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Cambodia: Can We Help?

March 25, 2012

Friends Restaurant, Phnom Penh

Cambodians are rebuilding after years of war and genocide. Can we help?

In his book Reframe, Eric Knight tells of his time as a twenty-year-old volunteer aid worker in a small village in Costa Rica. He and his fellow volunteers were to build a community hall for the village.

At first it seemed that the villagers had an idyllic life in the jungle, and only needed a few basic amenities, such as the hall, to make it perfect. But as he got to know the villagers, he learnt that they didn’t want the hall. They wanted better education, they wanted people to help mentor their kids: “The world was changing and these kids were missing out on the benefits of economic progress.” He was shocked when the kids told him they wanted to be accountants, businessmen or lawyers.

“I began to realise that [they] didn’t want the life I had imagined for them … In projecting my own dreams for them, I was robbing them of the freedom to have their own.”

Knight’s story is a warning for those who want to help other people, especially in another country. We should always question what we are doing to make sure we are not imposing our own agenda, creating more problems or fostering dependence on outside help.

The first step is to educate ourselves about what needs to be done and the best way to help. In Siem Reap I visited the office of ConCERT, an NGO whose mission is to advise visitors so as to maximise the benefits for Cambodians who are most vulnerable. Check out their website here for information on donating, sponsoring and responsible volunteering.

Students at Romdeng, another Friends restaurant in Phnom Penh

Most travellers are not in Cambodia long enough to volunteer, but there are many other ways to help. In Siem Reap, Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School trains, free of charge, about 100 disadvantaged young people per year for the hospitality industry. Preference is given to females to overcome their higher vulnerability and lower access to education. Travellers can help simply by having lunch there – I enjoyed delicious fish amok in a relaxing atmosphere. I learnt to make the same dish in a cooking class at Le Tigre de Papier restaurant. The profits from these classes are donated to Sala Bai.

In Phnom Penh, Friends-International runs restaurants that train street children for the hospitality industry: superb food, beautifully presented. Travellers can also visit Community Based Ecotourism projects such as Chi Phat, or use responsible ecotour operators such as the Sam Veasna Center.

Tourists in Siem Reap may be disturbed (or charmed) by children selling souvenirs or begging in the streets. Can we help these children? This will be the subject of the next post.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. theelectriccane permalink
    March 25, 2012 5:56 pm

    So, so true!

  2. theelectriccane permalink
    March 25, 2012 6:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Theelectriccane's Blog and commented:
    I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know the language and culture of the place you intend to work. Whether you work in a hotel or as part of an NGO, please, get to know the local culture. What you think is best might not be so effective.

    When I first moved to Hue, I wanted to do so many things to help the blind. “Let’s get braillers, braillenotes, ” I said. After I observed the culture, I decided that the advanced technology used by blind kids intthe US

  3. Bryce permalink*
    March 25, 2012 10:27 pm

    Here’s the rest of theelectriccane’s comment:

    “Know the culture where you work

    Posted on March 25, 2012

    Sorry, I wasn,t able to finish the previous post.

    Anyway, I decided that we should skip the fancy technology and keep to the basics. Braillers are heavy and noisy. Braillenotes cost a lot of money and nobody is trained to repair them. We bought one piece of equipment that gathered dust in a box for six months before it was even opened. Yes, its tough knowing that people could do something to improve their lives, but choose not to….

    But if a Vietnamese person goes to Boston and says that blind students should use slate and stylus, there would probably be a lot of resistance.

    So don’t assume that your way is the only way. Not everyone agrees.

    I wipl post about the technology I just wrote about so those of you who know nothing about blind people won’t be left wondering.”

    Thank you to theelectriccane – that’s a great example of how different people need different solutions, depending on their culture and where they live. For other readers, has just posted four interesting videos explaining technology for people who are blind.

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