So I have just left the hot and dusty Cambodia and arrived in Thailand. Aside from the heat and the dirt, Cambodia is still one of my favourite places.I am always deeply moved by how friendly and welcoming the people are, despite their somewhat difficult history. They each go about their day trying their best to make a dollar (and it literally is only $1-2 for most), yet the tenacity and pride they put in their day to day tasks is astounding. I often find myself watching with fascination stall owners preparing pancakes, fruit or delicacies to sell. Watching the tuk-tuk drivers cheerily offering his services, knowing that the chances of a ‘hit’ is unlikely. They know the situation is bleak and that they are only ever destined to earn a mere pittance compared to the developed world, but they keep toiling away with a smile on their face and pride in their actions. They may never have a lot of money, but they make up for it in charisma and culture.
This is my third trip to Cambodia, but I cannot resist seeing more of the temples for which Siem Reap is so famous. This time I went a bit further afield to see the Banteay Srei and Kbai Spean temples – around 2hours by tuk tuk from Siem Reap, which gave me plenty of time to take in the scenery. I always find the skills of your average motorcyclist in Asia amazing – how many weird and wonderful things they can fit onto a motorcycle …… along with all the extended family. Especially amazing is how they can then maneuver those along the road in the somewhat organised chaos that is the traffic system. More than once I came a near miss on my pushbike (perhaps a lucky thing that tourists are not permitted to rent motorbikes here) as people randomly pick the side of the road that is more convenient for them or seemingly less congested at any point in time. Technically the traffic is to drive on the right, but if you turn a corner and happen to end up on the left, then so be it. Seems its not really a big deal in Cambodia and you learn to just accommodate for the fact that anyone could be going any direction around you at any point.
On some other day trips, I had the opportunity to meet some amazing local people in villages and rural communities, and hear about their lives through my friend as a translator. It astounds me how every Cambodian person seems to welcome you into their life and home without question, sharing what we in the west would consider intimate details about their lives. One small rural village we visited, we were welcomed by one family and quickly joined by around 10 others from the village who insisted on cooking us lunch and offered water and softdrink as we sat and talked for almost 4 hours. They told of their life in the country, the difficulties encountered through the year as the community goes from near drought conditions to expansive floods (communities here have boats on hand to be able to get to town for basic supplies). They told me their memories of the Khmer Rouge period. Of family members missing, tortured and killed, of the constant starvation that gripped the country, and of course the overwhelming fear. Surprisingly, I found on multiple occasions that the older generation seemed eager to share their memories of this difficult time – perhaps to promote understanding of the atrocities so it might never happen again, or perhaps just because it was such a significant part of their lives. Many of their own children and grandchildren are skeptical about the stories they tell, thinking they are embellished tales – not believing these things could have possibly really occurred. I find the strength of these people admirable, that they can come through such a devastating period with an open heart and an ability to still smile after it all. As one person explained to me, “a Cambodian is someone who smiles, even when he is sad”.
The main purpose of this visit to Cambodia was to work with a local teacher that I met last year – Jimmy. Obviously ‘Jimmy’ is not a particularly common Khmer name, and indeed his real name is Sarath, however apparently this was all too difficult for one tourist to grasp, who started referring to him as Jimmy – he thought this was hilarious and has run with Jimmy ever since.
Jimmy had always wanted to learn English, so as a child he collected plastics to be able to afford to put himself in English classes and buy books to study. He then spent many years talking with tourists to improve his English skills, and still works as a moto driver by mornings to support his family. In the afternoon and evenings, he runs an English school, at his mum’s house in Siem Reap, teaching more than 140 students. The school is completely free for children to attend, relying on donations for all supplies and resources. Jimmy also helps with clothing, medical costs for the children, and supplies food for the poorer families. Fundraising via friends overseas will soon allow Jimmy to improve the classroom he has created in front of the house. They will concrete the floor, buy proper desks and install the internet with several computers for the children to use. He dreams of one day having enough money to extend the house for a larger classroom and eventually build an independent school, where he can accommodate more children, perhaps incorporating a restaurant where children can learn hospitality skills, working to earn money for their families, while also having exposure to tourists to improve their English. He would use this as an opportunity for the tourists to also learn more about the Khmer culture and history.
Jimmy also dreams of opening a medical clinic – some of the students tell of their aspiration to become doctors – Jimmy hopes to be able to arrange sponsors for their schooling and have them eventually work at the clinic.
Jimmy welcomes any tourists to Siem Reap to drop by the school and meet the kids. Stay for a few minutes, an hour, or come and help to teach a class or two. There are 4 different levels of class and all ideas are gratefully welcomed. If nothing else, the children always love hearing about different countries and just having interraction.
Jimmy is being sponsored to go to university to gain his much desired teaching degree. Coupled with moto driving and running the school, he runs a busy schedule! While not formally qualified I have never met a teacher more passionately give themselves to their students and truly wish the best for their future.
He is making plans to ensure the financial security of the school and wants to move away from pure reliance on donations. He plans to buy mountain bikes he can rent to tourists, which will help to fund the school and provide money for the children to take home for food. He also supports several of the children to attend art school – he hopes that one day the artwork may be sold – again the majority of these funds would go directly to the student and their family, but also a portion would ensure the school remains alive and prospering to help others have access to opportunities that Jimmy’s school provides.
The children are nothing short of amazing. Since it is regarded as a privilege for them to be able to attend a school like this, they work exceptionally hard to try and pickup everything and anything that we are able to teach and are not shy in showing their appreciation. I have left Cambodia with literally a mound of gifts from the children. More paintings and drawings than I have walls to hang them, magnets, friendship bracelets, stuffed toys, stickers and one little girl even gave me her hairclip. Trying to decline these gifts is to no avail – it is really quite moving that they so genuinely want you to have their own possessions, despite having so little themselves. There is nothing I could give them that could match their generosity, so I settled for the somewhat shallow ‘western experience’ I could buy them – pizzas and icecream! While it is difficult to leave, I hope to return soon and see the progress that Jimmy has made with the school and his plans, and of course to check in on the ongoing development of each of these incredible kids.
Anyone who may like to contribute to the work that Jimmy does can donate money to:
Canadia Bank Plc 315
Ang Doing Street
Or send books, clothing, hygiene supplies, stationery etc to:
Jimmy’s Village School