Meet student Heak. I love this guy

I love this guy

Heak is a wonderful student at the SOC children’s home in Bakong, Cambodia near Siem Reap. Gracious, kind to other students, intelligent, helping the little ones – this photo was taken in 2011 and today he has grown taller and so have his responsibilities for it is he who drives the big tuk-tuk to the school each day, saving the students a hot dusty walk. I am convinced that he will go to University within a few years, and I wait in anticipation of what he will choose to do with his intelligence.

If you would like to know how to assist a Cambodian student through University, click here.

Prize Giving – 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Prize Giving - 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Savong in white – 2005. This was his first prize giving ceremony a director of Savong’s School. Today he has 20 times the school roll compared to 8 years ago.

The photo was taken on a film camera and developed poorly so it has the ancient Kodachrome look about it, but this scene is at Savong’s father’s house 2005 when Savong held his first prize-giving for students at his original classroom. That year the school in Bakong was currently under construction (it would open 3 months later) so this is truly an “old school” photo. The prize for the top student was a bicycle – a gesture that gave that put that student on the road to personal advancement. I wonder what happened to that student. Where is he today? I do know this: back then there were 25 in the class. Today Savong’s School has more than 500 students enrolled.

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.


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.


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.

A new policy for volunteers – designed to raise the bar


Volunteering – it isn’t about us, it’s about the support we can provide for disadvantaged students in Cambodia

One outcome of my recent meetings with Savong who heads a school and children’s home is the introduction of a minimum donation set for would-be volunteers to his organisation. This is set at $US 100 and is in-line with similar steps taken by similar NGOs in the district.

Volunteers and visitors have long been valued at these NGOs, and as Savong acknowledges – we are the lifeblood, financially, of how these NGOs operate in order to meet the running costs of teaching staff and equipment at the school, not to mention clothes, care, food and education costs of the children at the SOC Home.

But with Cambodia becoming a hotter destination, we’ve seen the rise of the “cheap” tourist who not only visits NGOs unannounced, interrupts proceedings, takes a million photos, but then after 2 hours, drives away without even making a donation – any donation. In other words they using the NGOs to provide a photo-op: they’re not there to make any difference, whatever, to the lives of the children.

As I’m keen to tell friends these days: a lot of what we can bring to these NGOs is about expertise, skills, experience and talent – volunteers bring great teaching skills to the school for example – but money is still vital to the running of these places if they are to keep developing.  And as part of our overall travel budget, what’s $100?

Other NGOs have found that the policy has lifted the overall quality of their volunteers (only the serious apply – the cheapies are put off) and, thankfully, helped with the running costs of the organisations. We hope so. The $100 rule will apply whether the visitor or visiting couple is there for one day, one week or one year. (It is not a daily rate!)

Any thoughts about this?

For more on volunteering click here.

Five things I love about Savong School – Cambodia


Savong and me. Despite appearance, I always look up to Savong because of his dedication to make his dream of free education come true. More than 500 students are enrolled at his school.


I’ve commented elsewhere that I feel Savong’s School has never been in better shape. Far from being the fragile NGO that it was in 2005, with everyone learning their way: today it is a place that has stuck to its dreams but offers a lot more than any of us imagined 8 years ago. Here are 5 things I love about the school.

1) The objectives have never changed in 8 years. Back before it was built, Savong dreamed of a school that serve rural students, would be free, would provide language and other skills that would help these students reach their employment potential. Savong has never lost that vision though in that time we have added computer education as well as support for top students to proceed to university. The dream remains the same.

2) The students are enthusiastic and hard working. Most already attend the local Bakong High School which is itself improving year by year. Yet here they are, voluntarily attending additional school because they want to.

3) The staff are positive, skilled and up-skilling themselves.

4) The top students get further support. Top students get a full scholarship that support them through the 4 years (or more) that they need to complete intermediate year followed by a three year Bachelors degree. Our sights are rising higher and higher and these students are making the most of their amazing opportunity.

5) The social interaction at the school is very positive. It starts at the top with the rapport between teachers, but it goes further: in the way that scholarships students give something back to the school – and acting as mentors for younger students. It shows in the way that students congregate before and after class – enjoying the school as a supportive place within their community.

PS. Don’t forget to follow this blog!