A day-in-the-life village visit in Cambodia ends up being the most memorable experience of a family’s around-the-world adventure.
Though we had come to Cambodia to see the famed Khmer temples of Angkor, a single day in Kompheim, a rural village about 9 miles outside of Siem Reap, is what sticks in my family’s minds… and hearts. In fact, in 72 days of traveling around the world, this experience was by far the most meaningful.
Our tour operator, Beyond Unique Experiences, has a partnership with this village. A village organizer identifies impoverished families to host visitors. Beyond gives those host families a small payment and contributes a larger payment to the village fund for projects like water filters and wells.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Many travel destinations have one-day volunteer opportunities for tourists, including kids. Seek out these socially-responsible tour companies. While it may seem odd to pay to work, the rewards are immense.
What to do?
With a guide and driver, we arrived via oxen cart at the home of Ame, a married mother with four children, ranging in age from 10- to 18-years-old. The family lived in a two-room stilted hut with palm leaf walls and a tin roof. (Beyond provided the roof as part of a previous project.) On this day, we helped Ame make additional palm leaf panels to complete the walls for her kitchen. My sons, ages 10 and 13, took their jobs very seriously. In all, we made 13 panels; she needs another 200.
Though she didn’t speak any English, we understood that Ame loved her children but was struggling to provide them with basic necessities. Next door, her two nephews lived with their father; their biological mother had abandoned the family. While dad was working, the 6-year-old was in charge of caring for his 1-year-old brother. The baby was hard to win over, but I eventually did with a constant smile and handful of fruit.
We had a very good conversation with our guide and driver. You truly have to feel for the Cambodian people. They were very open about the impact the Khmer Rouge and civil war have had on this country. Our driver lost nearly his entire family in the genocide. Today, they view tourism as a way to escape poverty and improve the country’s economy.
We watched as our guide, Sokha, prepared a special meal for the family. It consisted of herbs (garlic, ginger, lemongrass), red chillies, fish paste (fermented bones and guts, plus salt), and winged red ants. Yep, ants. To be polite, we tasted the dish, considered a special treat for the family. Needless to say, we won’t be having it again. Our lunch consisted of vegetarian sandwiches wrapped in palm leaves and fresh fruit. A large banana leaf served as a tablecloth.
Before leaving, each of us planted a fruit tree for the family, provided by Beyond. The mango trees will yield fruit in four years; the rambutan tree in seven. We certainly hope that this family’s situation will have improved by then.
After saying our goodbyes to our gracious hosts, we went on a walking tour of the village. My sons were both surprised and unsettled to see such inequality in the village. Some families, referred to as Tier 3, had large homes with concrete walls, mature fruit trees, and livestock. They had robust gardens on good plots of land that yielded plenty to eat. Not so for Ame.
Beyond also has initiated an ingenious program. Knowing that trash is an eyesore in Cambodia, Beyond rewards families for returning plastic bottles filled with trash. If they collect 12 bottles, they get one kilo of rice; if they collect 1000 bottles, they get a second-hand bike. Beyond has used the bottles to build three buildings in the village which house English classes and vocational training for women.
This one-day experience has stuck with my children. When they discuss poverty around the world in their classrooms, the boys understand what that looks like. But they also understand that people - even kids - have the power and ability to help those in need.
Beyond Unique Escapes charges participants $42/each, which includes transportation, guide, lunch, bottle water, and one fruit tree/person to plant for the family. Discounts available for children.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah and her family traveled to Cambodia as part of a 72-day trip around the world.