“Keunh trangna, keunh trangna del tha” I mumble the words to the song that has accompanied me throughout this trip, not sure whether I am mispronouncing them. As I fly back from Cambodia to Dubai, I reflect on my journey here and my experiences with the many wonderful people I have met.
I arrived in Siem Reap six days ago after a flight from Dubai via Bangkok and was picked up from the airport by a kind Tuk Tuk driver who dropped me off at the Babel Guesthouse. Feeling the gentle, cool breeze blow across my face, picking up the distinct unfamiliar sounds of the streets, and soaking up the smells of this brand-new atmosphere, this is why I love travelling, I thought.
The Babel Guesthouse is an eco-friendly guest house managed by an environmentally-conscious Norwegian family – read more about the mission of this wonderful guesthouse here. The cosy garden, the scrumptious granola bowls and pad Thai, the fantastic coffee, and the intricately designed cups it was served in were the highlights of my stay!
Before meeting the team at United World Schools (UWS) Cambodia team, which is an implementing partner of Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organisation, I had time to visit the famous Angkor Wat temples at sunrise and was lucky enough to be able to explore these 900+ year-old world heritage temples by bicycle.
After meeting with Mr. Saveth and Mr. Hong from UWS, sharing a warm dinner in Siam Reap’s bustling pub street, and sampling the famous ice cream rolls of Siem Reap, I tried to get some rest before the seven-hour journey that awaited us the following morning.
On the way to Banlung, the centre of the Ratanakiri province, we passed rice paddies, rubber tree forests, cashew nut and cassava tree plantations as we listened to Mr. Hong’s selection of traditional Khmer pop and hip-hop which introduced me to Trong Na Tha Jass, my favorite soundtrack for this trip. The small kiosks selling food or fresh produce from the local farms all along the road, kids playing energetically, and families spending quality time together were a joy to see.
I arrived in Banlung at the Khmer resort and was taken by the beauty of the area. To my surprise, it had a 20m pool which I did not hesitate to jump into – a well-deserved workout after being seated for more than seven hours.
Shortly after, I had the chance to meet Sitha Nan, the Co-Founder of UWS and the Country Director of UWS Cambodia. I learned so much about their current initiatives, school-building, and transition model. To date, UWS has built more than 136 schools in Cambodia, of which 40 have since transitioned into community and local government ownership. Transition is a key element of the UWS model and safeguards each schools’ future for generations to come.
Today, the lasting legacy of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime is still reflected in the education sector, which is not yet able to meet the needs of the growing population. Across Cambodia, 278,000 children of primary age are still out of school, there is a desperate need for investment in quality teachers and school infrastructure, especially in remote areas.
The following morning after breakfast, I met Mr. Pros and, together with Saveth, we headed to the school in Svay Rieng, a village some 70 km off the road, west of Banlung. Government workers were working on fixing the dirt road leading up to Svay Rieng, but there is still a long way to go to repair the unsteady wooden bridges.
When we arrived at the school, I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome from all the school children, the teachers, and the local community. The Svay Rieng school was sponsored by the Knowledge E Foundation in 2019 through the ‘Adopt a School’ initiative by Dubai Cares that works to provide children and youth in developing countries with access to quality education and has reached over 21 million beneficiaries in 60 developing countries to date. The school was built in 2020 by UWS; however, the building of the school and enrolment was affected by COVID-19 at the time.
We entered the school built on stilts and took our shoes off as per the custom in most of Cambodia. The children sang songs, everyone exchanged greetings, the UWS staff, school principal, and teachers all spoke about the importance of education and the value that the school has brought to the community. We then distributed the school supplies, stationery, and book donations we had brought along with us.
It was then time for free play, the students’ excitement was contagious. When I saw the amazement on the faces of the children, I was glad I had brought as many moon balls, frisbees, crazy balls, skipping rope, footballs, and volleyballs as I did. There was no shortage of smiles and laughter either. As I watched them play, I came across some potential superstar volleyball players. One day, I thought, a scouting agency will discover these talents and change some of their lives forever.
For the time being, knowing that we have been a catalyst in making the children of a community happy and offering better chances for their future made the whole journey worthwhile. My pride of being fairly skilled at skipping rope vanished as soon as I saw how agile the students were. We played football, volleyball, tossed frisbees, and chased moon balls. At one point, I had a football, frisbee, volleyball and crazy ball passed to me at once!
I tried to spend time with all the students and managed to play chess with some of them, but — after no less than three continuous hours of tiresome play — the UWS team and I were scheduled to meet some of the local families to learn more about their livelihoods and the impact that education is having for their families.
On the way, we met a father and his young daughter by the roadside, fishing using only a bucket and some rope. And though I was sceptical of whether fish lived in such shallow, muddy waters, I was pleasantly surprised to learn I was wrong when I saw their successful catch on my way back.
We arrived at the home of a woman whose husband had passed. She was single-handedly supporting her four daughters through farming. As she took care of her immaculate small herb garden, her daughters helped her with daily chores. Getting water to her house – after the rainwater harvest had dried out – was proving challenging. Another struggle that the mother of four faced was transporting her kids to the school every day.
We paid another visit to an older lady who was supporting her children and her two grandkids – whose father, her son, had passed due to a heart condition. They had a cassava farm. Trying to dig out the roots to harvest the cassava helped me understand their hard work better. When we visited the family, they were eating a traditional rice dish (bai in Khmer) surrounded by their dogs, chickens, and chicks that were frantically running around. Rice is the staple meal for all families; it’s usually part of every meal. The family had two adorable, little puppies. I left their home fascinated with how seamless coexisting with nature was in Cambodia.
We also visited a community member who was growing cashew trees. The gentleman explained a lot about the tree to us – its sweet and astringent fruit and how it is grown.
I realised that most villages in Cambodia lack access to the resources with which to process their products. As a result, they tend to sell them at a reduced price to local distributors who will have them shipped, processed, and packed in Vietnam or other neighbouring countries. The same products are then brought back later as finished goods and sold for a higher price. Moreover, the harvest from the many acres of rubber trees in Cambodia is also sold and exported as raw material.
As the sun was setting, I decided to walk up to a temple that was situated at the top of a nearby hill. The many golden, glimmering Buddhas kept me company on the way up. The temple overlooked the school, and the view of all the greenery from the top of the hill was just breath-taking. I felt blessed by the opportunity to help such a warm community through the work of the foundation. I cherished those peaceful moments of contemplation and wished the children of Svay Rieng a bright future before returning down to have dinner with the head of the local community.
During the evening meal, he shared the story of how he requested the construction of the school, how he is supporting the local community, and his dream of building a kindergarten beside the school. I expressed my sincere interest in supporting this project before heading back to the school to stay the night where the UWS team had set up hammocks with mosquito nets. In the classroom, a car battery powered a dim light that gave the room a nice, cozy atmosphere. The hammock was surprisingly comfortable, and after all the action of the day and some reading, I fell into a state of deep relaxation, not entirely asleep, yet aware of the sounds around me. I rose before dawn and walked to a village with Mr. Pros as the day broke, soaking in all the sounds of nature. We had coffee with the community head who offered us green tea and then headed back to the school.
After watching the school in action with kids at their desks listening to their teachers, it was time to say goodbye. I was circled by all the familiar faces of the day before at the staircase of the school where we gathered to take a picture. After giving lots of high fives and infinite fist bumps, I listened to the students sing a touching goodbye song.
Back at Banlung, I spent the afternoon with Saveth, visiting local attractions, like the waterfall and Banlung’s beautiful circle volcano lake. I also managed to take a decent, yet overwhelming swim in the murky waters of the lake with swifts hovering over my head. When I came out of the water, I treated myself to a delicious, steamed potato and banana.
Banlung is the capital of the Ratanakiri province situated on the border between Laos and Vietnam. It is around an hour from the Vietnamese border and has a giant Buddha statue overlooking the town and the surrounding vistas of lush green fields, scattered forests, rolling hills, and higher mountains closer to the Laos border. Banlung is famous for rubber, cashew, and cassava plants and has a population of around 100,000. According to the locals, it has not grown or developed much in the past 10-15 years.
The long hours of commute to the airport and the flight to Dubai really allowed me to ponder over how much I have learnt during this trip, grateful to be able to witness the growth of the community of Svay Rieng and support such significant initiatives. I look forward to our next school project in Nepal and hope that the KnE Foundation will be able to touch the lives of more and more people around the world.