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Published: February 22nd 2008
The sacred site of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap covers just a single fraction of the overall archaeological site for which is famed for its enigmatic temples and huge stone faces that even today is still wrapped up and hidden amongst copious amounts of twinning jungle. Inside this sacred space which Cambodians call The Soul of Cambodia laid many interesting and at times hidden communities that many blinkered tourists don't really notice nor wish to see. But the few rare good hearted travelers who dare to venture beyond the boundaries and wonders of these ancient temples will experience a different kind of wonder altogether.
It was my 41st
birthday, I quietly reflected on the most amazing year that had just passed. Since all my detoxing, cleansing and de cluttering I felt a little starved, I needed some project this side of the world to really get my teeth into, that could help others less fortunate as I felt very fortunate at that very moment. The following day we continued to trek though all the ruins with San our trusty tuk tuk driver. It was only 9.30 I felt hungry and near ready to pass out. San drove like the clappers
to a row of shacks where there were local people hanging out and eating. Two monks appeared from nowhere with decorative metal bowls, so I approached them cupping both hands in prayer; I gave them one dollar each. I noticed their bags were bulging with money. They gave me a chanted blessing that was a song I had not heard before and suddenly the whole village was watching the big strange lady get her impromptu blessing. I heard San tell me to make a wish, so I made my second wish of the birthday.
Breakfast took forever to arrive, head resting upon folded arms I felt dizzy and hot but my attention was drawn to a young man who was training his baby daughter to walk, her arms were out stretched above her head, his back bent low, between them they got the walking thing down. I had an impulse to open my arms out to her to encourage her to walk towards me; she started to giggle and made small steps my way. Her dad was laughing he had a friendly face, with her last step dad let her go she did one step on her own then
I caught her, picked her up and gave her a big cuddle. Her name was Emily and dad was twenty eight year old Heng Sokheng, he ran a small orphanage just up the road. We arranged to go and visit the very next day.
It was a lovely sunny morning as we turned up at Heng’s orphanage /school, to a warm welcoming committee from Heng and all his kids, which was created in 2003. Heng had witnessed true atrocities when the Pol Pot regime had killed his parents around 1975; Heng was one year old when he saw his parent’s throats being cut. He was placed within governmental care until the age of seventeen then he had to survive on his own. It was his dream to provide a loving supportive environment for other orphaned children. Most of the children these days find themselves orphaned for a variety of different reasons, the land mines are more or less an issue of the recent past, agencies such as CMAC.org have worked tirelessly to contain this problem, there are many rehabilitation centres in Cambodia for the victims of land mines and for many other illnesses and disabilities, but the biggest killer
here is HIV/AIDS.
Heng worked a normal job at the temples nearby, restoring all the crumbling stone work to its former glory. It’s also a great metaphor for what he is doing for the lives of these amazing children, by restoring their crumbling spirits bringing them back to their former glory. The salary they earn and the salaries their wives earn in the food shacks get’s ploughed back into the orphanage. Currently there are eleven boys living there. These boys have all lived together since 2003 from when they were small, they will never be asked to leave before time as Heng hopes to keep all boys together until they are ready to leave home and make a life for themselves, and they all get on well and consider each other family. This orphanage provides a good solid structure for orphaned, disabled, street boys; they encourage the boys to learn valuable life and vocational skills. The main part of this orphanage is English and art classes. There are morning classes and afternoon classes available every day, but they all go to state school. Their objectives are to eliminate illiteracy, poverty and hunger for these boys, for them
to be able to search for work and to be fully able to contribute to their developing national society.
The kids are all home at around five pm from school and only have Sunday off to play, the TV is locked away in the one and only room that has electricity and opened once a week for a treat. They do their own washing, cooking, cleaning and can study some more if they wish. Heng told me that some tourists come to visit during the week in the middle of the day when the kids are all at school and these expectant tourists actually give him a hard time, some have said they didn't believe he has an orphanage as there are no kids there to see at this time like some kind of zoo and they walk away! Heng worked very hard to maintain some kind of normal consistency as this is fundamentally what kids around the globe need, he wants them to grow up self sufficient, confident and strong in mind, he wants them to speak good English and to have some kind of work skill to see them through, from what I have seen his objective
is working well, in fact better than some western examples of family life I could mention. So as the kids can go to school that is where they will be during school hours, not sat around looking poor and destitute.
I spotted a boy named Soyroth, he has had polio since he was five years old and he is so polite, kind and friendly, he earns the orphanage money by painting amazing oil paintings of Angkor Wat. Some of the boys have now turned sixteen and Heng has found them work within the temples, again working within restoration this is a valuable job for the development of Cambodia's future. They speak good English and are finally earning a salary of up to $70 a month. After a couple of pay cheques some of it is offered back into the very deep pot to help out the younger ones. These young men are guided in maintaining a household budget, then encouraged to rent a room nearby or in Siem Reap town that usually costs around $10 a month.
The boys all sleep in one shack that is falling apart, their own paintings of temples and pagodas are
The art sculptures they create to sell
wedged between bamboo slacks. One bed is high up on stilts and is made of rows of rough bamboo, no mattress, no real blankets, no privacy or even a door. Under the bed the resident ducks and hens also sleep. There isn't a bathroom, they use buckets and mother earth. The kids have been taught to make breeze blocks from cement where they recently built their first building, this isn't finished yet, but the structure is up and the insides are nearly finished, one room is the official office where the TV is kept and the other will be a smaller boy’s bedroom. They have minimal clothing which they try and keep clean and they manage to have a school uniform, which Heng had donated or passed down from others in the area. Although a far cry from my beginnings in Care, they command the same principles of honest good living.
Sadly a year later it was revealed that Heng had been stealing all the money and mistreating his boys, only showing them when tourists were around. There was an investigation and he was found guilty, the kids are now residing elsewhere.
The heart that gives gathers.
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