The other night we went to Sandan Restaurant in Sihanoukville for dinner. Very young apprentice waiters and waitresses, many quite hesitant and nervous, served us under the watchful eye of a slightly older, more confident and experienced young supervisor. Occasionally the apprentices would approach us independently and occasionally the supervisor would accompany them to our table. It became obvious that English phrases were being rehearsed in the corner before they approached to serve us. One young teenager pointed to an empty plate on our table, asking “can I get you something else?” before taking the plate away. He was immediately followed by an equally young colleague who asked “can I take your plate away?” while offering us the menu. They seemingly realised their mistake as they stood off to the side watching us with apprehensive smiles as we tried to stifle our charmed amusement.
Throughout the meal we became increasingly enchanted by these shy, anxious, inexperienced and clearly very brave young people who despite all that, provided an excellent service with delicious food. Unlike young staff in other establishments, it was immediately obvious that they were not accustomed to either speaking English, nor serving or communicating with Barang. Approaching us even for such simple things as taking away an empty plate appeared to be a big deal, but a lot of mutual support was in play as they merged together after each table approach, watching the customers while engaging in quiet conversation together. The team work between them all seemed to include encouragement in the lead-up to a table approach; debriefing after a table approach and observing their Barang customers with quiet fascination. It reminded me of my own early forays into working life, when communicating with a boss, serving a customer, even speaking to someone on the phone, was a very stressful experience. The many differences though, include the decent education behind me, access to opportunities, my good health and access to quality health care, secure home life and complete ignorance of the ugly or seedy side to life.
Sandan is one of a series of training restaurants associated with Tree Alliance, an NGO training street youth and marginalised young people. According to their website http://www.tree-alliance.org/index.asp there are five restaurants, two based in Phnom Penh, one in Siem Reap, one in Sihanoukville and one in the Laotian capital Vientiane. In Sihanoukville the local NGO M’Lop Tapang coordinates the recruitment and training of these youth who are all at least 15yo. http://www.mloptapang.org/index.php?id=34
Our fascination with these young hospitality apprentices, where they must come from and what they must have endured in their brief lives monopolised our dinner conversation and we sensed that we were equally fascinating to them as a whole lot of reciprocal gawking prevailed throughout the night! According to M’Lop Tapang’s website, they have worked with the street children of Sihanoukville since 2003, beginning with a plan to feed and offer safety to six homeless children who slept under a tapang tree on the beach. As with other NGOs such as the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/, this small yet important creation stemming from the heart of caring individuals amplified into a large foundation serving many families and children, reflecting the need that exists in Cambodia.
Equally interesting is the history of Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) which was established in a similar way when a small group of doctors and journalists recognised a need for an independent organisation able to deliver impartial and effective medical aid. The first MSF mission was to Nicaragua in 1972, following an earthquake which razed the city of Managua, killing many thousands of people. Since then MSF has developed into a massive humanitarian medical NGO working in almost 70 countries around the world (www.msf.org.au). In Kampong Cham where I have been living for almost a year while working for MSF, Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA) http://www.bsda-cambodia.org/ is a local NGO which was started in 2003 by seven Buddhist monks motivated by a vision to support and empower marginalised people through health, education and social programs. Destiny Rescue http://www.destinyrescue.org/us/ who work to rescue children from human trafficking and sexual exploitation are a Christian organisation working in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and India. With a base in Kampong Cham, Destiny was started by an Australian man after determining that he wanted to help the poor and vulnerable, particularly children being exploited for prostitution. Other worthwhile organisations seeking the support of Australians include Care Australia, Plan Australia, Mahboba’s Promise and Watoto, all of whom have information available on their websites about the work they do in the developing world. Global Volunteer Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are also worth a mention.
I admit to being skeptical in the past of charitable organisations. At the age of 18 I sponsored a child for a short time through a well known global organisation. Some time after I began my sponsorship, they held a conference in my home town in which a christian evangelist conducted spiritual healings. In protest I withdrew my sponsorship and became very cynical about the “good” such organisations purported to do. However, I have developed a broader understanding of the work that various organisations undertake for the greater good and my previous strongly held anti-religion views have become much more inclusive, whilst I still don’t support the “colonisation” approach of religions trying to convert their beneficiaries. Personally, I feel well represented by the words of Thomas Paine, an English-American activist and author who lived over 200 years ago.
As I say goodbye to another overseas visitor heading off to the temples of Angkor Wat before flying home to Australia, the arrival of an email from a previous visitor who spent three weeks here earlier in the year surprised me. Part of this email reads Met somebody last week who had been to Cambodia earlier this year, her comment was “We were templed out”. Don’t think she saw much of Cambodia. Seeing the temples of Cambodia is only one small part of the travel experience here. If this blog does nothing else, I hope it provides information to potential travelers about the people of one of the world’s poorest countries. When you visit a place where one third of the people have no access to clean water, two thirds have no access to clean toilets, and one third live on less than $1 per day, where NGOs are working hard to improve these conditions, look for things to do and people to meet where your presence in the country can make a small improvement to someone’s life. You will benefit too – because there is absolutely no reason to ever be “templed out” in Cambodia.