Another trip – this time Ingrid and Mick were with Pete, Michala, Victoria and Daniel. The Cambodia visit was in fact the start of our journey as we left Singapore to relocate to the UK. But that is another story.
After arriving in Siem Reap, we first spent a couple of days reacquainting ourselves with Angkor. Pete had never been before, and Michala and Daniel had not been visitors for quite some time. Victoria was something of an ‘old hand’, as she was on the March 2000 trip. Still, every time we visit that wonderful place, we are struck both with its beauty (which changes in every light and every season) and its contrast with the more recent events in Cambodia. We are also struck by the need to take even better care of our collective heritage.
We had a working dinner with our old friends – Sarath from Save the Children, Ung Sereidy and Tor Kimsean from the Siem Reap Provincial Education Office (PEO). It was a chance to catch up with the facts. The programs are all proceeding on schedule, with few new details versus earlier diary entries on specific plans.
However, one item of great excitement to us all was the major grant that Save the Children had just got confirmed from the Japanese Social Development Fund (JSDF). This was destined for Education programs in 5 Districts of the Siem Reap Province over the next two years, and the proposal had used the Reconciliation Area as a pilot and reference program. It was good to note that the professional partnership being built between Save the Children and the PEO was one critical success factor in getting the grant . The World Bank is administering the funds, and by coincidence their representatives were in Phnom Penh this same week talking with Ole Berndt Harvold (Save’s Director) on getting the programs going. We’ll cover progress on the JSDF program in the next visit diary.
The next morning we all met early to travel to Trapeang Prasat via Anlong Veng. We were joined by Sarath, Ung Sereidy, Nara, Save’s PR chief, camera expert and all round techie, and our friend Phalla, from the PEO – as well as Nimola Yim of the Khmer Women’s Voice Centre, who was on her first up country reporting trip. In all, the group comprised three jeeps.
This time, the drive to Anlong only took just over two hours. The road had been completed, although it was already showing a few ageing signs, with the odd pothole, even though the rainy season had not yet properly started. Since last March, we could immediately see many differences along the route. The road itself was narrower, as the forest was encroaching almost everywhere. Villages along the way looked more active, with new buildings and land clearance for family farms. Schools seemed to be more lively, with more students. And we saw less land mine clearance in progress, though we’ll come back to that later.
Overriding impression: steady progress, although the area still was devoid of animals and birds, just like previous visits.
Anlong Veng itself was bustling. Sarath estimated that the population was up +50% in the last twelve months, as many people had returned to the home area now ‘free’ of the Khmer Rouge, and many entrepreneurs from Siem Reap were setting up shop. The market had expanded, and there was now a Government-built monument in the centre marking the major traffic intersection. The group stopped for refreshments by the dusty road (our mid morning Tiger beer never tasted better ….). Another change from last time was that less obvious interest was being shown in foreigners and their children. A few western tourists now get to Anlong quite often, apparently, and we heard that there was now a small Guest House in operation.
We briefly stopped by the so-called Ta Mok school to see the completed Hun Sen extensions. Unfortunately that the school was not in operation at the time of our visit. Some children told us that bad weather had stopped a few teachers coming, so the school decided not to work that day. The kids now needed to walk home again.
It took less than an hour to reach Trapeang. The road was also completed, except for a couple of bridges still being fixed. We were absolutely delighted to see the District Governor (Cheat Chum) waiting for us at one of the construction sites, to be sure we could navigate the road works. This time, though, an army escort was not needed.
Along the way we stopped by the first Yates Family primary school, built where there was previously a simple cottage structure, called Sen Sam. Details were reported in previous diaries, but this was our first visit to the school to see it for ourselves. We were greeted by an enthusiastic group of parents. It was between shifts so few children were there – we saw them all on our return, later in the day. Frankly we were overwhelmed by the welcome and the hospitality. Virtually everyone that could be there was – parents, grandparents, teachers, local government. Speeches were made, reporting on various areas of progress. The children were smiling – but better yet the adults were smiling.
Mick got told off by the family as I used the ‘smiling’ line in many speeches over the duration of this visit.
There is a very active parents committee working with the school, and enrolment was increasing weekly – now at just under 300 students. There are still many challenges, but it is rewarding to see the deep commitment to education. It was also a dramatic example of the benefit to the entire community of new school facilities. Many new houses had sprung up around the school, and mine clearing is now about complete.
In talking with Sarath and Sereidy, we must consider whether this school should be extended to become more of a central facility than a satellite of Trapeang as it was originally intended. More population research is needed.
As we then drove into Trapeang, we were struck by the changes, although the Governor told us that the population was stable. Recall that Trapeang is mainly a community of ex soldiers and their families, who quit their nomadic existence only fairly recently. Cheat Chum himself was a military commander. Many older buildings along the main road in Trapang have been razed, and a new market hall is almost complete. The health clinic is in full swing, and student grade 1 & 2 attendance in the central area is estimated around 80%, up from 50% last year. On the other hand, the new High School is hardly being used due to lack of resources, and a lack of children with sufficient primary education.
After a good lunch and conversation at what is now our regular restaurant, we visited the main Primary School. The new library and resource center is fully in operation, and we were touched to see the many books that the children themselves had created to add to the library. It is still everyone’s intention to make this school a model for Siem Reap Province. Enrolment is now approaching 800, so we are building a 3 room extension to ease the situation. In this construction, however, mines had been found, right behind the school. So far the Halo Trust has removed 4 (very old) mines to make the area safe. It was a sobering reminder that even when things appear under control, the legacy of years of war is still everywhere.
So, it was approaching the time to make the return trip to Siem Reap, as this visit we were not staying overnight in Trapeang. Interviews were recorded, farewells were said, hands shaken. We promised we would be back soon.