Cambodian Smiles

//Cambodian Smiles

Where: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Project: Hunger relief
Element: Fire

Cambodia’s history is one that’s tragic, yet it is one many don’t know about. From 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge communist party killed around 25% of the entire Cambodian population – close to 2 million civilians. The Khmer Rouge genocide greatly contributed to the large amounts of poverty. Cambodia is currently one of the poorest countries in the world. Our host, Kim, provided great insight to living in the aftermath of one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

Aerial view of Siem Reap

Kim was born in 1980, one year after the Khmer Rouge fell. He was the middle of 9 children and came from a poor family that was fortunate enough to survive the war. Kim grew up in a small home where all 11 of his family members slept in one room. A brighter future and living a life outside of poverty was seemingly unreachable for his parents, but Kim remained hopeful.

Determined to make a change, Kim was 13 years old when he decided to run away from home in search for a better life. It took 3 days without food or water for Kim to walk the 70 km journey from his home village in Kampong Kdei to Siem Reap. On the brink of death, Kim finally found himself at a monastery where he begged a monk for food and water. The monk was able to feed Kim and invited him to stay.

During his time there, Kim devoted himself to Buddhism and became a monk. Without money to pay for an education, Kim was unable to attend school but learned everything he now knows thanks to the monastery – including English. Kim knew that speaking English would be instrumental to a better life and seized the opportunity to learn this invaluable skill. After spending 3 years at the monastery, it was time for Kim to move on and apply his new skill towards a job that would provide financial stability.

Kim was able to find work at a restaurant pretty quickly, and would send half of his paychecks to his family. Shortly after, he saved enough to buy a motorbike and before long was able to buy a tuk tuk and grow his business. He started to become financially stable and began supporting 10 different families in Kampong Kdei.

Kim’s tuk tuk

One of the classrooms at NDCCO

Compelled to further support his own neighborhood in Siem Reap, Kim took an interest to setting up the younger generation for success. Kim and his wife, Sakhun, decided to open a free English school for children from poor backgrounds. In 2014, New Dream of Cambodian Children Organisation was founded. Entirely funded from Kim’s tuk tuk business, they rented one room and started with 15 kids. Once they started providing free meals before class, more kids began to join. It was important to Kim to feed the kids as a lot of their families struggled to do so. For instance, Kim’s neighbor is a fisherman and if he doesn’t catch any fish, the family would be unable to eat that day.

NDCCO has now expanded to 4 classrooms and teachers with over 90 kids in attendance. When Kim’s mother fell ill and had to spend 3 months in the hospital, he spent his entire savings to pay for the medical bills. It was difficult for Kim to keep the school running, take care of his family and manage his tuk tuk business during this time. The school remained open, but meals weren’t consistently offered. The priority of NDCCO is to keep the kids in school to provide a better future and break the poverty cycle, then distributing meals whenever possible.

The impact of the enormous medical expenses still affects Kim today and the current state of Cambodia’s economy doesn’t make things easier. As a result, Kim’s daily schedule is rigorous. He begins his day at 4:30am to drive tourists around Siem Reap in his tuk tuk until 5pm. From 5:30pm-7pm, he manages the school and afterwards, he goes back to driving his tuk tuk from 8pm-1am. There are days where Kim will only have a few customers, and where rides can cost as little as $1, earning money can be extremely stressful.

Despite his struggles, Kim is a vessel of extreme positivity and continues his philanthropic efforts in the community. We were honored to have the opportunity to help with the school and visit his childhood home. Although Kim hasn’t been able to provide meals, the kids still come early to play soccer before class. Nick was able to coach and interact with the boys, while Caroline played hand clapping games with the girls. Kim also encourages the kids to pick up trash around the school, instilling an environmentally conscious mentality.

Children picking up trash around school

Kim preparing a big pot of food

After hearing Kim’s story, we got to work and coordinated a big feast for the whole school. We joined Kim and Sakhun at the local market, and purchased all the fresh ingredients for a traditional Khmer meal including rice, chicken and vegetables. Rice is a principal staple and makes up nearly two-thirds of an average Cambodian’s diet, but can often be expensive. In addition to the big feast, we also donated 240 lbs of rice which would contribute to 2,000 meals. We spent the afternoon building a fire and cooking until the kids slowly began to arrive. They were so thrilled to finally have a warm and filling meal, many asking for seconds and even thirds. Seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces and their full bellies were amongst the many highlights of our visit.

Rebuilding a house

Kim still finds time to support his home village despite his busy schedule. An older female monk had been in desperate need for a new home, and together we drove the 70 km in Kim’s tuk tuk to Kampong Kdei and set off to rebuild her house. We removed the deteriorating straw walls, reinstalled most of the beams before hammering the steel metal walls into place. The lady was so happy, she couldn’t stop smiling and was extremely grateful for our help. She is now able to sleep soundly with protection from the rain once the monsoon season arrives.

The happy homeowner

As our time in Cambodia was coming to an end, we were fortunate enough to participate in the school’s Khmer New Year party. It is a special day that all kids throughout Cambodia look forward to – with games, water fights, dancing and a filling meal. We served a delicious big pot of curry after hours of fun. It was the perfect way to end our time at the school.

Though his journey hasn’t been easy, Kim is one of the most charismatic people we’ve encountered. Through hardship, a smile remains on his face. Kim reminds us that we are all capable of a better future. We hope his story inspires you to go out there, make a change and take chances for the greater good. If you’d like to get involved, please check out the New Dream of Cambodian Children Organisation here.

Kids dancing at the Khmer New Year party

Check out more photos below!

2019-06-06T04:14:20+00:00 June 6th, 2019|FIRE|