Cambodia – a country of contrasts and smiles

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Siem Reap, Cambodia, has been my home for the past seven years. It is a country of contrasts and smiles. The town is booming thanks to the increase in tourism; tour buses and 4x4s are everywhere. Very different from seven years ago when the only cars were taxis doing the Phnom Penh run or World Food Programme 4x4s. But step back from the main tourist area and visit villages where bicycles and motorbikes are the main form of transport and experience how many Cambodians continue to live a life that has changed little in hundreds of years.

Yes, there are mobile phones and an old TV. Many villages now have electricity, if not power comes from a car battery which is recharged in the village shop. Home is one room shared with mum, dad and four siblings, no running water or washing machines. Shopping is a daily chore as no one has a fridge, protein is the fish you catch, the chicken you rear or her eggs. Crickets and frogs in season or the neighbour’s pig. The seasons and crops dominate daily life.

  • …the houses line the road, forming a ribbon between the rice paddies and the constant stream of buses, trucks and cars.

I travel down to Phnom Penh by bus passing through villages where the houses line the road, forming a ribbon between the rice paddies and the constant stream of buses, trucks and cars. It’s late November, harvest time, each house has a sheet covered in rice grains drying on the road side and the hay stack ready to feed the cows when the grass ceases to grow. Chickens peck at the rice, granny shoos them off with a broom. Children cycle to school, a sea of white blouses and blue skirts. It never ceases to amaze me how smart the young people manage to look when they go to school. At times there is a glimpse of the mighty Tonle Sap, the largest fresh water lake in Asia, the annual raise and fall carries nutrients which fertilise the soil. In the villages surrounding the lake life is dominated by the changing water levels. In one village near my home the families abandon their homes and move into the pagoda when the lake is at it’s highest.

What did you do last week? How was your commute to work? My commute to work is often on my little blue scooter, bought for me as a Christmas present six years ago and I spent agonising hours, sometimes in tears, learning to ride it. Nightmares of my last solo motor bike (well moped) experience were recurring. I should have negotiated a right-hand bend, but instead I went head first into a hedge – much to the amusement of my mother who was following me. I was 17! Now I no longer put my foot down when turning right and enjoy my ride to work passing farmers ploughing fields, harvesting and drying rice, fishermen enjoying the bounty the flood waters bring. These scenes are dotted with skinny white cows, grazing water buffalo and little white egrets. Very different from the Golden Bypass between Gloucester and Cheltenham.

I run a community centre – Grace House, just outside Siem Reap, but I could be in a different world from the tourist centre. The families we help live in houses made from palm leaves and wood, cooking is over a charcoal fire and water is drawn from a well. The toilet is an outhouse, sometimes shared by several families. Life is hard but you are always greeted by smiles. The children, eager to learn, ride to Grace House five days a week to learn English, their step up from a life of subsistence farming or fishing. We provide vocational training courses in computer skills, electricians and weaving. The graduates from the electricians course spend an additional two years with us “on the job” training in our social enterprise Sparkies. The aim is to provide services to European standards and, hopefully, prevent the frequent fires which claim so many local lives. The weaving project is a collaboration with another NGO – the Green Gecko Project. The women learn to weave natural fibres into beautiful bags which are sold locally or exported. This provides the women with a steady income, plus the benefits of social work support and education in parenting and health issues. Domestic violence is often a part of these women’s lives and our social workers empower them to stand up for themselves.

Community development and inclusion is our aim, so a day centre provides education and therapies to children with disabilities. It is a happy environment with art, music and plenty of laughter. Our transitional home provides respite and a stepping stone from orphanage care to family based care for disabled children. We are the only facility in Siem Reap province offering specialist care.

I love this country, its friendly people always helpful and smiling. Yes, there are scams, but this is Asia and in Cambodia its done with a smile. For every scam there are 50 genuine offers of help. I love the drive of this generation who want to change their country for the better and put the terrors of the past behind. I am very honoured to be a very small part in giving these young people a hand up and empowering them to succeed.

You can learn more about Grace House Community Centre and the work they do on their website or on Facebook

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