Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Part 2

Saturday morning I took a tuk-tuk to the airport to meet Marie, whose trip was off to an interesting start before she even arrived in Cambodia.  On the first leg of her flight Marie sat next to a heavyset, white-bearded man in his 60s.  “I’m willing to give you a massage and I’m pretty good with my hands,” he offered.  When that didn’t work he stepped up his game with a bold move guaranteed to impress the ladies:  balloon animals.  He blew up some balloons, twisted them into the shape of a blue poodle, and – Marie swears – actually made barking sounds as he presented it to her.  The blue poodle was soon joined by a pink and green flower.  Marie was disappointed when her balloons were confiscated by security in Hong Kong.  “I wanted to see the look on your face when I walked out with them,” she said.

Marie seemed surprisingly energetic for someone who had just traveled 19 hours.  “Want to go shoot an AK-47?” I asked.

On the way to the airport my tuk-tuk driver had mentioned that the shooting range was near the airport and suggested we stop there on the way back.  “I never see woman shoot AK-47,” the driver said.  “Never see before.”

“That’s about to change,” I told him.  “The only question will be whether or not she wants to shoot a rocket launcher too.”  Marie’s birthday came and went while she was in the air (thanks to time zone differences it only lasted about 10 hours), and I felt pretty confident she would like the idea of kicking off a brand new year of her life by unleashing the full fury of the world’s most popular assault rifle on an unsuspecting coconut.


Marie Terminating an Innocent Coconut (Video)


On this trip I haven’t been making hotel reservations.  Usually whenever I get to a new town I just walk around until I find a decent mid-range backpacker hotel.  Marie decided that for her visit a little more planning might be in order, and it didn’t take much Internet research for her to conclude that 1) upscale hotels in Cambodia are relatively inexpensive, and 2) if we stay at hotels that provide hair dryers she wouldn’t need to bring her own.  Ten minutes later she forwarded me booking confirmations at five-star hotels for all our time together – two nights in Phnom Penh, four nights in Siem Reap, and two nights at the beach in Sihanoukville.

Our Phnom Penh hotel turned out to be an incongruously large Vegas-style entertainment complex that had a casino and dressed up its staff in the traditional costumes of ancient Cambodia.  The front desk receptionist looked like an Asian Snow White.  “What business are you with?” Snow White asked when we walked up.  Umm…  Prestige Worldwide?  Kramerica?

Marie decided to power through her jetlag and immediately adjust to Cambodia time, so after checking into the hotel we headed out to look around, stopping first at Wat Phnom to see the no-longer-so-evil monkeys.  It turns out the monkeys do still have a little evil left in them – one hissed and bared its fangs at Marie after I goaded her into approaching it for a photo.  “Maybe I should have gotten the rabies vaccination,” said Marie.


Marie with an Evil Monkey


When I first visited Phnom Penh four years ago, a tuk-tuk driver took me to an orphanage.  The kids like to interact with foreigners, and it’s an opportunity for the people who run the orphanage to solicit donations.  I ended up going again a few days later and the place made a real impression on me.  Back home in the U.S., I e-mailed the head of the orphanage to ask about making a donation and to see if I could send the kids prints of the photos I’d taken of them.

An American named Drew McDowell responded to my e-mail.  Drew said he’d been volunteering at the orphanage for four months, and he warned me that donations were being misused.  Part of his e-mail read, “The operation is not entirely above board in my opinion (and many people’s opinion).  I am deeply saddened that the kids are not better taken care of, and I feel that the resources do exist but the ‘staff’ is not making much happen.”  Drew directed me to more reputable non-profits in Cambodia, and he started including me on a distribution list for periodic e-mails that described his own work.

Drew originally visited Cambodia as a tourist about five years ago.  Like me, he was taken to an orphanage by a tuk-tuk driver, and it got under his skin.  Before too long he made plans to return to Cambodia for an extended period of time.  He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do; he just wanted to find a way to get involved.  Initially he volunteered at the orphanage we had both visited, but the corruption was difficult to ignore.  Then he heard that a nearby school was going to be shut down.  He stepped in, along with a local teacher, and kept the school going.

Under the umbrella of the non-profit organization Village Earth, the project Drew eventually started – called Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC) – now operates three schools for disadvantaged children.  Recently they’ve expanded their services to include medical care in addition to education, and, while the focus is on youth, they don’t turn away anyone in need.

I’d followed Drew’s progress through his e-mail updates and hoped to get in touch with him when I returned to Phnom Penh.  I e-mailed him before I arrived, and he responded right away with an invitation to visit one of his new schools.

Marie, after only a few hours in Phnom Penh, had already channeled Rambo, met Snow White, and confronted an evil monkey.  She might have been so loopy and fatigued that she was hallucinating, but she happily agreed to venture into the Phnom Penh slums to tour the EYC school.  I called Drew to confirm.

“Great, I’ll stop by your hotel and pick you up,” said Drew.  “Where are you staying?”

“The, um, NagaWorld…” I mumbled, followed by a lame laugh.

Silence.  “NagaWorld?” he confirmed, probably wondering if he’d misheard me.  “Uh, OK…”

At 5pm Drew met us at our entertainment complex and the three of us took a tuk-tuk to EYC’s Lakeside School.  The original schoolhouse was located on the edge of Boeung Kok Lake, but recently the government decided to fill in most of the lake to make room for more development, so the school had to relocate.  The new building now bordered what had become a major construction project.  Just outside the front door work crews with heavy machinery were busy turning the lake into a sandy field.  By the time we arrived at the school there wasn’t much light left for photos, but I tried to capture a sense of the scene.


Lakeside School


Kids at the Lakeside School


Construction in Front of the Lakeside School


Girl at the Lakeside School


Drew brought us to the school on one of the nights it was providing healthcare services, and we found the main room packed with people of all ages waiting to see a doctor or nurse.  EYC partners with another non-profit to bring together a range of healthcare professionals, including both locals and ex-pats.  We met a Cambodian doctor, a nurse from Australia, and several local volunteers who said they were in medical or nursing school.

Many of the students Drew has worked with over the years want to go on to attend a university, and EYC tries to help those who can’t afford the tuition.  A few of these kids, after overcoming hardships unimaginable to most of us, somehow manage to graduate at the top of their class but lack the financial resources to continue their education.


Student at the Lakeside School
Boy in the Lakeside Doorway
Despite their poverty and tragic history, the Cambodian people seem remarkably happy – smiling, laughing, and outwardly joyful at a level you just don’t see in Western countries.  But the dark side is always there.  Small scenes can be heartbreaking.  A man with a horribly disfigured face begs for a handout; an emaciated mother with matted hair stares blankly into space as she wraps her baby in a filthy blanket; a legless man uses black, bleeding hands to drag himself along the street, inches at time, making a faint scraping sound with each movement…  And what do you do with that?  Randomly handing out a little money here and there feels futile.  Even if the money is spent on something positive, the impact is shallow and temporary.

I like the idea of trying to help one person in a meaningful way.  I like even more the idea of helping a high-potential student who is pursuing a career that will put them in a position improve their own community over a long period of time.  Marie and I met an encouraging example of that – a former EYC student who is going to nursing school at a local university during the day and volunteering at the Lakeside School on the nights it provides medical care.  She didn’t need tuition help, but EYC has other promising students who do.  Marie and I decided to co-sponsor a student for a year of university education.  If anyone reading this might be interested in doing something similar, please let me know and I can connect you with Drew.

3 thoughts on “Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Part 2

  1. Hi Rob,
    Firstly thank you for such a wonderful and detailed blog! I am heading to SE Asia in the new year (unfortunately missing you :P) and can say I will be reading all of your blog in the areas I am hoping to visit! It is wonderful to hear about your experience as a 'travel book' is okay but never gives you the whole story or prepares you for what to expect. Thanks!
    Also, I was wondering if I might be able to get in touch with you and ask you a few questions – both about your travel and about helping/sponsoring a university student in Cambodia.
    Thank you again!


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