True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

There were a few moments in Cambodia recently when I felt like royalty. On my first morning out to see the children at SOC, Bakong, we drove out and Savong had arranged a reception at the gate where all the children were lined up. I’m welling up as I write this because those children applauded me as I entered the grounds – a sustained applause that made me feel both humbled and also exceptionally proud. I shook hands with the children, and high fived them – first down one side of the driveway, and then down the other side. I wanted to give something back.

I’ve been in the position of receiving honours before – in my work for example, or at high school – but this experience was on a whole different level: it was emotionally very charged.

Ten days later the school prize giving was held, and afterwards gifts were given to attendees and I helped share these out. Theavy borrowed my camera and took this photo, and to my horror I realise that slowly – through age, girth and those ears – I’m turning into Prince Charles. There’s something very: “And what do YOU do?” in my posture. But the truth is, I was treated like royalty and yes, I’m endlessly interested in the students and the hopes and dreams they possess. That greeting at the gate: honestly, that is one of the most special moments I’ve ever been treated to in my life.

The boy who was nearly sold.


A small kid with bigger dreams. Kadang was nearly sold and put into full-time work at age 10. Today he’s looked after by Savong and at 16 has found his niche. He wants to train to be a mechanic.

I know him as the boy in red, because of a photo I took in April 2009 of Kadang, pictured above. He has a compelling face, a mischievous smile and a clear sense of direction.

I first encountered his story when he was age 10. A slight boy, who comes from an utterly poor family, Kadang first approached Savong in his role of headmaster at his Bakong-based school. “I need help,” Kadang said.

The boy told Savong the awful news of how his mother was facing such poverty that she was going to take the only option that she could see open to her: to sell Kadang to a family in town. I’m not talking human trafficking here in the cynical sense – I’m talking about a woman, desperate, and willing to engage in a social contract that her son would be looked after by the other family.

But contracts come at a price, and Kadang would have been put to work, full time work, perhaps in a cafe, clearing tables or in a laundry. I hope somewhere decent. For girls the prospects are less certain.

To his credit Kadang wanted to stay with his mother if possible, or at least stay in Bakong to be near her, and he didn’t think it was fair to be put to work at age 10. “I’m just a child,” he told Savong. “I should be at school.”

And so Savong considered the situation and really that was one of the triggers in 2007/2008 to build a children’s home which he did thanks to funding from the Quill family in the USA. Today, with extensions and new toilet facilities it houses more than 50 children in situations not dissimilar from Kadang’s. Kadang was among the first students here, and when I met him in 2011 he was heading home the next few days because he was missing his mother. She lives around 1km away.

One particularly vivid memory was of one evening in April 2009 when we took Kadang to Siem Reap one evening for a medical check the next morning. He’d been feverish and so Savong asked me to make room on the seat of the Honda because we’d take Kadang on the motorcycle as well.  It was evening and Siem Reap was lit up for New Years festivities, and Kadang’s eyes were large with wonder as we journeyed through the streets.

Now the story has a slight twist. The SOC children get plenty of schooling – morning classes followed by schooling at the local primary or secondary schools – and volunteer Alex passed on a verbal comment made by the staff at the local primary school: about how well the SOC children are doing. They tend to be near top of their various classes. But having fought for schooling over fulltime work, Kadang never proved all that fond of schoolwork. He preferred working with his hands.

So what of little Kadang today? Well, he’s still in the care of the SOC though he’s 16 now, and free to leave school. What he’s doing now is an apprenticeship with a garage in town, working on cars with fellow SOC student Buntheourn.


Now at age 16 Kadang has found what he really want to do – he’s immersed in learning all about auto-mechanics, and he loves it.

Same mischievous face, same winning smile but definitely now a young man who is enjoying his work. When I pulled up to the garage he was up to his elbows in sump oil, and helping strip an engine back for repair. He was in his element. On another evening I was driving past the garage when I spotted Kadang pulling up on a motorbike; the young man fully engaged in his work. He’s the one piloting the bike; no longer the little guy hanging on to the driver as he did in 2009.

Make no mistake, he has a way to go. Apprenticeships are not easy and there is plenty to learn. But with a burgeoning number of cars on the Cambodian roads, and with an awful environment for motors (the heat, the dust, the accidents) that can only mean one thing for Kadang’s trade, and within a few years he’ll be on an income of $300-$400 per month, which is very good by local standards. And he’ll be happy.

I’ve always admired Kadang because he had the courage to fend for his own future back in 2008. He saw a problem and brokered a solution for himself. I’m not fond of referring to anyone as the “poster child” for this or for that – but Kadang is as close as I’ll come to saying that Savong’s organisation has a poster child. He illustrates the hope and the options that open up to children who, on the face of it, lack both.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

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.

Cambodia touches my heart.


What did I have to be depressed about – really? Cambodia shone a new light on my state of mind.


When I first went to Cambodia in 2004 I had been suffering a horrible bout of depression, and I describe that year as the year I fell off the rock-face of my own existence. When I was at my deepest moment, every night I’d get home from work and curl up in a foetal position on the sofa, my wife suggested I go on a journey to somewhere really different – somewhere that would shake my head around. “You need a break,” she told me. “Do something different.”  Of all the advice I’d received that year (from doctors and from a psychologist) that was the single best that had been offered.

For a few reasons I chose Cambodia which, back then was just emerging from its dark years. I don’t know what I expected – but most travel books seemed to focus on Pol Pot and the existence of landmines. Maybe it appealed to me because I saw a suitable metaphor for my own condition. How ego-centric I was.

I travelled via Bangkok and as I got in the plane to Siem Reap I felt nervous; as if somehow I would be facing my destiny.  I was looking for something in Cambodia, and I didn’t know what it was. Inside I had a feeling that could almost be described as stage fright.

We took off. A strange experience occurred just as our propeller plane flew over the border to Cambodia and Thailand’s smart rectangular agriculture gave way to the random villages and small rice fields of Cambodia. Around us at 28,000 feet were small puffy clouds. Dozens of them.

On my flight was a tour party of large mid-western Americans, and as they shared a loud conversation about the pros and cons of comprehensive house and contents insurance, I contented myself to look out the window.

And there it was. A cloud that looked like an elephant. We’ve all played “making shapes out of clouds” before – squint your eyes and you can make out a rabbit – but this cloud was better than that. It was a perfect baby elephant running with its ears pricked back, a smile on its face, little trunk thrust forward, legs running and little tail flying. An elephant.

Was I seeing things? I turned to the Amercian lady in the seat behind me and told her to look at the cloud. My cloud.

“Oh my stars!” she exclaimed. “Would you look at the baby elephant!” her friends all surged to the starboard windows and the aircraft tilted.  They’d seen it too. It wasn’t just me.

I settled back in my seat, for the first time in three years feeling a surge of contentment coursing through me. I’m not superstitious, but this – this was special. It felt like a sign and when I stepped off the aircraft I already felt as if my journey to Cambodia had healed me.

It was an extraordinary feeling; seeing the elephant. I wonder if my heart would have been closed if I hadn’t seen that little cloud. Within 48 hours I met strangers beyond my hotel and my tour guide – and in truth I felt that I had somehow stepped home.  I cannot account for this, but everything over the previous three years had felt stressed and unwelcoming, yet here was the sense that my heart could find peace.

I don’t understand the psychology behind this feeling, and I have difficulty explaining it to friends, but Cambodia touches my heart just as surely as if I were revisiting my childhood home.

We can discover quite wonderful things in our lives when we open things up to randomness. That cloud, my depression, the people I happened to meet – all these conspired to take my life on a much more interesting journey than I ever could have imagined.

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Welcome to the twice-a-month blog about Savong’s School in Cambodia


Duncan Stuart – this photo was taken in Red Hook, NYC. Two weeks later, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, even the words Fort Defiance were under water. We live in a world of change.

This blog is dedicated to all supporters past, present and future of Savong’s School project (and other projects) in Cambodia. I’m switching to a blog format rather than relying on bi-monthly newsletters in order to deliver more frequent yet less labour-intensive news about the School.

Last year I had a truly stressful time trying to fit in work commitments (I’m no longer with that firm) while struggling to keep up my commitments to Savong and his projects.  In 2012 I felt I was less effective than I needed to be in spreading the word, fundraising and keeping everyone abreast of the project’s activities, and with the progress of the individual students we collectively care for – including the children at the Savong Home and Education Center (New name for the SOC) and the students at the school.

I won’t over-promise here, but my purpose is:

  • To keep supporters up to date with the project – with news and photos.
  • To be regular about this.
  • To not over-burden your in-box with heavy or hard to open documents.

I also hope to include guests – because the project has always succeeded by being inclusive and by listening to the input of supporters world-wide.

Duncan Stuart

  • March 10th 2013