December 31, 2010

Blogsherpa Carnival # 17 - "Feel Good" Travel

Song and Dance for the Soul
Angkor Wat
It's no secret that Cambodia is a war-torn country riddled with extreme poverty and devastated by the legacy of a corrupt ruler and the deaths of over 3 million affluent citizens. Little bare babies play in small lakes of muddy water, unable to enjoy their backyards for fear of stepping into their doom as the mines that litter the fields across the country still echo the after effects of war. This was our “scenic” view as we entered Siem Reap, having crossed into Cambodia from the fruitful simplicity of Laos. But this tale is not a sad one. This story, what we experienced first-hand and what moved us, is a hopeful and heartfelt one - a typical narrative that emerges from countries that have teetered on the brink of complete annihilation and still survived.

Upon arriving in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we settled into a guesthouse. We had met some friends from the Netherlands en route from Laos, and decided to take a walk around the city with them. February in Cambodia was hotter than hot, with sweat dripping from our brows, we hurled ourselves into the cool solace of a nearby shopping mall. Just like any other over-consumptive society, there was more variety then you could ask for, from soft drinks to junk food, Now there's a thought!

Monk at Angkor Wat
We managed to pry ourselves out of the frigid shopping complex and immerse ourselves, ever so modestly, into the culture for the next 4 days. That’s when we happened upon the ACODO (Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organization). In our 3rd day in Siem Reap, us overexcited, attention-deficit travellers were seeking something new, perhaps a traditional Khmer performance, we thought. We asked the knowledgeable owner of the guesthouse, and he pointed to a little postcard sitting on the reception desk. The ACODO Orphanage hosted a Khmer performance, and other dances, every night at 19.30 for visitors. When we agreed to go, we notified the owner, and thanked him for his suggestion. Before we left, he asked if we wouldn’t mind taking a bag of clothing and supplies along with us. This was the first hint into what would become, and continue to be, an education on Cambodian culture and society- one that we welcomed with open arms…and that apparently was ready to welcome us too... We squeezed into a tuk tuk and arrived at the orphanage, on a dark, rickety street. As we slowly took steps towards the dimly lit entrance, then opened the door, it felt like we had opened the doors to the Yellow Brick Road, as little children, between ages 2-18, came running towards us with excitement and huge smiles on their faces. Who were these little barefoot strangers who welcomed us into their home without hesitation? We later found out that many of them were the children of parents who had undergone great psychological duress in the aftermath of the Pol Pot era and the Killing Fields, and could no longer care for their children. There were also children who had been burned, disabled and needed assistance, and ACODO cared for them all.

First off, the coordinators at ACODO told us the history of the orphanage that was founded by Mr. Hengchhea Chheav. Then they took us around to see the orphanage. The two large wooden planks that sat against each wall and lines of mats along them signalled to the need for improved sleeping conditions.

The floors were damp as the children walked around barefoot, some carrying smaller kids in their arms, but always smiling. We were distracted from our surroundings to a stage. The children ushered us towards seats, and the show began. Music filled the room, and the children took the stage; dancing and singing in a perfectly choreographed performance of hope. It’s almost hard to hold the tears still. The dance show was almost professional, except for the adorable faces peeking through the curtains, watching their friends dance on stage, and they all just looked overjoyed to be performing for an audience. It didn’t seem like a chore to have to perform it each night. We were later told that there were nights when people didn’t show up to watch them. Well, you can imagine the disappointment. For a mere $10, these young orphans treated us to the most beautiful Khmer performance. After the show, all the performers proudly gathered on stage for their bows and for a farewell song.

ACODO children
Luckily, we got to spend some time with them afterwards. These were ten precious minutes that we’ll always remember. How can you forget the faces of almost 50 orphans smiling back at you, singing, giggling and playing? With heavy feet, we made our way out of the orphanage and back to our guesthouse. However, we knew that this wasn’t the last that we would see of these children. The effects of the feelings we had in the following days and months can only be measured by what we chose to do once we got home. After a year of travelling through some of the most exciting and uplifting countries, Cambodia was the one that compelled us to act. Once we got home, while immersing ourselves in the over-consumptive wedding sector, we made one decision. We knew that ACODO was providing the children with the care, nutritious food, education and the shelter they needed to grow up as healthy, happy people, we just wished that there were something more we could do to help out. The $10 donation we had made to ACODO that night just wasn’t enough. Instead of asking our loved ones for donations, we made a donation to ACODO on behalf of the guests who attended our wedding in lieu of wedding favours. That way, we were able to expand the web of people that knew about these children and that wanted to support them like we did. It was easy, a wire transfer later, one day we received photos from ACODO of the kids on their field trip to the beach. We now regularly updates about how they relocated to better facilities, where they were able to construct better accommodation quarters and classrooms. Every year, our family has become accustomed to supporting the ACODO Orphanage. Does it feel good? Yes. And to know that our serendipitous quest for entertainment one night along our travels led us to these kids - who taught us so much about humanity and who changed our perspectives on the world - makes it all that much more worthwhile.

I couldn’t resist including their website, because the kids' photos and stories are unbelievable.

In addition to, this posting is also featured as a part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival. Every two weeks one of Lonely Planet's favorite bloggers becomes the editor of a series of postings all centred on the same theme. This week’s editor is Simi at See Simi and the declared theme is, "Feel Good" Travel. So visit See Simi as of December 30 to read what the Blogsherpas came up with.

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