Gaye Miller: Cambodian Story

Gaye set off from Melbourne with a container completely full of donated things for the children of Cambodia. She came into contact with us via the ‘net, and we were so impressed with her story we asked permission to print it….

Here are the newsletters from her trip, part one.


It’s wonderful to be back in Siem Reap. On my arrival, driving from the airport into town, it felt like returning home. I spent my first few days organizing long term accommodation and just unwinding. It’s been a very busy year for me with the first 6 months studying for a teaching qualification. The following three months were spent packing all the donations.

Every night and every weekend I spent in my freezing Melbourne garage, sorting and packing goods. I am enjoying the extreme climate change from Melbourne’s winter to Cambodia’s wet season, even with all the tropical downpours. I was offered cut price, luxury, long term accommodation with a rare [for Cambodia] swimming pool. This was on condition that I gave staff English lessons. In reality, this meant translating business letters for the French manager. A fair exchange that we were both happy with.

After a few days of settling in, I went out to the orphanage that is my priority. His orphanage is set in a monastery in the grounds of Angkor Wat. Its home to 30 boys aged between 7 and 20. The monastery is spread over approx. 15 acres of partially cleared jungle. When I arrived on a motorbike taxi, the boys ran out from all over the place to greet me. It was a very emotional reunion for all of us. I was amazed at how much some of the boys had grown. I noticed they were still wearing the shoes that I bought them last year.

I made arrangements to commence teaching the following day.

I learnt the older boys were away doing work experience at the Children’s Hospital. This meant cycling the 12 kms to and from the hospital every day to earn US$1 a day plus lunch. Later in the week I visited the Children’s Hospital to discuss the medical and surgical donations. Whilst there, I heard laughter and soft calls. I turned around to see the older boys all running towards me. We had lots of respect bowing, hugs and hand shaking. I started teaching the older boys the following week when they had finished their hospital cleaning jobs.


Thanks for all the emails. It’s great to receive encouragement from home. Rock2243Teaching the younger boys was more of a challenge than I remembered. I thought they had a better understanding of English. I bought the requested exercise books, pens and ‘Lets Go 2’ course book. The children found it quite difficult to understand. I felt that they were reading the course books from memory without actually understanding the meaning. I introduced a lot of physical games which took us out of the classroom and into the sunshine. They seemed to enjoy this lot more whilst at the same time learning new vocabulary. The size of this class varied between 15 and 25 students aged between 7-16.

One day it was so hot, that after all the energetic games, I organized for a man on a push bike, dragging an ice chest of ice cream, to serve all the children. It cost less than $3 for about 25 ice-creams. I was amused by the first lesson I taught the older boys as it was the same first lesson I had taught for my CELTA certificate. This was from New Headway.

I was intrigued by the lone girl that attended class, as I remembered her from last year. Only males stay in a monastery, but I discovered this girl stayed with some nuns. I had an opportunity to really make a difference to the life of this girl. I knew a school that had sponsors willing to pay for her education, which would lead onto employment within the tourist industry. In this country, boys get all the opportunities and girls get overlooked and left behind. I arranged for the girl and the school’s representative to meet. Unfortunately the girl wasn’t interested. It would have been a great opportunity for her as her English language skills were strong.

In this older group I teach about 10-12 students including some monks. They are aged between 15 and 22. They have been very well taught and understand verb tenses, although we do have some problems with American and English spelling. The boys are as fascinated by my lifestyle as I am about theirs. We exchanged a daily routine.

This is theirs:

  • 4.30 Get up
  • 6.30 Breakfast with monks
  • 7.30 Cook rice, this is supplemented by daily food offerings to the monks. Find and collect firewood in the jungle
  • 10.30 Do personal laundry. Take cold water open air shower
  • 12.00 Lunch
  • 12.30 Cycle to school
  • 1.00 School starts
  • 5.00 School finishes
  • 5.30 Home
  • 6.00 Eat
  • 7.00 Study
  • 10/11 Sleep

In Cambodia, half of the children attend school in the morning, half in the afternoon. I asked the boys what they needed and they replied that they wanted nothing, that they had enough rice. They know I’m bringing thousands of books to set up a library for them. I have to make arrangements to have the bookcases made. At two o’clock yesterday it was too dark to read the text books, it was very humid, with a lot of biting mosquitoes.

As soon as I got on the motorbike for the return trip home, the heavens opened and by the time I got back to my hotel, I was drenched to the skin despite wearing a raincoat. All the reception staff thought it was hilarious when I squelched across the foyer. I feel like a local now as when riding on the back of a motorbike, my mobile phone rang and there I was coolly chatting on a mobile phone just like everyone else. I’m having a little two part competition with myself. 1. To see the maximum amount of people on one bike.

The record so far is; 4 people on a push bike, 6 on a motorbike. This is in addition to chickens, pigs, bales of wood, sacks of rice etc. 2. To see how many different things a pillion passenger can do.

Talking on a mobile phone is commonplace. I’ve seen eating, drinking, reading, writing, sewing even breastfeeding and holding up an umbrella as protection against the rain or sun. Of course nobody wears a crash helmet. There are no road laws, right of way, driver’s tests or minimum age limit. It’s quite an Adrenalin rush or a death wish taking a moto-dorp.


On my last trip I visited the trio of orphanages in town. I became involved in one that had about 8 teenage girls upstairs and maybe 8 teenage boys downstairs.

Last year I had the plumbing fixed so the three faulty showers worked and the girls could have theirs separately from the boys. I also put in a new well and bought some furniture for them. I returned to visit two girls in particular. Nothing had changed. The girls still lived in a spartan dormitory, furnished only with slatted beds with rush mats as mattresses. The only adornment is one ceiling fan in the centre of the room which had no effect on the beds. They have very few personal possessions. I left messages that I had returned and wanted to see the girls.

They eventually saw me walking along the street. There were many tears of happiness and tight hugs. I escorted them back to their home and we arranged that I would pick them up for dinner the following night. I wasn’t sure of their food preference so I chose a restaurant that served western and Khmer food. My Khmer speaking friend Sheila came to help with translating.

We learnt about their background. Mophay and Proling are 17yr. old cousins from the same village. They have been in the orphanage for 10 years.. Both girls take daily English classes. They are bright, intelligent and attractive girls. Mophay has a deformed, withered leg, from the after effects of Polio, and walks with a pronounced limp.

ProlingProling is training to become a classical dancer performing the centuries old traditional dances that the Khmer Rouge almost succeeded in wiping out. Unfortunately this career path isn’t open to Mophay. She is working in a very basic hairdressing shop in the market, hoping to learn the trade. She works from 8-4 everyday for no wages, just to get some experience.

Mophay has a very bright, bubbly personality and could do well with some help. The girls invited me to watch a traditional dance performance the following day.

Due to a mix-up in times, I arrived 90 minutes early. This was a lucky chance

for me, as I was privileged to see the girls and boys prepare, dress and make-up backstage. The band, singers, principal dancers and all the male and female dancers were orphans or very poor children. Whilst retaining their modesty, the boys helped the girls into their outer costumes. The costumes were in fact just metres of expensive, gold threaded brocade. This was wrapped, tied and sewn onto the dancers.

Mophay patiently put stage make-up on all the girls. I also saw the boys put on lipstick and paint on false moustaches to make themselves look older. After two hours of preparation, the 90 minute show started. Rock2243Mophay took her place beside the band who played traditional Khmer instruments that I couldn’t begin to describe. The first intricate dance was exquisitely performed by the two principal dancers, Proling and another girl. They must be very strong to hold some of the poses balancing on just one leg. Just the hand and finger movements alone would have taken so long to memorize. Rock2243It brought tears to my eyes when I thought of the disadvantaged background that these children had come from. They are struggling against all odds to climb out of their poverty trap.

Gaye and Morphay

Throughout all the dances, Mophay accompanied the band in a sharp soulful voice that perfectly complimented the dancers movements. Whilst Proling looked very serious, Mophay kept looking at me and giving me huge, cheesy grins. She hasn’t got an ounce of self pity, understandable I suppose when they are so many much worse off. People with a missing limb are commonplace, due to all the landmines still everywhere. Rock2243I’m hoping to get some information on an organisation that only employs victims of landmines and Polio. I need to talk to Mophay to see what career path she would like, get some typing lessons organized for her and arrange sponsorship for her.


I finally received the call I’d been waiting such a long time for, informing me that the container would arrive in the capital, Phnom Penh within days. I hurriedly organized a flight and flew down to P.P. the same day. Then I settled in for the long wait for the next phone call. When I first arrived I was advised to buy a mobile phone. At times like this, it was invaluable, as it meant that I wasn’t stuck in the hotel room waiting by the phone.

I used the time to visit the company that offered training and employment to handicapped people [with Mophay in mind] I managed to map read and direct my motor bike driver to the correct address. I’d forgotten how much traffic there was and the terrifying speed that they travel in the capital. I finally located the business and was led through a busy room filled with disabled, young people working on computers. I noticed several wheelchairs too.

I had a long chat with the director and learnt that Mophay would be eligible for help on two counts, with her disadvantaged background and handicap. Unfortunately the organisation doesn’t operate in Siem Reap, so it would all be too difficult to arrange for Mophay.

On the third day of waiting, I received the call that the container had arrived at the dry dock and to meet the shipping agent there. Many people had told me horror stories on what to expect at the docks. I expected to be kept hours filling in documents, greasing palms, seeing boxes of goods disappear, even waiting days for the goods to be released.

Incredibly, it took just two hours for the documentation to be completed, container broken open, brief customs check and truck to be loaded. I think this would be exceptionally quick in any country. The agent said this was a record for the quickest and easiest time he’d known for a clearance. I had expected a lot of fat cat officials, as I’d been told the customs officers are the most corrupt in the country. They can hold containers indefinitely and keep charging extra fees.

The officials were all overweight, [remember this is in a country where so many are starving] and had diamond and gold jewellery dripping off every digit. I noticed the staff car park contained mostly land cruisers.

My jaw ached from the constant smiling and numerous thank you’s. I think it helped that a few officials had families in Australia so we could have a limited, friendly conversation.

I could see several OOCL containers but they were all too big to be mine. I was finally led to mine which fortunately was on ground level and not stacked up high like some of them. The agent had forgotten to bring the key, so I told them not to worry, just to use the bolt cutters. The doors swung open to reveal……………………………. the interior looking exactly the same as when I had last seen it outside my home in Melbourne. Nothing was missing, not a box out of place, nothing had moved or fallen over.

My friend Alf had packed it so tightly and wedged it all in, so it would survive even rough seas. The customs official poked into three boxes and found they were medical supplies and that was it! We were free to start loading the truck. It was a very hot and dangerous place to be with all the cranes swinging containers over our heads.


the container was about half unloaded, the same English speaking officer came by again and started to empty a box of toys. He pulled out a spinning top and asked me if he could keep it. Silently I said ” keep your thieving hands off the children’s toys, you maggot”. Instead I smiled and said ”of course, no problem, how many children do you have?”

Later I realised how lucky that I only had to part with one toy and boxes of goods or even the whole container. I exchanged business cards with the spinning top official and think he would O.K. to work with if I’m crazy enough to do this again.

So……… dry dock part of the jigsaw completed.


It has been a very busy, difficult and successful fortnight. I’ve almost finished all the jobs I originally set out to do. To continue on from the container arrival in Phnom Penh……..

It was so good to fly back into Siem Reap and arrive ‘home’. The truck containing all the donations finally arrived at the children’s hospital at 8.30. The HALO Trust guys were with me to help transfer all the boxes onto their truck and drive them back to the secure HALO headquarters. It was hot and dirty work, with everyone sweating profusely in the high humidity. After leaving the medical and surgical donations in the hospital store room, I followed the truck back to HALO. I noticed one guy perched up high on the pile of boxes making sure that nothing fell off. Once again we unloaded the truck and put all the donations into a warehouse and padlocked the door. Rock2243How many times have I shifted these boxes now? After a very long day, which had started in Phnom Penh, I finally drove home to bed.

The HALO guys were fantastic. They organized, interpreted and did all the work. I can’t praise them enough considering they had given up their Saturday night to help me.

After long discussions with Save the Children Norway, it was decided to take three trips to distribute the goods to six needy areas. I knew the first trip would be the hardest as I had traveled to the area before.

Meanwhile, I had arranged for Mophay to start a computer course covering typing and various Window applications. I dropped into the computer school at 7.15am one day to check that she was attending. I needn’t have worried, she was so absorbed in her work, she didn’t even notice me. She’s a quick learner.

Her daily routine is: 7-8 Computer class 8-4 Work in market 4-5 English class 5-6 Thai class and some evenings, Apsara dance group practice Rock2243All the orphans have one thing in common. They are all tired because they don’t waste one minute. Poor Mophay caught a cold, so I took her to the pharmacy to get some medication and had a restaurant make up a lemon and honey drink for her. She works so hard and is very run down.

I arranged for Pruling to have an interview at the school for tourism and she was offered a scholarship. She will commence restaurant and bar studies in November. The school is highly regarded and has no problem in finding employment for their graduates. So if both girls continue to study, they should find themselves good jobs.

I’ve taken them out for meals during which we try to teach each other our respective languages. There are a lot of misunderstandings, they laugh at my pathetic attempts to speak a few words of Khmer.

HALO supplied me with a truck and driver to deliver all the boxes to the boy’s orphanage. I have a terrific photo of the boys unloading the truck in the pouring rain. They put all the boxes of books to one side and I told them they could open all the other boxes. They were so excited pulling out clothes and toys. They loved all the soft cuddly toys.

Unpacking books for library

Now, the library is almost completed. It started off as a dark, empty little room. I bought white paint to lighten it a little, which the boys enthusiastically slapped on everywhere. I bought lengths of wood which was transported by a trailer on the back of a motorbike and organized a carpenter to work daily to construct the bookshelves. I also bought a battery operated light.

I covered one wall in bright posters. Every time I started working and arranging the books, the boys and monks would wander in, select a book and plonk themselves on a bench or the floor for a good read. The only books they have ever seen are school text books. They love all the pictures and the variety of books, particularly the pop-up ones.

I had intended to have an opening ceremony. The monks were keen to have a big party and to invite local dignitaries and police. With the language problems, this is just too time consuming and energy draining to organize. I’d rather spend the money on the children, not all the hangers on, so I’m hiring a vehicle and taking them out for the day.

I’ve given all the financial donations to the HALO Trust on the understanding that they will build several wells in Varin. This is one of the poorest areas in Cambodia. In the dry season the children get up at 4.30 to walk 5kms to fetch water. One of the wells will be built next to a minefield. Each well will cost approx. US$150. After completion, I will receive a report and photos.

There are so many worthwhile causes I could give money to, but I like the idea of providing essential water close to residential areas, plus the fact that HALO give receipts and account for all monies spent. They also know that I will be back to check up.

I would have liked to have provided a cow, buffalo, pigs, chickens and fish for an orphanage that is providing an agricultural education for needy children. Some of these children have been bought as sex slaves and other illegal crimes. As you can imagine, they are very traumatized from their previous lifestyle. Maybe next time I can offer some help, unless anybody has any cattle they don’t need!


Newsletter Series One
Newsletter Series Two
Newsletter Series Three
Newsletter Series Four

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