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      by Published on 3rd April 2013 03:42 PM  Number of Views: 1063 
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      Easter is that time of year where normal “working families” (as Julia would describe them) get an extended break and the opportunity to travel to far flung locations in search of entertainment, nature or solitude, among other things..

      While I don’t fit the description of a working family
      Published on 5th April 2011 03:00 AM  Number of Views: 1144 

      Image Chi King via Flick


      I first visited Cambodia in 2004, a nightmare bus ride on the road from to Aranyaprathet in Thailand to Siem Reap was a harsh introduction, i was immediately reminded of the corruption endemic in S E Asia, the road apparently left unsealed and in a very poor state of repair so that tourists would fly on the airline which had a monopoly on the Bangkok to Siem Reap route, rather than take the much less expensive overland option.

      I was "delivered" to a guest house which obviously had an arrangement with the bus company to "welcome" new arrivals, normally i would seek my own accomodation but the guest house was located away from the main areas and priced reasonably, so one night wouldn't hurt.

      The next day i found a place near the old market, a wonderful example of the culture and lifestyle that you can encounter in this part of the world. I found a driver with a tuk tuk who would take me to the Angkor group of temples, an oustanding attraction.

      All around me though was the less attractive "sights" of young children begging, selling post cards, drinks, whatever they might make some money from, they told me tales of how every so often the police would extort money from them, or steal their goods, and when i was approached a copper offering to sell me his police badge, i really started to wonder what sort of crazy place i was in.

      I went to Phnom Penh next and, probably along with Mumbai, saw some of the most wretched poverty i had ever experienced. I was followed disfigured and dirty adults and children, hoping for a few riels, or even some food, it was very confronting.

      My next stop was Sihanoukville, the seaside playground of tourists and Khmers alike, it was a welcome relief from the dirt and dust of Phnom Penh, but still crawling with unfortunate souls trying to eke out a meagre living, however they could.

      I had a life changing experience meeting a Khmer school teacher who, with his small amount of English, told me about his life, job and family, i wondered how this fellow, who had virtually no material possessions, could still seemingly be so comfortable with his life. When he exclaimed that he had friends who had gone to Australia years ago as refugees, and that when they went to the supermarket they "bought groceries for a whole week", it really came home to me how lucky i was, an accident of birth, but so so lucky.

      I started to wonder what i could do to help, i believe it's a common reaction for tourists when confronted with such things, but how? I couldn't give money to everyone! There had to be a way... I decided that i could choose where i spent my money, so i would only eat and drink in Khmer owned restaurants, and preferably those run families.

      I found a shack on Ochheuteal beach run a family, mum, dad, and four daughters, they treated me like a king, it was very touching, i bought all the girls gifts, lent my rented motor scooter to dad to run errands. But somehow it wasn't enough, for me that is, i felt like an impostor, handing out favours, and even worse, trinkets, i left Cambodia a frustrated man.

      I returned in 2007, travelling with a girl friend, she wanted to go to a beach, i wanted to see my friends and let her see for herself what i had tried to explain to her about the bravery of Khmers. I was shocked, the amount of foreign aid which go's to Cambodia every year surely must make some sort of impact i thought? But if anything living standards had dropped even further, it was demoralising!

      In 2009 i went back, this time to Phnom Penh. I went to a guest house run a lady i had met in Sihanoukville in 2004, she didn't remember me but no matter, i was made very welcome, she had no rooms but insisted i take hers, i'm not sure where she slept.

      The situation had not changed, endemic corruption and poverty. The most noticeable change was probably the deterioration of what i liked most about Khmers, their unfailing spirit! I did some research, over 70% of Khmers live below the poverty threshhold of $2 per day, and the evidence is all around.

      It was there though i met another Australian chap, Ross, from Geelong. He struck me as a decent bloke, sadly you cannot assume this about a lot of expats who choose to live in this part of the world...we talked, he told me how he had taken retirement, been divorced, and had started to wonder about what he was doing with his life.

      So he went to Cambodia, but not as a tourist, he made his home there, married a local, a lovely lady from the province of Battambang. They bought a home, in her name, as foreign ownership laws apply in most cases. At any time there could be up to twenty people in his home, he would be lucky to know half of them, but this was the Khmer way, and for better or worse, he was embracing it.

      But, what to do? it can be a very lonely place to retire to, the boredom can be debilitating, some choose to drink, others will do drugs, and the one constant is exposure to the poverty, Ross chose not to ignore it, but to take it on, but again, how?

      There are many NGO's in Cambodia, and they will all take your money, how much of it actually gets to the needy is arguable though, you can do your own research on that question..so Ross was looking for a more direct route, at first he worked with a group that did runs to the local dump, they would take food to feed the families that lived there. The convener of that group, sadly, was exposed as corrupt (amongst other things) and has been deported, due to Ross' diligence.

      Next he found an orphanage that cared for 17 HIV positive orphans, i met the kids and the convener of that charity, it seemed OK, but things didn't always "add up", sadly he had to cut ties with that group, they are now being supported others...

      So where to next? Things are never easy in Cambodia..trust can be difficult to bestow, with his colleagues they decided to get back to basics, the purest form of charity, find the poorest, most disadvantaged group and give them direct aid.

      So CHOICE Cambodia was born http://choice-cambodia.org/blog/ Have a look at their blog and Facebook page if you want to know more. The link is on the home page also, thanks Mick!

      So, why am i writing about this? Because i often i talk to people who give to any number of charitable causes, and rightly so, we in the "first world" ARE the lucky ones, and notwithstanding the xenophobia which taints Australian political dialogue, extending a helping hand is the right thing to do!

      So if you want to support a cause, consider this one, it's totally transparent, there are no monies removed for wages, no "snouts in the trough", if you're in Phnom Penh you can join them for a village trip, use your money to buy things, and give them to the sick, poor and hungry yourself.

      And if you can't make it, you can send them a donation, run a fund raiser, contact them and they might advise of other ways you can help, whatever, it's up to you!


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