Alex – farewell for now


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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Each night I dream of Cambodia


Today I exist in two places at once. Right now I’m in my New Zealand office designing a questionnaire but at the same moment I’m in Cambodia and thinking about one of the scholarship students who lost her brother, through sickness, this week. The tragedy has pulled me back to Bakong and I wish I could be at the school staff meeting today to extend my condolences.

What I experience, a deep sense of living in alternative states is not uncommon for visitors to Cambodia. I’ve met many others whose dreams each night take them to Cambodia and the people they have met there. I’m not alone in my experience, back in 2004, of returning “home” to Cambodia even though I had never before set foot there. What is it about Cambodia that exerts this spell?

I put the presence of Cambodia deep within my subconscious down to the problems and riddles that the nation perplexes us with. How can such gorgeous people have turned in on themselves during the Pol Pot years? How could this have happened?  To what extent did the politics of our western countries play a role in this? To what extent were we complicit in this tragedy?

And today’s problems worry me each night. How can we assist more young Cambodians? What can I do better?

For sure, my feeling of returning home in 2004 came – I’m positive – from growing up with South East Asia imprinted, thanks to the US/Vietnam war, on our TV screens. Those paddy fields and sugar-palms trees were immediately familiar.

But the dreams I harbour most nights? They come from a country that faces new troubles and challenges ahead.  By nature I’m a puzzle solver, and every night I wrestle, always unsuccessfully, with the questions facing modern Cambodia.

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.

Volunteering at a Cambodian Orphanage?

This article is copied from Trip Advisor – though actually I wrote it and it has been reviewed and positively commented on by others. It was written to encourage potential volunteers to think about the issues before they turn up to “help the children” in Cambodia.  In 2011-2012 there was orchestrated bad-press towards orphanages; used to help push the Cambodian Government to take steps to clean up the local scene.


Around Siem Reap there are many orphanages and many visitors of the 2 million who come through the town each year feel that they would like to make a difference. What’s the best strategy? How does one know the orphanage is above board? Is it even a wise thing to do – or is visiting an orphanage a morally dubious activity that perpetuates poverty?

First, be very clear that most children (at least 75% or more) in Cambodian orphanages are not strictly orphans: they may have one or both parent – but these families are simply unable to provide the food and care that the children need. Without any government safety net, the community itself has to come up with its own solutions to assist these children.

One option for a parent is to literally sell their children – generally to a family who might put that child to work in a cafe or restaurant. That child will get food and roof over their head – love even – though it is likely they won’t get an education.

The other option is to place the child at one of a network of orphanages. By and large these are under-resourced, but actually a lot better environment for the child than their actual home. Bear in mind that Siem Reap province is, according to Cambodian Government figures, the second poorest region in the nation. (The town is comparacitvely wealthy – but even here there is a conspicuous income gap.)  In the province, around 30% of families are below the poverty line which is set at $US30 income per month.

So that is the context and reason for so many orphanages.

They are a legitmate response to a big social problem. However some orphanages are more legitimate than others. To provide a measure of protection for the children, the Cambodian Government has a licensing system, and to qualify and be registered local orphanages need fulfill a range of conditions – for example with clean pump water, and a demonstrable level of resources – the standard of proof being that the organisation has $US5,000 in their bank account at the time of registration.

In 2013 the Government has started tightening up protocols and standards and introducing a lot more paperwork – for example to develop clearer responsibilities on the part of the orphanage.  Good hearts are one thing – but these organisations need good management, good systems.

How can visitors assist?

Volunteers are less useful than they used to be, and had better be ready to do a lot more than simply turn up, take photos and report their experience to thier friends on FaceBook.

Think seriously about what you can offer. Volunteers can assist through a range of activities including teaching, involving children in play or sport activities, or getting involved in practical projects. There are many good centres and volunteers have carried out projects as diverse as building a new toilet block, assisting by building a fish pond for the orphanage to raise their own food, planting fruit trees, building furniture, teaching, putting up a much loved and used volleyball net, and assisting with the website. In other words whatever skill set you have – any orphanage may find a way to employ you.

Many NGOs and experienced volunteers will tell you that to make a worthwhile contribution time-wise, you need to spend several weeks (some say more than 6 months) with the project. Then, and only then can you make a true difference.

How can you be sure it is a legitimate project?

Frankly there have been stories of some unscrupulous people using poor children as a front – a way to get tourist dollars. To make sure, ask for proof of the organization’s registration. If they are not registered with the Government then steer clear.

A better step is to do your homework first and to conduct a web search, contact the organisations and contact previous volunteers and ask them about their impressions – both upside and downside.

And don’t forget, the orphanage wants to be sure YOU are legitimate also. There have been cases of paedophiles turning up to volunteer in some places, and the local orphanage directors are well aware of the potential problem. Increasingly volunteers will be asked to present a Police clearance form from their own country, or similar verification. You should also bring a copy of your passport ID when you volunteer, and expect to be accompanied (not in a bad way) by other local adults. Try not to put yourself in a compromising position either – for example it is better to volunteer with a friend or partner.

Make a donation.

One of the truly disappointing things a tourist can do is turn up, spend a short while, get a photo of themselves with the children, and then move on without leaving even a donation. This happens, especially at orphanges near the temples or the town. Look: be serious – if you truly wish to make a difference, then give seriously.  It takes $32 to feed a child for a month – then give 3 or 6 or 12 months worth. Go with the staff and buy sacks of rice.

NGO directors discuss these issues frequently, and one strategy many are adopting is to welcome volunteers (preferably those who can stay more than a few weeks) but also to charge a minimum donation. This is to discourage any inconsiderate “Facebook Volunteers” who turn up, take photos, disrupt routines and give nothing in return.

Even if your chosen NGO doesn’t do this; before you visit, work out a fair donation – one you’re comfortable with – and discuss that with the the orphanage director. Ask, “I’d like to assist you with a $xx donation – how will that be spent? What do you need?” Generally it is easier to raise and set expectations up front rather than have that awkward feeling where the director doesn’t wish to feel greedy and meanwhile you’re wondering “when’s a good moment to talk about money?” Another tip would be, give just a little more than you promised. That way everyone gains face.

If you wish to be careful that the money goes to help the children, a simple strategy is to suggest that you’d like to buy $xx of books or stationery (or whatever is needed) and would the director llike to come shopping with you to buy this?

What the children need.

Budgets will vary depending on the size and conditions of each orphanage, but the budgets worked out at one centre in 2010 might be a guideline.

Food and shelter for each child. $US32 per month – about a dollar a day. That covers food, petrol for the generator, staff.

Education for the child. $US15+ per month. Local primary and secondary schools now seem to charge for children to attend, so education is no longer free. This, of course, will make a big difference to the child’s future.

When you discuss needs with an orphanage, keep an eye out. Do those kids need new clothes? Is there a classroom and is it equipped? Are there books, toys or volleyballs?  Do the beds – the children sleep many to a room – have mosquito nets?

Maintain your connection.

Visiting and volunteering for a few days is a very good experience but ought to be part of something more serious. Remember, these orphanages are being run for the sake of the children, not for the sake of visitors seeking a “third world moment.”  One thing that you might consider doing is – if you have a good experience, and feel very comfortable with what you’ve seen, maintain contact – for example by sponsoring a child or sending a regular donation. A serious commitment will reward you.

Arguments against visiting orphanages.

There has been increasing press in the last 5 years arguing against the support of orphanages. One argument; that since these children have parents, then isn’t it better to support the families?

A second argument is that short term visits by volunteers simply destabilise the home life of the children who need structure, rather than a parade of strangers coming and going and taking their photos. (Some orphanages now ban cameras.)

A third argument is that by supporting orphanages one is supporting a system of human trafficking – whereby unscrupulous directors get an income stream through having the lure of poor children.In some instances this has been the case.

  1. In my view support for families is always best however this comes back to employment, having a social welfare safety-net (many children have a solo-mother who cannot cope by herself,) and dealing with the endemic social justice challenges facing Cambodia. In the meantime there is a long tradition in Cambodia of sending children from families where there is hardship, to monasteries.
  2. In terms of the destabilising effects of having visitors, this is best countered by having a good well structured home for the children that is not overly visitor dependent. It also comes with having good rules around what visitors can or cannot do. Are they here to teach for example: then what is destabilising about that?
  3. The human trafficking argument has been dealt with largely by the registration of orphanages and the mandatory requirement to have clear documentation that demonstrates the relationship between the orphanage and their family of the child. This has been a welcome development at the SOC.

For those considering a stint of volunteering, the three key questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Is the institution you are visiting truly geared for the benefit of the children (and their families?)
  • Are you, as a visitor, truly committed to make a permanent and positive long term difference to at least one child?
  • Three: would you be prepared to do this and leave your camera behind? Are your motives about you? Or about the children?

 See also:

  1. A link showing holidays in Cambodia 2014
  2. Five things I love about Savong’s School – Cambodia

An ethics question for volunteers.


Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.