Friday, July 30, 2010

Child's Dream - Cambodia

We were lucky enough to be invited on a 2-day tour of school projects that are sponsored by Child’s Dream – an aid organisation founded by 2 young Swiss bankers in 2003, who left their lucrative careers and decided to help destitute children in SE Asia. Whilst the head office is in Chiang Mai, Thailand they also have a locally staffed regional office in Siem Reap, Cambodia which is where we started from. Firstly we had an interesting talk with the regional director who had first-hand experience from the Khmer Rouge era and then we set off with 2 staff members to visit the project sites.

It was a great opportunity for us as we saw first-hand how the organisation works with the communities to ensure the success of the projects. Child's Dream staff visit each site and establish the viability of partnering with the village before deciding to fund a school building. Many factors are taken into consideration such as class size, student population, existing or nearby facilities and water resources. Probably the biggest criteria though is village involvement – unless the village demonstrates a real commitment to the project, involving project management, funds and resources, the project will not likely be approved.

The 10 sites we visited were quite a mix with some being initial visits, some with construction underway and we even got to see some completed projects. Many of the sites being proposed were heart-breaking to see as the existing facilities were so dangerous that we felt unsafe even going inside. Dirt floors, scraps of blackboard and rotting, termite infested timbers were all these children had – hardly a good environment for learning. The completed schools were in stark contrast however with bright, airy and colourful rooms.

One of the most special moments in Cambodia occurred at one of the poorest villages during a meeting - we had wandered off to take some photos. We sat under the shade of a tree on some benches and a group of kids came and sat with us. In about 15 minutes these kids, all under the age of 10 had taught us how to count to 1000 in Khmer with lots of laughter along the way. This experience highlighted to us that it is not intelligence that will hold these children back, but opportunity.

Note: This was just our first experience with Child’s Dream, we have since met with the founders in Thailand, and plan to visit their Laos operations in September. But more about this in later blogs....

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Master Chef

Travelling for so long, it’s been a while since we’ve been in the kitchen, so we decided to try something new and exciting in Siem Reap – a Khmer cooking class.


Entrees: Fried Chicken Spring Rolls & Mango n’ Chicken Salad

Main: Fish Amok & Beef Khmer Curry

Dessert: Pumpkin Sago & Banana Sago

Brad definitely took the winning title with his delicious spring rolls, and yummy sweet chilli sauce. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours, and now we have quite a repertoire of international recipes to bring back home.

After stuffing ourselves silly on our first own-cooked meal since leaving the orphanage, we splurged ($2 ea) on ½ hr foot massages which I found excruciatingly painful, whereas Brad promptly fell asleep and had to be woken once it was over.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


This organization is a small, US-funded NGO that began after an American couple visited Cambodia and saw first-hand the level of poverty in the country. After forming Trailblazers in 2005 they currently spend their time equally in Cambodia and their home state of Wyoming. They are currently in the states and we met with the local director to discuss their operations.

The organization has 4 main areas in which they assist Cambodia’s poor: Water, Education, Agriculture and Business. The director stressed that all their work is done with much consultation with expert researchers, local communities and where applicable, the Cambodian government agencies. The emphasis on all their projects is long-term sustainability, they educate and involve the communities to ensure ownership and independence.

We were given a tour of their workshop and saw how bio-sand filters were constructed – these filters remove 98% of bacteria in the water and are cheap to construct, easy to maintain and last for years. They also do agricultural research on behalf of villages, identifying high-yield seeds and fertilizers suitable for Cambodian conditions in addition to producing wells, fertilizer and irrigation systems.

All the technologies produced by Trailblazers are sold to the villagers at 1%-5% of their actual cost and the money raised is then used to seed village funds which offer micro-loans to poor families. They also are involved in constructing school buildings and developing income-generation projects such as sewing and beauty product enterprises.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Party Central

4 hours south of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s premier sea-side resort town. It’s pretty laid back, nice and cheap, and a great place to relax. So after arriving I spent 3 days in bed – unfortunately not by my own choosing.

Socialite Brad took my bed ridden state as a great opportunity to be out to all hours, soaking in the party atmosphere, and watching the World Cup finals (but I think he’s started to realize he’s not as young as he used to be). All in all Sihanoukville seems like a great place to have some time out, even though we didn’t get to enjoy it as much as we would have liked, so we’ll definitely have to visit again next time we’re in Cambodia.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Village Life

As is our modus operandi we found ALWS (Australian Lutheran World Service) through Google and by chance entered a dialogue with a woman in Adelaide. Over a series of days and possibly weeks, she contacted various field offices in SE Asia and eventually put us in contact with a partner in Phnom Penh. LWF (Lutheran World Federation - Cambodia) is currently in a transition towards local governance and will be a fully Cambodian entity in 2011. We met with the Deputy Director and were whisked away to a village about an hour away from Phnom Penh.

It didn’t take long to leave the modern city and enter rural areas where the infrastructure is severely lacking or simply non-existent. We were going to visit the Prachum Ang village in the Kandal province, South East of Phnom Penh. This village is where LWF had spent 10 years working with the community on a number of different levels and were now no longer required as the village had reached the point of self-sustaining management. Miriam and I were surprised and a little embarrassed when we arrived to find ourselves greeted warmly by the village council and seated ceremoniously at the head table. Even now, I’m still a little unsure whether the whole meeting was for our benefit or they had planned a visit previously and we were tagging along.

Various villagers told of the development of the village since LWF arrived a decade ago and it was diligently translated for us. 10 years ago the village was very poor. It had suffered under the civil war and there was no infrastructure. Illnesses were prevalent in the area and farming was difficult as there was not enough water during the dry season. LWF, along with other organizations helped initially by digging wells and latrines which reduced the sicknesses in the village. LWF then helped form a village council by holding elections amongst the 150 families. They educated the council on human rights principles, health practices, efficient farming techniques and formed a village bank.

The village bank is managed by 3 of the village council members who are given training in how to manage it. Initially LWF provided seed grants of US$30 to those villagers that could demonstrate savings of 12.5 cents per week for 8 weeks and presented realistic proposals for the use of the money and repayment. The loans were charged interest at 3% a month and generally were for 6 months. The majority of these loans were used for agriculture & animal husbandry. The capital and interest returned to the bank is then recycled to increase both the principal loaned and number of loans. Since its inception the bank has doubled the number of members, branched into emergency loans and now controls US$10,000 – more than 10 times the initial grant! This finance acts as a bridge to more formal loans with accredited micro-loan organizations and allows impoverished to avoid loan-sharks that charge crippling rates.

The village council is also educated in how to apply for various government and NGO grants and they are now empowered enough to manage their own future in a democratic and confident manner. This was demonstrated when the village, unprompted by external influence, formally applied for an LWF village sponsorship grant for an irrigation project they had in mind. The proposal was successful and the village council told us with great pride that they stipulated to the contractor that local labour was to be used and then instructed the labourers to take ownership of the project and make sure it was done properly – with a grin one council member even told us he instructed the labourers to put a bit extra cement in to make sure it was strong! We went and looked at the project and there was a sense of accomplishment and pride in what had been achieved and the farms are now able to produce 2-3 crops per year instead of 1.

We visited a woman who had arrived in the area from a refugee camp with nothing and with the help of the village bank was able to take loans to build a mini empire of a quarter-acre block, 7 cows and a large family! We asked what her hope for the future was and she replied “To provide for my children and marry the last 2 off!”. LWF encourage women to take part in the leadership by establishing a gender quota system in the village bank and council structures.

This was our first village visit and we were impressed at the level of involvement LWF had in the past and even more so that it was no longer necessary. The biggest factor in all of this was the education and empowerment of the village council who shared this with the rest of the village. In the early days, the village council members were taken to other villages to see the concepts in action – now the village sets an example for others to follow and regularly receives visits from nearby villages.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Phnom Penh

We were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for 12 days and it was an interesting, horrific, fun, sad and educational time for us both. I think it is only travel that can bring so many emotions out in such a short time.

Phnom Penh was a surprise to us both – it is a modern city with wide, scooter-filled streets, shopping malls, 24-hour electricity (we’re still not used to this!) and more NGO’s and westerners than you can poke a bunch of sticks at. The foreign-fuelled riverfront area is a good place to go at night with plenty of interesting people to meet and share the highs and more highs of World Cup football with the German and Dutch travellers we befriended. It’s a cheap place to stay – only $6/night and meals+drinks are costing about $5-10. This fits into our budget, especially since we expect things to be cheaper as we move away from the capital.

We’ve visited the usual tourist spots, eg. the Palace & Silver Pagoda complex, the Russian & Central Markets, seen an elephant walk down the street etc. It’s not been a great place to meet locals – the only people we have spoken with are tourism-related which doesn’t usually make for the best conversations.

Unfortunately the main focus for tourists in Phnom Penh is the gruesome genocide museum and nearby killing fields from the Khmer Rouge period. For us, visiting these testaments to a brutal period in Cambodia’s history made us very heavy of heart. The fact that these events occurred during our lifetime somehow made them more real to us. Pol Pot and his cronies were ruthless in their desire to eradicate Cambodia of foreign influence and ordered the systematic killing of anyone with ties to the toppled government, academics, artisans and staggeringly even those with glasses were considered a threat!

No one knows for sure how many were killed between 1975-1979 but it is widely believed to be around the 1.5 million mark. This figure is truly unimaginable when face to face with a 10 metre high tower filled with more than 5,000 skulls of victims representing only a third of a percent of those who died...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Phnom Penh Projects

Our visits with aid organisations are going well – sometimes they are a little too spaced out and weather got in the way of one meeting but we’re trying hard to visit as many different types of organisations as we can. Below are some of the places we’ve had contact with whilst in Phnom Penh. The information is not at all comprehensive; if you want more information please visit their respective websites

New Future for Children is an orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh with around 60 children ranging from 5-20 years old. Our introduction to the place was for a special evening event with dancing, magic and an art show (they sold 2 paintings!) and we visited a second time to get a bit more idea about the organisation. We met an American volunteer who has worked there for 3 years and spent quite a bit of time with him discussing the difficulties faced there and what plans they have for the future. As a result, Brad now has a small bit of computing work to do in his spare time.

A partnership between the Canadian government, Samaritan’s Purse and Hagar is introducing Bio-Sand Filters to rural areas in Cambodia. We met 3 young Canadian interns that were involved in different aspects of this project and they were all very enthusiastic about their 5-month stay in Cambodia. Part of my training with Australian Army Engineers was operating water purification units and I did a bit more research into the BSF technology. Basically it is a concrete tube with sand in it that filters out evil contaminants (I’m not a biologist) through physical (the sand stops the evil bugs) and biological means (there’s bugs in the sand that eat the evil bugs). Each unit costs about $50 and provides enough clean water for a family. It’s a pretty cool idea so we’re trying to organise a meeting with some water experts to learn more about the device and how successfully it can be deployed.

Habitat for Humanity has a branch in Cambodia and an American staff member met with us to brief us on the type of project work they are involved in. They are well-known internationally for their house building projects but some things we learnt whilst visiting is their approach is not to “give” the house away but donate much of the labour in conjunction with a 5 year, interest free loan. This gives the family a sense of ownership and “empowerment” as well as educating them about budgeting and finance. Habitat are also moving into income generation projects such as poultry farming – a project that just so happens to be sponsored by a friend’s church in Adelaide!

We met with a fellow Adelaidean yesterday who has spent 4 years living with his wife (and 2 year old daughter!) in a slum area of Phnom Penh and working with TASK, a local-based NGO supported by TEAR Australia and Servants in Asia. This organisation helps the urban poor in Phnom Penh with a range of services including HIV/AIDS education and support, sanitation projects and health initiatives. Because the Australian family slept, ate and related within the community they were helping, it made them acutely aware of the issues faced the group – it was pretty humbling to hear about some of the issues they’ve faced and the circumstances they were living in.