Today was my favorite day out of the last 58 days.
With a guide and driver from Beyond Unique Experiences, we spent the day with an improverished Cambodian family in the village of Kompheim about 9 miles outside of Siem Reap. You don’t have to go very far from the tourism center of Cambodia to find real life struggles.
Beyond has a partnership with this village. The village organizer identifies families in need. Beyond gives the host families a small payment and contributes a larger payment to the village fund for projects like water filters and water wells. In addition, tourists work with the families to complete needed projects.
Travel Tip 44: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Many travel destinations have one-day volunteer opportunities for tourists. Seek out socially-responsible tour companies. While it may seem odd to pay to work, the rewards are immense.
We spent the day with Ame, a married mother with four children, ranging in age from 10 to 18 years old. The family lives in a two-room stilted hut with palm leaf walls and a tin roof. (Beyond provided the roof as part of a previous project.) Today, we helped her make additional palm leaf panels to complete the walls for her kitchen building. We made13 panels; she needs another 200 or so.
From Nathan: Even though it seemed like I was slow, I beat Aidan, Mom, and Dad by constructing one more panel than them.
We also watched the guide prepare a special meal for the family. It consisted of herbs (garlic, ginger, lemongrass), red chillies, fish paste (fermented bones and guts, plus salt), and winged red ants. Yep, ants. Yes, to be polite, we (Shellie, Neerav, and Aidan) tasted it… but very, very little. Needless to say, we won’t be having it again!
In addition to interacting with the non-English speaking family and their hard-to-win-over baby nephew (I finally did win him over!), we had a very good conversation with the guide and driver. You truly have to feel for the Cambodians. In addition to a horrid recent past, they have a corrupt ruling government. Just a few days ago, Cambodians voted in an election for the Prime Minister. The incumbent Hun Sen “won” again. (He’s been in power for 28 years.) However, there’s evidence of widespread election fraud. No matter how hard the Cambodian people try, they can’t seem to rid themselves of this man who no longer has their best interests at heart. It’s a sentiment that we’ve heard over and over again from Cambodians that we’ve talked to.
Before leaving, each of us planted a fruit tree for the family, provided by Beyond. The mango trees will yield fruit in four years; the rambutan tree in seven. We pray that this family’s situation will improve by then.
From Nathan: After saying goodbye, we went for a walking tour of the village. In looking around, I saw that there was great inequality. Some families had two big floors, concrete walls, and stairs. Our family had a tin roof and walls made out of leaves. I felt bad for them, because they had so little, and others had so much.
From Aidan: I was shocked at how some people in their village could have so much, and some could have close to nothing.
Beyond also has initiated an ingenious program. Knowing that trash is an eyesore in Cambodia, Beyond rewards families for returning plastic bottles filled with trash. Collect 12 bottles, you get 1 kg of rice; collect 1000 bottles, you get a second-hand bike. Beyond has used the bottles to build three buildings (see photos) for English classes and vocational training for women.
Oh, the pig… to show our appreciation to the family and to hopefully supplement their income, we bought them a pig. For $45, it seemed like a good investment. What we got out of today was worth far more than that.
To learn more about how people live in rural Cambodia, click on the photos and read the captions.
Several families work together in one family’s field.
The rice grows in one field for 2 weeks. Then it is uprooted and replanted – shoot by shoot – in another field for 2 months. This allows the rice more room to grow.
Neerav and Aidan climb into their oxen cart.
Aidan and Neerav riding Cambodian style
The whip isn’t used to strike the animals but instead keep away the pesky flies.
Nathan and Shellie ride in their oxen cart.
The home of our host
Family’s living room/bedroom with black-and-white television
Family’s kitchen, in need of walls
Toilet and chicken house
The family’s bathroom
The family collected 1000 water bottles to earn this second-hand bicycle. More on the bottles later.
Our guide, Sokha, gives Aidan a lesson on wall panel construction.
Aidan gets to work.
Aidan has the hang of it.
Taking his job very seriously, Nathan rocks out four panels, more than anyone else.
Finally, something that Shellie does better than Neerav!
Nathan, Neerav, and Aidan work to connect the palm leaves that will be used to construct kitchen walls. The owner needs 300 panels!
Ame, the owner of this home, is married with four children, ranging from age 18 to 10.
Host’s 12-year old daughter
She was a very quiet, but hardworking girl.
This was the reaction Shellie got from our host’s 1-year old nephew. He was scared by the white skin. His name was Hay.
Host’s nephews and neighbors. The 6-year old was in charge of caring for his 1-year old brother. He was a very caring brother.
Still not to sure about Shellie…
The little boy finally sits on Shellie’s lap. Her secret weapon: food.
Visiting neighborhood girl
We attract curious neighbors. This little boy is 6 months old.
This water filtration system, supplied by at New York-based NGO, removes the rust (and bugs) from the water.
Ame is cooking rice for her family’s lunch.
These winged red ants are lunch… not kidding.
Red ants… wings and all.
Cambodians use fish paste in nearly everthing. It’s a combination of fermented fish bones and guts and salt… lots of salt.
To the fish paste, our guide Sokha adds chopped red chillies, ginger, garlic, and lemongrass.
Now Sokha adds the red ants. This dish is supposedly a special treat for the family. Wow.
Aidan with a cleaver
Shellie takes over cleaver duties.
Neerav prepares to try fish paste/red ant dish.
Neerav’s reaction to fish paste and red ants… Hmmmm, salty.
Aidan tries the fish paste/red ants dish. Nathan… not a chance.
Trying not to be impolite, Shellie tries the fish paste/red ants dish… just one small bite.
The family enjoys the fish paste/red ant lunch.
Our lunch consisted of vegetarian sandwiches wrapped in palm leaves and fresh fruit. A large banana leaf served as a tablecloth.
We couldn’t bear to eat all the fruit provided for our lunch. Instead we gave it to the family.
Neerav plants his mango tree for the family.
Neerav waters his tree.
Aidan swings the hoe. Watch out!
Aidan plants his mango tree for the family.
Aidan waters his tree.
Nathan breaks ground for his mango tree.
Nathan waters his tree.
Shellie plants her rambutan tree for the family.
Shellie waters her tree.
We hope that one day these trees will produce much fruit for the family.
We say goodbye to our gracious hosts.
In return for their hospitality and to provided them with an added income, we decide to buy the family a pig. (Not pictured: father and 3 other children)
Home of the two brother pictured earlier
Home built by Beyond Escape and visiting tourists
Another home in the community. This one belongs to what they call a Tier 3 family, i.e. wealthy by village standards.
This family was Tier 3. They had many crops and fruit trees, including banana.
Some families have livestock. Our host family did not.
Villagers offer gifts to their dead ancestors at their spirit houses.
Growing green onions in pipe
Giant cucumber-like fruit
Your can see the iron in the water that needs to be filtered.
At the village grocery store, the shopkeeper sells large, glass Pepsi bottles of gasoline for motorcyles.
Beyond Escape built these three buildings. Villagers can come to learn English for free; women can come to get vocational training (sewing).
Beyond Escape built the building out of plastic bottles. Villagers collect the bottles, fill them with trash (which is an eyesore in the village), and turn them in for extra rice (12 bottles) or a second-hand bicycle (1000 bottles). It’s ingenious.
The bottles are surrounded by chicken wire and then encased in cement to create the walls.
This wall is being built from plastic bottles.
Village children go to this government school from age 6 to 14.
When a person dies, they are cremated. Their ashes are placed in a family stupa next to the village temple.
This is the village temple. You can’t help wishing that less money was spent on the temple and more money on infrastructure for the village.
Bright green rice fields