NEWSLETTER NUMBER SIX:
The major donations
The first trip: to
Anlong Veng and Trapeang Prasat.
This took a six
bone-rattling hours to travel 130kms. The dirt track has huge potholes that
have to be constantly avoided and driven around. The road had been washed
away at one section. A couple of vehicles had tried to cross, but got stuck
in the middle causing a traffic jam on the north and south side. A swarm of
young guys, up to their waist in water, were trying to push the stranded
vehicles to one side so other traffic could attempt to cross. The four wheel
drive jeep that I was traveling in had no problems in getting through the
water. How do you like this fact?
My jeep had a roll bar but no seat belts!
After an eventful drive, I
arrived at the school to see at least a thousand people waiting in the heat,
in front of a stage set with cloth covered tables set with flowers, bottled
water and microphones… Behind this was a banner written in Khmer with one
English sentence thanking the people of Australia. I was completely
overwhelmed. I hadn’t expected anything like that. I also knew there were
too many people for the amount of provisions I had.
After a lot of Khmer
speeches, presumably welcoming me, gestures were made to me to address the
swelling crowd. I simply wasn’t prepared for all the formalities and
speeches. Sheer emotion provided me with the words, mostly apologizing for
keeping them waiting in the hot sun since early in the morning.
had been previously told
that designated families would be given supplies, instead they wanted me to
actually hand out clothes and toys. I reluctantly started, knowing there
wasn’t enough. After an hour of very hot hard work, I asked some of the
organizers to take over.
I’ll never forget the looks
on the faces of the parents who didn’t receive anything. I had the feeling
that the whole exercise was too big for me to handle. Knowing I was upset,
my friends told me it was a step in the right direction just knowing that
other people care about their difficulties and concentrate on helping a few
people as I couldn’t help everyone.
When I was presented with
gifts, I really struggled to contain my emotions. It was all too much for me
to cope with especially when I learnt that some families had walked for
several days hoping to acquire new clothes.
As a contrast; Driving
away from the school, I noticed a kick boxing match in progress. The guard
let me through the fenced in enclosure. Everything stopped when I walked in.
All the spectators looked at me in amazement, smiled and started waving and
laughing. They didn’t expect to see a westerner at their bout, certainly not
a female in such a remote spot.
crowd parted, a blue plastic chair brought to ringside, boxers and referee
looked at me and I gestured to them to continue. What a surreal situation to
be in. Instead of watching the boxers, the spectators looked at me. I would
have liked to watch the whole bout, but thought that I was distracting
everyone, so I left. Outside, I gave lollies to a few children, within
minutes more and more arrived. I kept giving out lollies and got some
Unaccustomed to the sight
of western tourists, a few of the toddlers cried in terror at the sight of
me and ran away. Some of the mothers kept touching and stroking my upper
arms. They were admiring my arms because they are fat and not wrinkled
through starvation. This was to happen many times in the poor rural areas.
I was lucky enough to
notice a new guesthouse had just opened so I checked in there. [US $4.00 or
$5 with sheets] I guess I’m paranoid about catching malaria, so I lit
mosquito coils and sprayed my room so much, I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t wait for a
shower even though it was a cold water, communal bathroom with a squat
toilet. This was huge improvement on my last visit where the shower was a
bowl of water and stepping stones, in the open air, at the back of my
sleeping quarters, on the top of a Khmer Rouge controlled mountain.
The next day was a repeat
performance. I arrived at Trapeang
Prasat at 8.45 to find a crowd of 500-600 people waiting, all the boxes
unloaded and again, cloth covered tables with flowers, water and
the previous experience, I was emphatic that I wouldn’t give out the
I had packed eleven boxes for individual disadvantaged children containing
clothes, toys, stationery and books. The recipients had been selected back
in Siem Reap. I was asked to present three children with these boxes. That
done, I reluctantly kept on unpacking boxes and handing toys out. It was
easier and better controlled than Anlong Veng, maybe because there were less
people. Again, thank you speeches and a thank you gift. Again, very
embarrassing that these people should give me a gift.
I was invited to sign the
visitors book and noticed I was following in the steps of people I had been
in contact with. I was told that people in this area are desperate for
mosquito nets and I should include them on future visits……….. I was very
aware of being in a malaria area and felt uncomfortable being outside after
On the previous day I had
been taken to a small thatched house on stilts in the jungle to meet a land
mine victim. The lady had lost her leg a few years ago, her husband had
malaria and was too sick to work. They and their three children were very
poor. I discreetly passed the lady $5 and her husband a packet of
cigarettes. [Rolled, pre-packed cigarettes are an unknown luxury ].
A day later, I learnt the
lady had gone to town to use some of the money to buy medication for her
sick baby. It’s sad that such a small amount of money can make a difference
to the health of a baby.
ANOTHER SMALL STORY
After driving for an hour
on the return trip to Siem Reap, I noticed a saffron-robed monk walking
very slowly. I could see that he was struggling under the weight of his
packages. I asked if it was culturally acceptable for a foreigner to offer a
lift to a monk. When told it was OK, I asked to stop the jeep, which by
this time had driven about 100m past the monk.
ran back and gestured my intentions to the monk. I took his begging bowls
off him, which were so heavy that I staggered under the weight. I put them
into the jeep and ran back for his worldly possessions wrapped in a saffron
cloth. I put these in the jeep and shifted the ice-chest and luggage over to
make room for him.
By this time he had
staggered up to the jeep and clambered in the back. I offered him an iced
bottle of water which he drank very quickly. He seemed exhausted and after
refusing food because it was past noon, he fell asleep.
is his story:
He was going to Siem Reap
to visit his friend. He had been walking barefoot and carrying his heavy
load from Preah Vihear for four days. He had taken a short cut through the
jungle and slept there at night. When he emerged, horrified villagers
informed him that he had walked through a minefield! He is 24 yrs old with
an amazing face, very strong, yet gentle and intelligent with perceptive
I think he was suffering
from dehydration as he drank three bottles of water, refused food and
cigarettes but accepted lollies. After a short sleep, he seemed to come
alive. Through the interpreter, I jokingly invited him to our little party
at Angkor Thom the following week. To my surprise, he changed his plans and
said he would stay at the Angkor Thom Pagoda if we could drop him off there.
After one refreshment stop, in his limited English, he asked to have his
photo taken with me.
In the remote areas,
everyone was looking at the foreigner in the jeep, now everybody was
looking at the foreigner and a monk. The orphans at the pagoda are used to
me bringing them gifts, but never a monk before. So instead of walking for
another week, the monk had been carried all the way to Siem Reap in one
ANOTHER SMALL STORY
After dropping off the
monk, I was hanging out for a shower, cold beer and food. Away from
‘civilization’, I virtually eat and drink nothing. I stepped out of the jeep
and before I had unloaded the luggage, my mobile phone rang. It was a friend
saying he had been given a donation of 15,000 mosquito nets from the US army
and would I like some? I just couldn’t believe it
was happening again.
The timing was absolutely
amazing, as it was only that morning that I’d been told of the need for
During the past year, I’ve
only had to have a wish concerning Cambodia and someone would offer it to me
unasked. This was a quick result for my latest unspoken wish, it only took
about eight hours for an offer. On subsequent trips I was delighted to be
able to add the mosquito nets to the Australian donations.
After the long overnight
trip to two remote destinations, I decided I deserved a treat. I arranged to
pick up Pruling and Mophay for an outing. The tuk tuk drove us to the Tonle
Sap lake where we hired a boat to explore the fascinating floating
Vietnamese village. It’s an entire town on water with shops, police station,
school, hospital even animals and gardens all on pontoons. On our return,
the girls chose to eat at a restaurant built on a bamboo platform
overhanging the lake. We lounged in hammocks whilst a rush mat was put on
the floor, set with cold drinks. The fish, vegetables and rice the girls
ordered were very tasty.
two to Svay Leu
I drove out to Halo
headquarters to pack the truck and sign for the mosquito nets. When we
stopped for food and gas, I thought it a good idea to keep my eyes on the
truck. A suspicious looking character was hanging around the truck, but when
I raised my camera to take a shot, he scarpered off.
We stopped at a school on
the way to give two individual gifts to two sick 13yr old girls. Both had
tragic backgrounds involving the Khmer Rouge. Both children had a fever but
couldn’t afford $5 for medication. I arranged for some assistance to be
given, but the girls seemed so lethargic they couldn’t even raise a smile
for the camera. I partially unpacked the boxes for them, so I could show
them how the toys and games worked.
After traveling on another
lumpy, bumpy road, we arrived at Svay Leu which was a pretty little town.
Same deal with flowers and microphone set-up. The big crowd included lots of
adults. Both the children and adults kept staring at me as though I
alien. The whole procedure started quite calmly, but the crowd kept pressing
closer and closer until I thought I would faint from the lack of air and the
heat. As before, I let the education officials take over the toy
distribution. The school principal invited us for lunch. We sat down, all I
wanted was bottled water [no hope of iced water], so three teachers dashed
out in different directions to find some. I explained that I had a bad
stomach and couldn’t eat and excused myself. There was no way I was going to
join in the communal feeding with everybody putting their utensils into
their mouth and then back into the communal dishes.
Leaving the dignitaries to
eat, I enjoyed my time alone meandering around the small town. Everybody
knew who I was. I was followed by stares everywhere I went. Stall holders
tried to communicate with me. Every time I stopped walking, a small crowd
would gather around me.
Once again some of the
bolder women kept stroking and touching my upper arms. I borrowed a bike and
enjoyed the ride around the streets, although I nearly caused an accident,
as I still can’t get used to driving on the right side of the road.
On my return to Siem Reap,
I saw villagers on the long trek home, carrying their mosquito nets and
other donations. I also noticed a group clustered around one book, all
trying to get a look. A crowd of people clambered into the back of the truck
for a ride home. I couldn’t believe how far some of them had walked.
three to Angkor Chum, Srey Snam and Varin
As this was for three
different communities, I had to take a much bigger truck than on the
previous trips. From the outset, I knew it
was going to be difficult, if not impossible to get through to Varin, but I
would make an attempt.
We traveled north on an
excellent road and then turned off on the road to Angkor Chum. Although this
was a dirt track, it was a very scenic route running alongside a river, with
villages on either side. I was just thinking that this was the easiest road
I’d traveled on and what were all the dire warnings for, when we stopped, to
be informed that a couple of vehicles were stuck in mud ahead of us, making
it impossible to pass.
We stood around in the
heat, with no shelter, for some time discussing what we should do. We
radioed ahead to Angkor Chum and they sent a military looking vehicle, with
only a seat for the driver. We proceeded to transfer all the boxes of
donations from the first vehicle to the second one. Meanwhile the school up
ahead, had sent a motor bike to pick me up.
I was scared on the bike,
as one slip in the mud would find us in the river. I eventually got through
to the school, but without my usual entourage. I arrived to find another
huge crowd, but no-one could speak a word of English. After miming that I
was parched, I was brought a coconut with a straw stuck in it, to drink. So,
I just sat in the shade and waited for everyone else to arrive. Hundreds of
school children were lined up in the hot sun, all staring at me. I asked if
they could wait in the shade, so they were all dismissed and ran away to sit
under the trees.
Eventually, the truck and
every one else arrived on the back of motor bikes. I won’t bore every one
with all the details. The proceedings were similar to the previous ones. The
representatives of all three districts gave speeches of thanks and gifts.
There were also twelve school principles from the schools selected to
With mixed feelings I
watched the last of the boxes get ferried away on the last leg of their
journey on a fleet of motor bikes.
I saved the best of the
donations for Varin, as that is the most difficult area to get to. Through
an interpreter, I demonstrated and explained how some of the educational
At the end of the day, the
road was still impassable, so I had to go all the way back to Siem Reap on
the back of a bike. Being so exposed, I was scared of getting sun burnt and
instead I got soaked riding through a down pour that really stung the skin
I got back to the hotel, so
cold and stiff, that I had to be helped off the bike, but I was relieved
that it was all over and I had delivered all the donations. I still couldn’t
believe that I’d managed to get the gifts all the way from Melbourne right
into the remote areas of Cambodia.