Building an Orphanage in Cambodia
Red or blue? I asked myself sitting at my desk. It’s something I had thought about for a while, sitting in my comfortable, mediocre paid, extra-super-duper secure government job. Take the red pill and the risk to discover the real world outside of my narrow-horizoned existence or take the blue and stay safe within the confines of my perfectly adequate personal corridor of life? It had been over 4 years of a sometimes intense but mostly boring and frustrating career. It was time for a change. I could see my life ahead of me; career progression, pay rise, house buying, family starting…adequate. At 23 I felt I’d come into this all too early and wanted to explore life, to take a chance and to see some of the world. So that’s what I did.
From South East Asia to Siem Reap
Fast forward about 2 years and past too many stories to tell here. I was in South East Asia having the time of my life. I’d landed on a one-way ticket into Bangkok from New Zealand after a brief stop off back in Australia. I’d had to buy another ticket out of the country to satisfy the immigration laws but to me that was irrelevant and I was going do exactly what I had done for the past 2 years… wing it. It took me a couple of months to make my way through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam before heading into Cambodia.
Along the way I had met a lot of people, a lot. Some great, some indifferent, some bad and some full-on mental. One Dutch guy I met told me about the volunteering he had done in Siem Reap. He’d been to an orphanage and taught English to the kids there for 3 weeks. There are a lot of issues surrounding voluntary teaching and short length of stays being detrimental to the continuity of the children’s learning experience but it got me interested and opened me up to the idea of helping out in some way. He gave me the name of the hostel he’d stayed in which is par for the course of any traveller and we went our separate ways. Upon reaching Siem Reap I found the hostel and settled myself in. I’d been enjoying myself for a few days and with no deadline to adhere to was just going with the flow and seeing what was going on.
The hostel had a great atmosphere and I met an exceptional group of people there. We decided to visit the Temples of Angkor and arranged a tuk tuk driver to take us for sun rise. It blew me away. Coming out of one of the temples I came across a teenaged Khmer boy dressed head to foot in hip hop gear who looked like he’d come straight out of an MTV video. I was instantly suspicious of him. He was selling small hand drawn postcards for $1 and claiming that all money gained from his sales went towards helping his orphanage. I stopped to speak to him and asked him where the money would go and what it would do. I asked him if the money would really go to an orphanage and an older man I had not noticed before answered for him. The man was in his late 30’s, wearing a straw sun hat, a pair of glasses and modest clothes. He had been standing sketching one of the temples. He told me the money would go to the orphanage, that he was the Director and his name was Leng. Humbled and ashamed in the same instance I apologised to both of them, shook Leng’s hand and started to talk about the orphanage with him. I explained I was staying in Siem Reap and looking for any way I could volunteer to help anywhere. Leng told me they were about to begin a building project and that I would be welcome to help out in any way that I could. We spoke for a while and discovered we had a mutual friend as a girl I had met in the hostel called Hannah was volunteering with him teaching art skills to the orphans. We arranged to meet again through Hannah as she was making daily trips to the orphanage and I could go with her.
That night I tracked Hannah down and spoke to her about my meeting with Leng. We needed some more people for the project and she made a sign in the hostel to attract volunteers with building experience. Fortune favoured us and we found Richard - a cockney geezer and a trained carpenter that had been working on building sites over in Oz. That was it! We were going to do it! We were going to build a hut! If only it were that easy…
The ODA Orphanage
The orphanage itself was called ODA. It stands for Orphans and Disabled Arts. Leng, the Director had been an art teacher and opened the orphanage in 2003. He himself was an orphan and told me that his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. This quiet unassuming man became a inspiration to me and a symbol of strength and kindness that I won’t forget. He housed not only orphans but children from families who couldn’t afford to look after them or disabled children who were no longer wanted by their own parents. Money was tight and not tight by mine and your standards but really fucking tight. Each child lived on less than $1 / day and they all slept in one concrete room. Leng taught the kids how to paint so they could sell their work in order to help raise funds for food or school uniforms or whatever they needed. The hut we were going to build was going to be a modest gallery to house and display the larger pieces of art that hopefully tourists would buy.
Before we could start we needed some materials. Rich was the man in charge on this front and we drove around in Leng’s car checking out different building suppliers and eventually settled on some massive wooden logs - not timber specifically cut for our task but just some massive wooden logs. I quickly realised we were doing this ‘Cambo style’. We sorted out other materials such as cement mix and sand and arranged for it all to be delivered. We bought a saw, a spirit level, some twine and a hammer and we were set! Well, kind of.
First day was great! We met all the kids before starting work. They were amazing! Smiling faces, all excited to see us and really happy and playful. They were mostly younger children from about 2 - 9 and there were a few teenaged ones. One of the older children was Tryvet. He was 17 and had lived at the orphanage from a young age. He had always been the one to pump clean water for everyone from the well. As a result of this he had extremely strong shoulder muscles but also looked under nourished. He told me he had pains in his back and stomach and it was because his torso was not strong enough to hold up his large shoulders. He was our main helper while working and worked along side us the whole time. Whenever we ran out of nails he would race around looking for ones that had fallen to the ground and gather them up for us while someone went off on their bike to buy a new handful. All the kids loved dancing - break dancing! They were fantastic at it. They loved to play volleyball too over a piece of string that was tied between a tree and the outside of their bedroom.
Leng showed us what we would be doing. There was a dilapidated old hut already there and he wanted us to build a replacement. He had been informed by the local policeman that if he wanted to build a new hut he would have to pay a hefty fee for no other reason than to line that particular copper’s pocket. It was our task not only to build the new hut but to try and mask the fact that we were doing it. The plan was to leave the old structure in place and build the new one around it and make it look as though we were just repairing it before pulling the old one down from inside. We set about it - again, Cambo style. Rich was the main man overseeing everything and I was basically his labourer. We dug holes for the foundations of the new logs we had bought which were going to form the main structure for the building. I was mixing cement and we were putting the logs into place, each one taking 2 men to move. We worked hard and it was a very endearing experience. All the main logs were in place by the end of the day.
The next days involved a similar routine. We were picked up from the hostel and taken to work. We were working on the other parts of the structure which consisted of linking the main logs up with large green pieces of bamboo while simultaneously taking down other parts of the original hut. I don’t know if they were bought or just hacked down but I’m presuming hacked down going with the Cambo style theme. Leng managed to borrow a circular saw from one of the neighbours which eased our work a fair bit but their electricity came from a generator which kept breaking down so we went back to the hand saw a lot of the time. We had very limited supplies of everything so while taking down the old structure the nails would be re used putting the new one together.
One of the best parts of volunteering was spending time with the kids at the orphanage. After we finished work for the day we would always stay around for a while and play games like volleyball and talk. They loved to talk and practice their English and they would teach me bits of Khmer.
One day we were picked up and Leng told us that the policeman had been round to see what was happening and made him pay $100 or else he would destroy the building. I was furious! I couldn’t believe it! Here we were in a country where 80% of the population have nothing and some corrupt official is extracting money from a worthy cause for his own personal gains! $100 is a lot of money in Cambodia and especially to Leng and the kids where every cent counts. I didn’t know how to react but Leng said to me there was nothing we could do - you can’t argue with a man with an AK47. Mother fucker! Raging inside we carried on and at least now we could completely get rid of the old hut which was causing a big obstruction to our work. The word anger doesn’t cover it and it summed up the state of the country even in these modern times. The corrupt elite get richer by siphoning away money from the destitute. In Cambodia you can see a 4X4 Lexus with blacked out windows and huge rims drive down the same side of the street where you see a mother and her three children curled up for the night on a piece of carpet.
Once the main structure was sorted the final few days were working on the roof. As the lightest I was nominated to be up on the bamboo poles hammering things into place. We had one set of ladders I could use to get myself up there then work my way along the balance beam network of bamboo. Once we had completed the skeletal structure of the hut the whole of the orphanage joined in attaching pre-woven sheets of bamboo and leaves into place to fill out the walls and the kids were up on the roof thatching it with woven leaves that had been prepared earlier. It was an amazing sight and the bamboo poles that had just supported my weight earlier now had 2 or 3 Khmer kids on them putting the roof together.
In what seemed like a blink of an eye it was done. It was an extremely rewarding experience for me personally. Getting to know Leng and the kids gave me a deeper understanding of the country I was in and the incredible suffering and hardship its people had been through and some were still enduring. We at times spoke about his life and I always thought I was aware of how lucky I am until I met him. One of the main things I took away from it was the understanding that people still hold the same ambitions as anyone else no matter if they’re English, Cambodian, Argentinean, Dutch or whatever and it is an absolute travesty of this world to be limited in your options merely by the country you were born in.
Where were you born? What do you want to do?
Red or blue?
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