Three monks, barefoot and clad in saffron robes, stand at the front gate, chanting a blessing to the woman bowing in front of them.
To their right lies a pile of rubble and broken paving – the aftermath of a massive roadworks program being implemented across the city. Nearly 40 roads in upheaval – all at once – leaving Siem Reap in Cambodia’s north reminiscent of a war zone.
Across the road, a woman rummages through the hotel’s rubbish, piled on the sidewalk, searching for recyclables – cardboard, aluminium cans and anything else that can be salvaged for re-use or sale. The pickings are slim since COVID brought a crushing halt to the tourism industry a year ago.
This daily scene, witnessed from the dusty balcony of my traditional Khmer wooden house, is a far cry from the beachside paradise of Kawana Waters, which was home for 15 years.
What started as a one-year adventure – move to Cambodia, explore, help people, return home – has turned into a six-year journey and a crazy decision to open a youth centre.
It’s not an uncommon story. Cambodia has a way of reaching deep into your heart and soul, and never letting go.
But it’s not all sunshine and smiles. The Kingdom of Wonder can just as soon rip out your heart and tear it to shreds. And yes, I’ve run the full gamut of emotions in this nation of contrasts.
It might be hard to fathom why one would leave the beautiful Sunshine Coast for the challenges of a developing nation. Challenges like a three-day power cut in scorching heat just weeks after arriving, air thick with dust and the toxic odour of burning plastic, and roads with pot holes that could swallow my 50cc Honda Today. In reality, however, paradise was lonely. Deeply lonely. The pristine beaches, the sound of the crashing waves, the beautiful parks, the orderliness were not enough to fill the void. People were always too busy. Life lacked purpose and fulfilment.
Cambodia granted the most unexpected of gifts – connection. Combined with other powerful forces – meaning, value, purpose – it proved to be a salve for the soul.
In this small tourist town, just seven kilometres from world heritage-listed Angkor Wat, I felt a part of something. I felt seen, I felt heard and finally there was a deep sense of community.
It’s not hard to find ways to occupy your time in this land of need. The challenge can be in finding organisations with shared values; ones that are genuinely accountable, that truly need and value you and where you feel you are making a worthy contribution.
I bounced around different non-government organisations (NGOs) both volunteering and working. The volunteer roles varied from photography for a cookbook to support for a local teacher providing conversational English classes at a pagoda. Paid roles tapped into my writing background, most recently as communications and fundraising manager at an NGO school, until the impacts of COVID and school closures brought that to an end. Along the way I found myself working with university students, mentoring them in presentations, speech writing and general life skills. And I fell in love. With them, with the work, with life. And yes, with myself. I discovered a part of me I didn’t know existed.
Working so closely with these young adults I saw the gaps in their education, the life skills they had never been taught, the lack of free spaces for them to meet and study and the lack of resources available to them.
And the idea of a youth centre was born.
The stories are heartbreaking. And inspiring. To understand, you need to know a little of the nation’s tragic history. You need to know about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge takeover from 1975 to 1979 when anyone with an education, as well as monks, artists and musicians, was killed. Those who could, fled the country. Most knowledge was lost.
It’s estimated about two million people, one quarter of the population, were killed or died of disease or starvation.
The country was gripped in civil war for more than a decade and the Khmer Rouge remained in the provinces. Skirmishes continued in the north and west of the country, including Siem Reap, until as late as 1998.
Young people move to Siem Reap from rural areas for work and education. Many have grown up without access to electricity, internet or computers; without toilets or running water.
Illiteracy levels are high – families believe ‘once a farmer, always a farmer’, and so education is not valued. For girls it’s even harder. But some fought for schooling, understanding it was the get-out-of-poverty key. Like the girl who rode her bicycle two hours each way to school in scorching heat and torrential rain. And the young man who herded buffaloes until he was about 16 then joined a pagoda, where the monks enabled him to start grade one. He went on to graduate from university. And there is the young woman, filled with anger and curiosity because nobody has explained to her how her body works.
Education was, and often still is, rudimentary. Students are not taught to question. Imagination, creativity and critical thinking are not encouraged. Science is only now being pushed. Subjects like menstruation and sex are taboo.
Growing up in rice fields, where work is seasonal, people don’t learn the work ethic required of city jobs where you need to turn up on time, ask for leave and where employers expect you to take initiative and solve problems.
The youth centre – Spean Chivit – aims to pad out knowledge and encourage creative development, bridging the gap between education and employment. It’s been nearly four years in the planning and nearly came to a crashing halt when COVID arrived.
Cambodia has so far been spared the health impacts of the virus but the loss of tourism has decimated Siem Reap’s economy and with no welfare, people are struggling and malnutrition is increasing. The need for the youth centre is even greater.
Already we have run several workshops and we have started discussion groups covering topics like sex and body image. I’ve started writing tutorials, we run a community garden and composting program and there is so much more to come.
What started out as an adventure turned into an epic, life-changing journey that’s been as smooth as a tuk tuk ride on Siem Reap’s pot-hole ridden roads.
HELP SAM CHANGE LIVES
If you’d like to find out more about Spean Chivit or help out Sam and her team with a donation, contact Sam via firstname.lastname@example.org or www.speanchivit.com