Inspiration in rural Cambodia

On the 4-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Battambang (on a comfortable bus even though it was old and dirty), we stopped twice for refreshments. Ladies with  trays of roasted crickets were eagerly awaiting our business.  Or maybe we would prefer whole, deep fried baby chickens (or maybe they were pigeons – hard to tell when coated in batter) – complete with head, beak and toenails  intact!  We decided we weren’t that hungry after all.

When we arrive in a new location, the first challenge is to find our accommodations. We have gotten into the habit of reserving ahead these days which takes some of the pressure off on arrival. It can be a rather daunting experience to get oriented, so it is always a welcome sight when we have arranged for someone to pick us up and we see a sign with our name on it, or as in the case of our arrival in Battambang, there was a sign with the name of our hotel on it – The Royal Hotel.  Turns out that many tuk tuk drivers work with hotels to provide free pick up at the bus station and airport with the hope they will secure further business with the tourists.  A lost leader of sorts.  And it works!

Upon arrival at the hotel, the driver introduced himself as Sophorn and offered to take us on a tour into the countryside the next day for US$9.00 per person.  We usually don’t accept such an offer on the spot, preferring to do our own research first, to find out the going rate in order to consider all our options.  Not to mention our concern over the condition of his bike.  But Sophorn gently persuaded us to accept his offer with the understanding we could call him at any time to cancel.  We had nothing to lose!

Our hotel turned out to be great value for just US $20.00 per night – large, spotless rooms with comfy beds, ensuite bathroom, a wardrobe, desk and TV.  Best of all, it had air conditioning.  It was located right in the middle of town about a half a block from the main market.  Chris even managed to get us breakfast included with our rate, which was served on the rooftop terrace.  The food was average, but the coffee was delicious.

After confirming Sophorn’s rates were fair and the route he suggested took in all the major local sights, not to mention the fact that he seemed to speak pretty good English from the brief exchange we had, we decided to take Sophorn up on his offer, and are we ever glad we did.

Our first stop was the infamous bamboo train which is really nothing more than a 3m long wood frame, lined with slats of bamboo, resting on two sets of train wheels that look like bar bells, powered by a small engine.  It can take a load of up to 15 people or 3 tonnes of rice cruising at a top speed of 50 km/h.

This ingenious train leverages the more than 400 miles of single track railway laid across the country by the French during their colonial rule during the 1920’s. The “norry”, as the bamboo train is called, solves the predictable problem of a single track line – what to do when two trains going opposite directions meet?  The norry can be easily dismantled in a few minutes and taken off the track in the face of an oncoming train or other norry. The tracks are in terrible condition, making for a bumpy, wobbly ride.

Our excursion on the bamboo train took us through the countryside to a small village where there were plenty of vendors set up selling food, drinks and souvenirs.  Small children expertly and quickly transformed long grass reeds into flowers and rings, offering them to tourists “for free”. This was a great way to get rid of some of our Cambodian Riel which are only worth a few cents anyways.  The kids were happy to get whatever you offered.

Although quite touristy, it was a unique experience, especially when we met  another norry coming in the opposite direction.  The rules of the rail dictate that the train with the smaller load must yield and dismantle off the tracks to let the larger load pass. With three passengers on our norry, ourselves and another tourist, Andrew from Scotland, we usually had the right of way.

Back at the train station, we learned that Andrew had stayed at a home-stay the night before in support of an NGO and was touring the countryside with a volunteer teacher from the NGO, on the back of her motorcycle. Throughout the day, a story emerged, little by little, that by the end, would truly warm our hearts. But for now, all we knew was that Andrew and his “guide” were coming along with us on our tour.

Sophorn was eager to give us an interesting tour.  After the bamboo train, we travelled along some dusty back roads through typical rural villages, giving us a glimpse into what life is  like for the average Cambodian.  Poverty is plain to see, as evidenced by the tattered clothes of children and the very humble shacks where people lived.  Because it is dry season, everything is covered in a thick layer of dirt.  All the trees looked dead, because their leaves were brown from the grime.

Whenever Sophorn saw something of interest, he stopped and explained it to us.  For example, there were many weddings under way and we learned that a young couple will seek the advice of a fortune teller in order to determine what day to hold their wedding. Turns out this day was a popular one!  Girls are usually around 18 years old when they get married, but their husbands to be are much older, 30 or more.  Arranged marriages are still the norm.  When we stopped at the “Golden Gate Bridge” and a fishing village, we learned how the locals planted crops along the river edge during the dry season when they couldn’t fish.  They truly live from one day to the next.

One of several wedding tents we passed, set up on the road making
it a tight squeeze to get around. 

Peanuts drying in the sunshine next to the road.

Young girl emptying the creek to catch fish.

While this rich agricultural region is as flat as a pancake, the temples in the area are perched at the top of hills that just randomly pop up out of the fields like giant ant hills.  After climbing hundreds of steps, we were rewarded with great views, as well as temple ruins older than Angkor Wat.

Our new Scottish friend, Andrew looks on as a young boy fans
me halfway up the steps to the temple. Was I encouraging child labour when
I gave him a buck for his efforts?  Or was I putting food in his stomach that day?

It’s hard to know what to do sometimes.

View from the top of the temple.

Temple ruins older than Angkor Wat at the top of the hill.

We saw fruit bats clinging to trees near a temple where somehow they know they are safe because they are in such close proximity to holy grounds.  These bats are huge, with a wing span of several feet. But they are a nuisance to local farmers because they feed on ripe fruit.  Farmers manage the problem by killing them with sling shots – apparently bats provide a tasty meal.

We visited a winery where we tasted some pretty good Shiraz, some pure grape juice, grape brandy, and pure ginger nectar.

At another temple, also perched atop a hill, we walked into a cave that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a mass grave, one of the notorious killing fields.  A case of skulls was a gruesome and vivid reminder of the horrors of a three year reign of terror that besieged the country in the mid-70’s.  We learned much more during our visit to the capital city, Phnom Penh, which I’ll share in a future post.

Vivid reminders of the atrocities that occurred when the Khmer Rouge were in power.

We ended our day at a bat cave, where at sunset, millions of bats depart on their daily nocturnal feeding frenzy (of insects that is) before returning home at sunrise.  What a sight to see bats streaming out of a small cave, forming a black line against the horizon. As the bats ventured further afar, the long line broke off into smaller groups, swirling gracefully like a beautifully choreographed dance.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in the Cambodian countryside.

But what about Sophorn and his story? Sophorn spoke excellent English and was very articulate, yet he seemed a little reticent about talking about himself or his family.  But each time we stopped, we learned a little more about him, his family and the admirable work he is doing.  Born in 1973, he was a young lad during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he had no other brothers and sisters.  He told us he had two dates of birth – the real one (1973) and the one on his birth certificate – 1977 – a clever change made by his mother so that he would not be recruited as a child soldier.  By the late 70’s, his mother sent him to relatives in Japan to further protect him with the hopes he would have a better life there.

When he returned to Cambodia, he made a living as a motorcycle taxi driver, where he carried a passenger on the back of the bike. When he met an Australian family, his life would never be the same again. This family offered to sponsor him through University!  What an opportunity for him!

When he graduated with a degree in business management, he decided to create an NGO – Battambang Orphanage Village Assistance (BOVA).  The goal of his NGO is to provide care, education and vocational training to Cambodian orphans and the needy children of rural Cambodia and at the same time to build a network of support for impoverished children and families.

We were really impressed that Sophorn was using his education to help others.  He explained that he works as a tuk tuk driver to support his family (he has a wife and two daughters), but anything extra goes to the NGO. He has been offered several lucrative jobs, but if he takes them, he won’t have time for the NGO.  So he is content to be a tuk tuk driver for now.

The NGO is in the process of building a proper school and home for the orphans, and he is doing all the construction himself to save the cost of labour – in his spare time, that is – and only when there is money. He along with other volunteer teachers have started an English language program outside of the regular school system to help children learn English, something he believes is necessary for them to succeed.  The NGO is really in its infancy, just a couple of years old, but Sophorn has lofty goals to reach out with orphanage and school service programs beyond his own community of Battambang into other rural areas.

Like all non-profits, raising money is an ongoing challenge. But there is something about Sophorn, his modesty, humility and sincerity, that once you meet him, makes you want to help him.  Others have felt this way too.

He talked about his friends in Spain who paid for the costs to register the NGO, and as if that wasn’t enough, they gave him the $500 required as a minimal balance to open a bank account.  Another generous person donated a laptop.  And of course there is the Australian family who sponsored him in the first place, paying for his university education, and later contributing the tuk tuk to his NGO.  An Australian university group came to do a documentary on Sophorn, after a chance encounter with the university’s program director and his wife.  He hopes that once the documentary is published, the positive exposure will further help BOVA.

I was impressed that Sophorn never asked us for money or even hinted that we might like to help him.  It was clear that as far as he was concerned, hiring him for the day, giving him employment, was more than enough.

We are aware that there are many unscrupulous people in Cambodia who use orphanages to further their own means and to dupe unsuspecting tourists in parting with their money, money that will line the pockets of these rogues, with nothing going to the children under their care.  Armed with this knowledge, Chris remained somewhat guarded all day, showing minimal interest in Sophorn’s story.  I, on the other hand, felt immediately touched by his story, and I kept asking him questions, so curious about what he was doing.  I never doubted his story, besides, there was plenty of reason to believe him.  Andrew was staying at a home stay run by the NGO – evidence that the NGO existed.  We saw an advertisement for his NGO in a tourist brochure at one of our stops.  He also showed us some photos on his laptop of the university group making the documentary.   There was no doubt in my mind, that this was a legitimate NGO, run by a very honest, trustworthy CEO.  By the end of the day, I could see that Chris was convinced too.

Sophorn and the work he is doing through BOVA touched our hearts and we plan to stay in touch with him and help him in his worthy cause.  You can read more about BOVA and the various projects that are currently underway on their website and  of course, if you are touched as we were, we can guarantee that any donation you make will go to a most worthy cause.

At the Battambang bus station, awaiting our bus to Phnom Penh.

Video:  A day in rural Cambodia


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3 Responses
  1. Marc says:

    Hi Christina,

    This part of the trip is so amazing, all the way from Tahiland to Cambodia. Such different ways of life than ours! It’s hard to believe that you guys are going to be back in Canada in one month! I’m not looking forward to this blog coming to an end… when you’re hooked, it hard to let go!

    BTW, if you have looked into Cloud Atlas, you may want to go on to “The 1,000 Autumns of Jacob DeZoet” by the same author when your done. You will enjoy it very much if you liked Cloud Atlas. This one is set in 1799 Japan. Great read!

    Keep up the terrific stories and amazing pictures! I’ll be with you until you get back!


  2. Angus says:

    Wow what an amazing place. It’s like you saved the best for last. I thought the food selections would be a challenge but I think I’d give them a try as long as there was not nuts or sesame of course.

    The train ride looked like a lot of fun in great weather. You mentioned the poverty but the people look happy and healthy. I’m always amazed at how happy the rest of the world can be without all our “stuff”, maybe that’s why their happy. I did notice that the girl bailing the river had a bunch of men standing around watching her do all the work, typical.

    Man that was a lot of bats! I think bats are pretty cool. Janet and I and some friends rented a cottage up near Petawawa a few years go on the base and it was infested with bats. Really spooked the girls when the bats started flying around the rafters and diving past them to grab a drink in the sink as the girls were doing the dishes. Penguins would have been worse. I’m betting Chris will try to get more penguin pics in before the trip is over 🙂

    • christina says:

      Angus, you wouldn’t survive here a day with all your allergies. Just about everything is cooked in fish sauce and sprinkled with peanuts. You wouldn’t make it past breakfast!

      Funny I made the same observation about the girl doing all the work while her brother and father looked on. Supposedly they were taking turns, but I’d have to see that to believe it.

      Today was our last day in Cambodia and we spent it touring the countryside again with a another tuk tuk driver in the seaside town of Kep (will share more in an upcoming post). Our tuk tuk driver was great, sharing lots of stories and telling us a little about his experiences. I think people in this country have been traumatized by their past – everyone we talk to has a story to tell of pain and horror. Today, there is so much corruption here, and the separation between the rich and poor is appalling. My impression is that people are relieved to be living in relative peace, but life is very hard here, and if you’re poor, there is very little opportunity to better yourself or the life of your children. But in spite of all they have gone through, they do seem happy, especially the children. When we pass in the tuk tuk, they all call out “hello, hello” and wave to us with big smiling faces.

      It’s off to Vietnam tomorrow, our last stop before heading home.