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 two.
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.
I 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.
The 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 great photos.
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 microphones.
After the previous experience, I was emphatic that I wouldn’t give out the Withe the School Children, Trapang Prasatdonations. In Melbourne 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 dark.
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.
I 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 shift
ed 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.
This is his story:
He was going to Siem Reap or Kulen Mountain 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 eyes.
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 day!
YET 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 nets.
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.
Trip 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 Excited boys unpacking boxeswere an 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.
Trip 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 receive goods.
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 aids worked.
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 on contact.
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.
It was a great sense of relief that I had delivered the last of the donations and I could get back to ‘my’ children.
On my last trip to Angkor Chum, the school principals presented me with a 4 inch thick folder containing the names of all the children and families that benefited from the donations, all written in Khmer. The library looked great. I’d arranged all the books, stuck up posters and as the finishing touch, put lots of balloons everywhere. The boys had great fun blowing up the balloons and ‘accidentally’ popping a few. I was very happy with the end result.
I had one last pleasurable thing to do; I didn’t want to disappoint the boys by not having a library opening party, so I decided to take the older boys out for a day, along with the two girls from the town orphanage.
Organizing transport was my biggest and most expensive problem. When I had picked up the two groups, there was a lovely air of expectation and anticipation amongst all the children. Maybe it had something to do with finding jars of lollies on the seats. First stop was a tour of an exclusive hotel that was hidden behind a high wall. I was so impressed that I would love to stay there, but it is way out of my price range. The point of this was to show the children the type of place they could find employment in the tourism industry and also for us all to see how the other half lives.
They were very impressed when they recognized and spoke to a famous Thai movie star. We then drove to Western Baray, which is a huge reservoir, and hired a boat to get to the deserted island in the middle.
All the children individually introduced themselves to the video camera and some were brave enough to sing. Proling performed a secret, traditional, sacrificial dance not seen in public. I felt they all deserved to eat after their cultural efforts. We took the boat [reminiscent of the African Queen] back to the lake’s edge where there were plenty of food stalls.
As in western society, the boys immediately sat down whilst the three girls organized and ordered all the food. I put on my teachers voice and told the boys to get up and help the girls carry all the food and drinks. They ate a variety of grilled fish, birds, frogs, cockroaches and rice. The poor kids were so tired they all wanted to sleep after eating, so I decided to call it a day.
I had an emotional farewell with the boys back at the orphanage as I knew it would be a long time before I saw them again. They gave me some of their drawings and paintings as a souvenir.
On the day of my departure, I was surprised by a knock on the door. It was my two gawn srei [daughters] come to have breakfast with me and accompany me to the airport. They presented me with a kromah [traditional scarf] each. I felt dreadful taking gifts off orphans with very little money. I put them both on, they looked good with my white going-home outfit.
After many hugs, it was time to leave the girls. I was terribly upset. Even writing about it is very difficult.
I’m now back home in Melbourne and satisfied that I completed the four main projects I’d set out to achieve:
To establish a library for the boys in the Pagoda orphanage.
To give daily English lessons to the two groups of boys in the Pagoda orphanage.
To select and pay for tertiary courses for two female orphans.
To distribute donations to remote, poor areas.
The winner of the most unusual activity on the back of a motor bike is………
…… I couldn’t believe this when I saw it. I had to take a second look to make sure I wasn’t imagining it…….I saw a pillion passenger holding an I.V. drip attached to a patient!
Snapshots and memories of Cambodian life
Orphans enjoying a nap on my bed which is soft and unlike anything they have slept on before.
Thank you gifts from schools, in hand made boxes, put together with stapled cardboard with coloured paper cut into patterns as decoration.
The loneliness, language difficulties and indifference to females.
Women sweeping the dust off the roads with brooms made of twigs.
The low wattage of lights everywhere and the difficulty in trying to read.
Seeing and being involved in motor bike accidents.
Numerous power cuts. Surreal, reading an Aussie novel in bed, by torchlight.
Watching pirated movies on TV which advised viewers to inform authorities of illegal copies.
Of having most of the thousands of motor bike taxi drivers know which hotel I stayed at, before I’d even hopped on the back.
Being upset at seeing the mansions and wondering how people in the capital could be so wealthy, whilst people in the rural areas were living in extreme poverty.
Sharing my room with non paying tenants i.e. geckos and several weird sounding creatures who would wake me in the middle of the night.
Working in the library and hearing the laughter of the children in the next room, trying to figure out how to put a race track together.
Driving through the south gate of Angkor Thom every day, looking at the faces and thinking what sort of mood are we in today. Some days seeing a string of elephants plodding along or monkeys clambering around the trees. So unlike my journey to work in Melbourne, where I struggle to get on the freeway, join the bumper to bumper traffic, search for a seat on the crowded train and exit like rats out of a hole in the city. No prizes for guessing which trip I prefer.
700 land mine casualties this year. Last month, 5 deaths and 11 amputations.
Good quality rice is $22 per ton, one person needs half a kilo per day.
A small story: There are two full time helicopter pilots in Cambodia. One of them recently went on holiday, leaving only one. This one is usually on stand-by to ferry out any landmine victims working for Halo. It takes too long to get victims to hospital by the often impossible roads. Halo stood down all operations for four days when their regular pilot did some work for the U.S. army.
The pilot was involved in retrieving U.S. army soldiers missing in action [from the Vietnam war]. The dead soldiers had been given a respectful burial with everything intact. They were wearing their full flight suits and dog tags. This is quite a different portrayal of the Vietnamese that Hollywood movies like to portray.
People to thank.
There were repeated requests for me to thank the people of Australia for all the boxes of donations, so………. A heart felt thank you to everyone who donated goods or cash. Every little helped. Between us we have made a difference to a few lives. As one school principal said “it wasn’t the boxes of clothes that were appreciated, it was the knowledge that people overseas, care about what happens in Cambodia”.
It’s impossible to thank everyone, but I’d like to mention a few special people.
Amazing amounts of time, care and effort was put in by the following two people. In fact they became provincial mini-me’s.
Oriana in Sydney. We met through this project. She actually flew down to Melbourne where we had a long talk. Oriana; thank you for organizing and collecting all the Sydney donations. Every week yet another box would arrive. It culminated on one memorable day, when I received thirteen boxes from Sydney. Oriana works full time, but still found time to collect, pack and send all the donations to Melbourne.
3Neil in Benalla, Victoria. Neil is an old friend that I first met in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. With the support of Benalla Rotary club, Neil bought, collected, sorted, packed and delivered two big carloads of donations. All the clothes were beautifully folded and packed. I know he spent hours doing this. He then drove all the way to Melbourne to deliver the boxes on two occasions.
I also have to thank:
Jackie, from Hong Kong who provided the solution to my biggest problem; access to free shipping.
Richard, from the shipping company OOCL, for supplying a container, free shipping, trucking and all the paperwork from my Melbourne home all the way to Phnom Penh dry dock. Richard and Brendan spoon fed me through all the red tape and paperwork of the bewildering shipping procedures. They were very patient answering my numerous emails.
Joe, a work colleague and old friend, who again donated a large quantity of soccer balls and a big cash donation.
Katherina in Sydney, who sent me so many beautiful, brand new toys and clothes. Even when on holiday overseas, she sent me emails to see if there was enough time to send more things.
My CELTA colleagues, who kept me going with emails of encouragement and support through my difficult times [there were plenty of those].
Lastly; I couldn’t have achieved any of this without the support of my family, husband John and daughter, Victoria.
I’ve contributed very little to family life and depended on their help and tolerance for the past year. There have been very few home cooked meals or chores done by me.
My turn to support you guys.
My biggest thanks go to Sheila who has been invaluable for information, advice, introductions and friendship, both before and during the trip.
Sheila and Paul run Hidden Cambodia Dirt Bike Tours. If anybody is interested in exploring some of the remote and rarely visited areas of Cambodia by dirt bike or jeep, take a look at www.hiddencambodia.com
David and all the HALO guys, who freely gave their time and expertise to help me. Also for providing a safe, dry and secure warehouse to store all the donations. Thanks too, for the use of a truck and driver. www.halotrust.org
Save The Children Norway, Sigurd and Lena who made some very good suggestions and gave me such a warm welcome in Phnom Penh. Save the Children Norway (Cambodia)
The amazing Sereidy in Siem Reap, the governor of provincial education. He worked tirelessly to select areas to be helped, organized transport and took such good care of me in very difficult situations.
Mick, for his long distance and unstinting encouragement and advice.
Don, at Lazy Mango, for freely giving advice on bookcase construction and contact for a reliable carpenter. www.cambodiansmiles.com
Danielle, at Amansara Hotel for taking the time and interest to interpret and show the children around her beautiful hotel. Good luck with your own orphans program.
The management and staff of the Angkoriana Hotel for giving me unlimited T.L.C. www.angkoriana-hotel.com
Joshua, North Cambodia Manager of Singapore Airlines, who gave me a sympathetic ear when everything was going horribly wrong and allowed me to more than double my luggage allowance on my return flight.
The normally severe looking, armed guards at the temple checkpoint who cheerfully waved me through each day, without paying.
Last of all, thanks to the gorgeous boys of Wat Se-Ametrey orphanage and my two gawn srei from Aspeca orphanage for all their affection and respect.
It’s all for these guys. Hopefully, between us, we have made a difference to the lives of these young adults.
I’ve since heard that Proling has started her Restaurant and Bar course. She is doing very well and has been voted class rep.
After greeting me, the first question I’m asked, is when are you going back? At this stage, I’m still getting over the last trip. I need to spend time with my family and try to help my daughter for her trip, where she will be studying overseas for a semester. I will definitely go back to see the children. I wish I could pop over for week ends. I have to think if hard – to – find cash is better than taking boxes of donations. I also have to access free shipping again.
In the new year, I should have some idea of my future plans. I hope I can count on everybody’s support again. One bonus of this trip has been all the lovely new people I’ve met or corresponded with.
I’d love some feedback from you all. This has been a one way communication, so I don’t know how you all feel about the way I’ve used the donations. It would be lovely to receive emails or phone calls.