Photo of Farmhouse Interior – Kampong Kdei, November 2013

Photo of Farmhouse Interior - Kampong Kdei, November 2013

One of the families I visited in Kampong Kdei lives in very simple conditions – a house with thatch walls and roof which is very comfortable during the hot months, but how about in the wet season? The boy is sponsored through High School and if he shines there, then Savong will make sure he gets the support he needs to undertake higher education in Siem Reap. His mother misses her son (he stays at the SOC in Bakong) but told me through an interpreter that her only concern is that her son gets a good education.

The interior of a traditional Cambodian farm home

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Our homes say a lot about our values and our lifestyle and the interior spaces of others are so fascinating that entire industries – glossy media empires – are founded on the vicarious pleasure we have in walking around somebody else’s Home & Garden. I share the same fascination when I’m in Cambodia.

With permission of the owner I took this photo when visiting the family of one of the children sponsored to go through school and living at the SOC in Bakong. Here we are in Kampong Kdei, 40 kms away from Siem Reap and outside the rice farms are a bounteous bright green of promise. What do we see here when we examine this living space?

The home has stood on stilts for more than a century I’m guessing. It would have been built with thatch roofing originally, but today the house enjoys the advantages of a tin roof (weather proof) alongside the stifling disadvantage: iron roofing is baking hot during the middle of the day.

Here, everyone shares the same space. It is one big open plan laid out on floorboards worn smooth with age. There are beds over on the left, covered with pink mosquito netting though some members of the family sleep on mats on the floor. Clothes are hung out in the background – this is one of the few rural households I ever saw with a full-length mirror. There’s a clock also, though local life truly is governed by the rise and set of the sun, and by the crowing of the local roosters.

In the foreground are some modern items including a filtered water dispenser, a thermos flask and a plastic food storage container: to keep the food hot, or perhaps cold – but definitely to keep the food away from insects.

In the background this family has furniture which proudly displays homewares for entertaining  including cushions and a set of bowls. Cooking is conducted outside over a smoky charcoal fire but the glass fronted wooden cabinet stands ready for when visitors or distant family come visiting.

I was struck by the colours of this home: the deep hues of the local timbers complemented by the reds and pinks of the cushions and the Buddhist shrine that hangs above all proceedings, as it does in Cambodian society. Elsewhere there are photos, a precious commodity in rural areas, and these bring ever-present those members of the family who now reside in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Religion and family.

Many young working aged people leave the countryside in search of work in the city, and their living conditions – compared to this rural home – are brutal by comparison. Factory workers in Phnom Penh often live 8 to a room; a cramped concrete box. Come New Year, or Pchum Ben in October, when families and individuals return to their homelands to celebrate, how they must miss the warmth and memories imbued in the country homes such as I’ve pictured here. How they must feel torn between new Cambodia with its cashflow and sacrifice, and the old Cambodia – cash poor, but with an aggregate of love, of memories and solid core values.

For a look inside another simpler home (again, I asked permission) click here.

The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

Interior study – rural Cambodia

Interior study - rural Cambodia

Today I’m writing an article for a New Zealand magazine: Renovate – and of course the focus of the magazine is on how we express ourselves through our homes. Those drapes, those architect-designed features. In this photo I took while visiting a family in rural Cambodia I was captivated by the simplicity of the home. How much do we really need in our lives? The family works hard, growing rice, but apart from cooking utensils and clothes there were few keepsakes or possession used to define their lives. I’m not sure if, as a westerner, I’m guilty of romanticising poverty, but it struck me that the simplicity I saw in these homes was a reflection of lives not defined by poverty so much as by the rhythm of the rural day. I was reminded of the small building footprint of the home my father was raised in, in rural New Zealand.

For a look inside another home (I asked permission) click here.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

One of the standing jokes I have with the SOC students in Cambodia is how I mysteriously lost two toes on my right foot. I offer all kinds of explanations (tigers, sharks, crocodiles) but none of the students ever believe me. “You lie!” they laugh at  me. “Tell us what really happened.”

One day I met the parents of one of the students – on the left – and his father showed me the scars he suffered as a 16 year old when Pol Pot came to power. A bullet wound had fractured his wrist, while sniper fire had ripped a scar across a calf muscle. And even his right foot bore the marks of the conflict – a landmine I think – because his big toe was missing. The student and his friends urged me to show his dad my foot – so I took off my sandal and revealed my own tragic right foot. The two of us men laughed in recognition (he’s almost the same age as me) then we stopped laughing as if on cue. Clouds gathered over our cross-cultural “snap!” moment. They were the clouds of war, and of terror and of bitter memories. On the surface our wounds were similar, but mine were superficial, while his went right back to his heart.

The FaceBook in the paddy field. A journey through time to Kampong Kdei.

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The photo above shows one of the new sponsored boys at the children’s home supported by my friend Savong’s organisation: SOC. The main objective of the organisation is to provide free education to students in order that they reach their academic and vocational potential. The language school was always the primary activity, but since 2008 Savong has provided a home for students whose parents are unable to support their children through school. Just recently 7 new students asked for such housing assistance.

Asked for? One of the boys, Mouencheat had found us via the family cellphone which in Cambodia is cheap enough ($20 something US dollars) but also smart enough that he was able to FaceBook us to make initial contact while he stood in a rice paddy during planting season. I’ve documented Mouencheat’s story elsewhere; how after he contacted me I asked Savong to make the trek out to the village, 40 kms away, and to interview the family. Circumstances were tough for the mother and we found a kind sponsor in Singapore, Nicholas, to provide the educational support.

Two things happened. While Mouencheat was finishing off his academic year at his local high school, he told a few friends about what he had tapped into. A few of his friends also needed help.

Meanwhile Savong considered where the best academic help might be found for this diligent “Gang of Seven.”  Back in Bakong where the SOC has its home, the local High School (now renamed the Han Sen Bakong High School – clearly a flagship for Cambodia’s Prime Minister) as well as Savong’s School with its scholarships to University are both going from strength to strength. I’m guessing; but I doubt if there are too many rural districts in Cambodia as well served educationally.

So in the circumstances Savong discussed with the families about the students transferring to the SOC in Bakong for the new academic year. They did this willingly and so far, just a few weeks after moving, the students have settled in easily.

Last weekend I joined these students to visit their parents in Kampong Kdei, a journey we made in a seated pick-up truck. Between the students, their SOC friends, two drivers as well as volunteer Alex and myself we numbered at least 20: pretty standard in Cambodia.

We took off in the morning and headed East along Number 6 Highway which links Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to visit the parents and families one by one. The photo above comes from the first visit. We sat inside the one room farmhouse and what you see in the photo is pretty much all there is.

With the son’s help translating, I learned of their family livelihood – rice farming and of the mother’s hopes, beyond anything else that her children might get a proper education. I asked if life for her would be harder without her son home to assist, but she just repeated her belief that the children’s education comes first.

In fact she hoped that next year the SOC would be able to help her 15 year-old daughter as well. That’s the girl’s study area below.

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What I was most conscious of on our journey was the sense that time and progress palpably slip backwards the further one travels from the cities. Kampong Kdei is the Cambodia I saw 10 years ago. Progress has not reached even this 40 km distance in that time. What we’re offering by bringing their children within reach of Siem Reap is an opportunity to go to University (give it two years: the students are in Grade 10). Between Mouencheat’s use of the internet, and our NGO we’ve helped speed up progress.

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The boy’s mother was very generous – as were the parents of each student. We were plied with fresh coconuts, the milk tasting as sweet as dessert wine, and graciously treated. It was extremely humbling, but I am glad of this journey because it highlighted the importance placed on education. We owe it to these seven families, as well as those others we serve, to do our very very best to support them.

If you’d like to be a sponsor or want further details, please contact me. duncan@kudos-dynamics.com