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Introducing our new Cambodia program - tried, tested and wowed.

Written by Zoe Faulkner on 30 / 04 / 2020

Gap Year Advice

Yay, we’re going to Cambodia!

Siem Reap

My partner Roy and I visited the Kingdom of Cambodia just before the Coronavirus pandemic hit there and the UK. As I am now running the Cambodia Teams, I thought it was time I found out first-hand about the country and to find out how our January team were getting on as it was close to the end of their 8-week program.

Two weeks there taught us that Cambodia is a country not to be missed. Its temples are awesome, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are cool hip places to spend time, with great café’s and restaurants, the people are fabulous, warm and funny, it has beautiful beaches, islands and jungles. However, the land of red plastic chairs (they are everywhere) has its problems being one of the poorest countries in the world with shocking poverty. Plastic waste is everywhere. There is plenty of work for the Leap to do.

Arriving at Siem Reap airport we found the tuk tuk rank and haggled with the driver for our lift into town. I love tuk-tuks and could quite happily sit on one all day being driven around. Twenty bumpy minutes later we got to our hotel and (and pool) :)

In the afternoon our in-country host took us to visit the projects and the people that the Leap have helped. The Spitler School was established in 2005 by a collaboration with a local tour guide who wanted to build a school for the village and 2 Americans, the Spitlers who funded the 2 classroom school for 50-60 kids.

The tour guide organised the building of the school, and hired 2 teachers, when it opened 90 kids turned up. It’s gone from strength to strength and is a source of pride for the community. We were shown around the school and met the children who the Leap teams have been helping to teach and playing sport with as part of the community project. Wonderful.

Coming from the UK it’s hard to imagine life without a toilet or running water, but this is the case in Cambodia. Approximately 6.6 million people don’t have access to a decent toilet. Unbelievable!

Three houses in close proximity with large families in each had never had the use of a toilet before The Leap arrived. Working with a local NGO the Leap team constructed a communal toilet and running water for the 3 families. Prior to the toilet being built the villagers would have to go in countryside around, creating stench and disease and also suffering embarrassment when people came to visit the village. We were greeted by the women of the households and their gaggles of children outside their houses, which were patched together with bits and pieces of corrugated iron and wood, on stilts surrounded by dust and plastic bags flapping in the breeze. I’ve never seen such poverty up so close.

The following morning we were up at 4.30am – easy with the jetlag, to take another tuk tuk to see sunrise at Ankor Wat. It was strange whizzing through the early morning moonlit streets of Siem Reap out to a large ticket office to buy a pass to the temple. From the car park we followed the crowds until we found ourselves on a bank in front of the temple just as the silhouettes of the towers began to appear behind the slowing rising sun. Spectacular!

You could spend days visiting all of the temples but we just had the one day, which we spent driving from one temple to another to another – there are so many, after about 7 or 8 we were templed out. They are all incredible but the ones not to be missed are the main temple of Ankor Wat and the temple of Ta Prohm which is where Tomb Raider was filmed, incredible with trees, roots and temples entwined.

Back in town we had the chance to wander around Siem Reap and to visit the famous Pub Street. It’s a really cool fun town to stay in. Loads of nice bars and restaurants. We treated ourselves to a delicious Amok Curry at a restaurant called the Haven where the proceeds go to helping young adult orphans make the step from institution to employment. Stunning garden and the food was top notch. Only too glad to help.

Phnom Penh

What a different experience the sprawling city of Phnom Penh is to Siem Reap. It’s crazy busy. Cars, bikes, tuk tuks and motos everywhere. A grid of streets all numbered make it fairly easy to get around once you get the hang of it, but even so making ourselves understood was tricky and many a tuk tuk driver had no idea where we wanted to go.

I am old enough to remember seeing the awful scenes on TV of the aftermath of Pol Pot and the killing fields where they excavated the mass graves. A whole generation of people were taken away from their families in the cruelest way during the short time that the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. I won’t go into the history here, but please Google it if you don’t know about it. It’s an awful shocking time in history.

The absence of the older generation is the only outwardly noticeable sign that anything so awful took place here. The people of Cambodia are incredible. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the people really are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met anywhere. Always smiling and so keen to help.

We didn’t visit S-21 the prison where Pol Pot and his followers did his horrendous deeds, or the Killing Fields, but instead visited the museum and drank beer on the banks of the war-famed Mekong river, watching the tourist boats and monkeys foraging for food around the café where we sat. We didn’t have much time before the next bus journey to Mondulkuri in the East.

Mondulkuri and The Elephant Valley Project

A 6-hour bus journey, broken by a lunch stop at a small market where we discovered some of the gruesome (especially to vegetarians), eating habits of the Cambodian people. One woman sitting next to us munched away on deep fried Tarantulas while a mother in front of us was feeding her child chicken embryos from their shells (stomach turning).

Mondulkui in the East of the country is a friendly little town with, oddly, a small now- abandoned airstrip running through the centre. This is the town close to the Leap’s next project is. Elephant Valley Project. Established in 2006 EVP takes in elephants rescued from working in the tourist and farming industries so that they can retire and live as close to a natural life as possible.

This was the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most having heard so much about it over the years of working at the Leap. We stayed the first night in town at a hostel and got up early to get the the Hefalump café where we were to meet the team from EVP. We were welcomed by Chris and his team of volunteers and shown around the jungle camp that was to be home for the next 24 hours. Our guide was a local from the Balong tribe who are indigenous to the area, he told us all about the local people and the elephants. We then did a short trek into the jungle where we met 2 of the elephants, Sambo and Ruby and heard about their sad histories. So great to see them being cared for and living life the way it should be.

There is plenty to do at EVP. Help with the elephants some of whom need medical treatment, gathering food, building walkways and they’ve just stated a reforestation project. The jungle camp is a chilled place to stay, great food, hammocks and jungle noises. The volunteers all stay in Hefalump House which is a wooden building overlooking the jungle.

The next day we bussed back to Phnom Penh and onto Kep Beach.

Here we met with the team for a drink at the sailing club no less which was a really nice bar on the beach at Kep. We ran up a nice bill for cocktails as they all told their stories. They had all had a great time in Cambodia. Roy and I then had a couple of days R&R in our hotel with pool. One day we hired a small motorbike from them and took a trip to Kepot.

The town of Kampot is famous for its pepper and salt flats and we both fell in love with it. Kampot is a really cool little town, not to be missed. It’s a place where you plan to go for a night and don’t leave for 3 weeks. Dilapidated, yellow, flaky painted shophouses make it a pretty place to be, there are lots of tourists and expats around, hills and and the Kampong Estuary flow through the middle.

There are problems in Cambodia that scream at you as you travel around. The first one is the amount of rubbish everywhere, it is everywhere you look, fields, gardens, rivers and roadsides full of it. The main way of disposing of the rubbish is to burn it which is dire for the environment and the health of the people. The other is lack of education for the young. There are many initiatives to help educate and improve the lives of children and young people in Cambodia, but not enough. The Leap are more and more focusing our volunteering projects on the environment and conservation wherever possible as there are so many problems throughout the world and we know we can make a difference.

Kampot is where we came across The Red Road Foundation, a dream come true for the Leap, just the kind of organisation we want to work with. They are building village-led social enterprises which are addressing issues, such as waste and education. They’ve built a school, established a farm and a health product line. Wow!

Red Road are a free education centre and are showing the local villagers and monks about waste collection and the dangers of rubbish to public health and are using the waste in a building project which uses plastic bottles stuffed with waste plastic to make eco-bricks which they then use in construction. They are drilling wells so that the villagers will have access to fresh clean water for the first time. They are making Moringa Oil products to sell so that the villagers can have an income from making the products.

Sign me up

I’m so excited about this new project having been working with Rachel from Red Road to put it together and I really hope we can get a team out there as soon as the borders are open.

The program which is now on the website and just waiting for the borders to open so we can send the first team.The 5 week program takes in all the places we went to on our travels, Siem Reap and Ankor Wat, Phnom Penh, Elephant Valley, 3 weeks at Red Road volunteering and helping with all their incredible projects which will also give volunteers a chance to meet and live with real Cambodian people and learn about their lives. There are also lots of things to do in and around Kampot, so great opportunities to take part in well being activities such as yoga, meditation, swimming and trekking, paddle boarding and Khmer cooking lessons. Volunteers can also help run field trips with the local children. At the end of the project there are a few days R&R on Rabbit Island.

I can’t wait until the world gets back to normal – whatever that is.

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