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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 TipTravel 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.