An ARI study tour would not be complete without visiting the rural areas and we did so by visiting our 2009 graduate Ven Ban in his village Trapen Tasom in Takeo province. Ban runs an organic farm with his family but it was originally started by his father after he had come back from a Thai refugee camp after the civil war. They welcomed us with fresh coconuts to drink from and delicious vegetable form the fields. The farm is a beautiful place with Ban concentrating on chicken raising. We observed his fields and learned about the huge differences between rainy and dry season farming.
Not everything was peaceful, though. There are still landmines in this region, with the latest ones discovered and removed from the farm just days before our visit. Another one was still somewhere hidden meters away under a pile of rubbish. Ven Ban’s father then told us about his escape from Takeo to the Thai border during the Vietnamese invasion that brought an end to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
This was my first time to visit the countryside of a South East Asian country and it was a big learning opportunity. To feel the hot sun and get the dust in your eyes gave me such an immediate impression of the realities of the grassroots farming Ven Ban and the people of his community are practicing each day. It is extremely difficult for him to promote organic farming, but through the support of many people he will manage to create a training center soon.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my study trip to Cambodia was the “home stay” experience at a kind of youth community center called “Small World Family”. I went there with no idea what the young people who started this project two months ago were doing there, only to be surprised, inspired, delighted by what I saw.
It’s a bit difficult to explain what SWF tries to achieve. Basically, young people like college students can become a member and utilize the space for sharing ideas with others – ideas for businesses or social projects, for example. They are also free to use internet and get drinks so they don’t need to spend their money in cafés. Then, once they’ve come up with some plan they can further make use of the office space or facilities of the SWF building and expand from there. They also organize events and hold workshops. Some of the members actually live in the house and invest their money to pay the rent.
Everybody I met at SWF radiated with enthusiasm and energy. During the last two months these folks had cleaned the compound from ground up, sowed grass, planted trees, decorated walls… I felt as if I was meeting the most progressive young people of the whole country. They seem to be brimming over with ideas how to connect to young people and offer them opportunities. To feel their dedication to contribute something meaningful to their society was really uplifting after learning about the sad history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge time and the civil war that followed.
Most of the SWF folks were at my age, and I felt there was a kind of mutual understanding that this can bring despite cultural differences. During my homestay, two of the founding members of SWF, Theary and Chhunny, made time to show me around in Phnom Penh. Thanks to them I felt very comfortable. I did not expect such hospitality, let alone to be so touched by their passion. My prayers are with these great people.
These are some impressions from the Small World Family house. They asked my co-participant Mr. Tamura and me to sow some seeds and we carved our names into the bamboo vessels.
The Goel Community is located in the countryside South of Phnom Penh and was started by Korean missionary Mr. Han Jung-Min.
Women who join this project can secure themselves a stable income by weaving and dying fabrics made of natural material. This fair trade and fair labor concept helps them especially during the dry season since farming activities are limited then. Mr. Han revives traditional weaving and dying techniques which had been lost during the Khmer Rouge time. To him, this project is not just a business but a vehicle for sustainable community development, as he slowly gives away all responsibilities to the Cambodian people themselves and sets limits to the commercialization of the products. I was quite impressed not only by the high quality and beauty of the natural clothes but also by Mr. Han’s approach to rural development which was quite in line with the philosophy of ARI.
We visited some of the women at work in their houses, so it gave us opportunity to get a few glimpses of their everyday life.
When I close my eyes I can still see Cambodia: how the bustling streets of Phnom Penh rush past me on a tuktuk drive, or the views of white cows grazing in the green plains, each mist-shrouded horizon beckoning to follow a mystery, an ancient city perhaps, a group of obedient elephants, or a purple sunrise. I hear the chatter of crowded markets, the cacophony of traffic noise mingling with street vendors’ voices, the discussions replaying in my mind, conversations with people, at times disturbing, but mostly inspiring.
I chose not to prepare myself for this ARI-organized study trip, but to let myself be surprised. And surprising a journey this was indeed. It was my first time to a country in South East Asia, and the first time to what some people still call “the third world”. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, to get a taste of the ‘real’ world, as I experience the Western affluance in which we “developed” people live more and more as mirage, a Scheinwelt (illusory world) of artificial fabric well-detached from the realities of the people from whom it sucks its wealth.
I come back with many new impressions, and I let them sink in with their inconsistencies and superficialities with which I perceived them, not yet able to grasp the deeper truths this country holds. I have nothing but gratitude for the hospitality of people and their smiles.
First gallery: Ancient Ruins of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat