of Phnom Penh. Watching the trailer I couldn’t help but think that the zombie virus is a metaphor for many other things (corruption, western values, civil unrest) just as surely as those American-made 1950s Monster from Outer Space films were a metaphor for the lingering Communist menace of the time.

The movie features an ex-champion Khmer boxer, and at least one zombie victim who – in reality – lost limbs in landmine accidents. A black reminder of other forces that once invaded the Kingdom of Cambodia.

See more about Cambodian Movies.

Cambodia. The ugly tourists and the prostitute in the internet cafe.

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Night Market, Siem Reap. Cambodia has become better equipped for dealing with a wider variety of tourists

I’ve noticed over 9 years how Cambodia has evolved as a tour destination for an increasing variety of tourists and visitors. On my first flight into Siem Reap the flight was dominated by a group of middle-aged Americans (my age group) and we were all slightly adventurous by nature, but also seekers of comfort. Wewere here primarily to see Angkor, and besides these temples and the big hotels, the local visitor infrastructure was not well developed.

This month my Bangkok Airways flight was populated by backpackers from Spain and Mexico, a pair of Russian honeymooners, a conference of solar energy experts (from as far afield as Germany and Myanmar) and many others. I was quite the eavesdropper! The flight prepared me to expect some changes in Siem Reap.

The biggest single change, as far as tourists are concerned, is the development of the lovely Night Markets which offer god food, good artisan crafts and silks – and, being open at night, shopping at a lovely romantic temperature. Balmy but not sweltering. The walk from Pub Street is colorful and safe.

But what the night markets represent is the way that Cambodia has become more organised for tourists. Instead of being a single-sight destination (Angkor temples) Siem Reap is offering more to do and experience. This is vital because tourist spending is one of the economic lifebloods of Cambodia (cheap garment production is the main export earner) and the battle is not only to encourage tourists to spend more, but to stay more than the average – eight years ago – of just three or four days. Previously tourists would fly in, stay at an expensive hotel (whose profits went back to foreign owners) and apart from some tuktuk rides and some spending at local westernised restuarants, and tour guides – very few other dollars flowed into the economy.  These days there are more places to see and more things to experience.

Popular options aside from Angkor, include Quad Bike tours (these go out through Bakong where our school is) though I wish the owners would tell their young tourists not to drive so dangerously. Slow down around blind corners – don’t put kids lives at risk! They also include specialist visits to potteries and to the silk farm out past West Baray.

Today’s visitors fall into three basic types.

  • The wealthy Zen Experience. Temples. Spa treatments. An Apsara dance show over dinner. Some shopping.
  • The Backpacker. Guest house, wifi hot spots, photos and haggling over prices.
  • The middle-aged adventurers. Liberal, careful, observant – a world view but enjoy comforts too.

In the latter group I’d include an Oregon couple (he’s an attorney) with whom I shared a very entertaining conversation that ranged from the sad Trayvon Martin case to the development challenges facing Cambodia in the future. On my last visit one told me how he’d been approached at an internet cafe by a male student, soliciting sex so he could  continue at university. The man, an American was just so saddened by this.

“The boy had been reduced to the point where he felt prostitution was the only way out.”

I sense, when I meet these people  that there is a burgeoning desire by the 45+ to do something constructive in Cambodia. But what?  I feel there is a big gap for the development of organised ethical tourism. Over time I’ll add some links for this group.

The “Wealthy Zen” people don’t bother me. Cambodia is just another backdrop to their well-heeled life adventure. Next stop: the Maldives. In some way they are invisible as tourists.

The sector that worries me the most is the backpackers. Perhaps, to be fair, I should split this group into:

  1. The true eco-adventurers.
  2. The party animals.
  3. The emotionally ill-prepared.

The party animals and the ill-prepared threaten to ruin Cambodia’s tourist scene in part because it’s all about THEM. The young and in love backpackers on my plane were kissing and cuddling like there was nobody else on board.  She was already dressed inappropriately for Cambodia in her skimpy camouflage-chic tank-top and the two clearly had never spared a thought for the culture they’d be “immersing themselves” in.

These people whine about wifi (at the Blue Pumpkin the upstairs wifi lounge was populated by young facebookers who spent hours glued to their iPhones and tablets) and moan about prices. They play a role (on the surface they look like adventurers) but beneath the backpack beats the heart of what we used to call the Ugly American – only they’re from Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore as well.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy: but every time I see a Cambodian pandering to the needs or wants of these self-centered people I think of the boy in the Internet Cafe, resolving to sell himself so he can continue as a student.