Philanthropy in Prey Veng
Imagine 30-something sugar caned sipping perky university students, over 400 plus screaming, but obedient elementary kids, 1 charismatic teacher, and a Khmerican backpacker.
Now start falling in love with the beauty of the country's landscape of swaying palm trees, lime green naturally perfect trimmed grass, the light chocolate mighty Mekong, and the romantic mountains delicately tucked in the backdrop.
So with the personal invitation of co-organizer, Chak Sopheap, I joined in the programming - a joint effort by students of the University of Cambodia (UC) and Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). The agenda inked a courtesy visit to a remote village school to donate supplies, plant some trees and spend time with the children.
The drive began in a nearly packed air-conditioned bus. At around 6:45 at the whip of sunrise, the bus left the campus of the University of Cambodia; 45 minutes off the itinerary. I was zombie-knocked out for much of the 2-hr trip; fighting insomnia and trying to enjoy my Sissamouth tracks.
"Mate eurh kom pleang (Please sky don't rain)," I murmur The Golden Voice's lyrics while staring off to the deep gray horizon.
Three quarters near our destination, the bus arrived at Neak Leung Ferry which crosses the milky Mekong. Around a dozen vehicles could fit this overused and abused ship. While loading, I purchased some sour mangoes in salt and hot pepper from krama covered ladies. I observed that many carried a large circular platter of maloo or Khmer tobacco; perhaps a regional staple product.
Fifteen minutes later, we resume back on National Route 1. We arrived at what we assumed our destination. "But where is the school and the children?" we asked in unity. Our driver stopped.
"Um, we cannot squeeze our bus in that narrow red dusty dirt road," said the middle-aged, baseball cap wearing driver.
"Sure we can," echo the students. "And its starting to sprinkle, we might as well try."
But we didn't.
And it was the smart choice under these adverse weather and road conditions. Besides, the walk shouldn't be that bad - only 3 kilometers nestled deep in the road was where the school was situated.
But sprinkle now turns to drizzle. With only a large krama at hand and my signature North Face bag, I joined the gang for the trot. I could not bear walking. My thin, rusty green colored kow a chaa (traditional Khmer pants) had already started to absorb the rain drops. My deep military green button up shirt, too, began to dampen. I lost patience after fifteen minutes and suggested Sopheap for us to hop on a motodop. Without reservation, she obliged.
The two of us arrived minutes later soaked to the bone. Oddly though, the area was spared from the downpour. Kids and adults stared while we walked in the school confines - smiling and waving their hands. "Soksabai oun, soksabai!"
To a siren megaphone, the program begins. A stalky and charming university professor takes host while lines of pencil straight schoolchildren arranged neatly takes attentive. The next 30 minutes was a series of class competitions and spotlighted performances.
A young man around the age of 12 takes the stage. He grabs the microphone - poised. In a country with a saturated music industry where "everybody sings," his voice gives me reason to believe that Khmers will never lose this natural talent. He "oohs and woos" the crowd with every single breath. Remember his name - Chet Sereymon of Prey Veng province - the real Khmer idol. The UC/PUC students and I donated as much riels we could after the boisterous ovation.
Next, a boy and girl from each class are picked randomly from the crowd. Based off each level, the host entertains the crowd with Khmer trivia.
"How do you spell such and such in Khmer," to more difficult, "What provinces touch the great lake of Tonle Sap?"
Srey sross, Chhoun Nareth, 22, of UC is hand picked to come on stage to advocate about health and beauty.
"It is important to take care of your health by being clean at all times. Wash your hands with soap, brush your teeth after every meal, and stay away from infected chicken because of the bird flu," said Nareth, who now has everybody's attention.
After the PSA announcements, games and the motivational talk, the university students and I began distributing the donated school supplies. Over 400 students, in nicely packaged wrapping, received a couple notebooks, ruler, several pens and pencils, and stickers. The dozen or so teachers present received a big brown envelop gift package. The crowd is overjoyed with gratitude and smiles.
While the crowd disperses in groups to begin the tree planting ceremony, I took the opportunity to speak with the young singer. I gave him my name card and encourage that he contact me soon for a possible Phnom Penh Post story. I learned that he is fatherless because of the Khmer Rouge.
The majority of the kids have dissipated back to their homes at around 1 PM. My stomach begins to growl but a much harder down pour has soured the lunch plans. We had to wait for cover under a traditional Khmer stilted house for more than thirty minutes before the rain eased and our transportation to arrive. That ride became the most "dangerous ride of my life."
Why, you might ask? Just imagine 30 or so students crammed in a roofless pick-up truck with low railings on wet bumpy narrow dirt road under mad rain! For the twenty minutes, Sopheap, Nareth, and I clustered together along the bunch. Strategically, we jammed in the middle. We had to dodge tree branches by bending down in uncomfortable positions and at the same time, fight for stability with the momentum of the students who stood. Many times, I anticipated for the worst - that a domino reaction of students stumbling over each other causing serious injury. While several of the guys continue to laugh and joke around, I sure for one became extra focused. Maybe they had experience riding under these conditions. I really don’t know. Luckily, minus Bopha's jolt in the abdomen from Sopheap knee cap, everyone came out okay.
The drive back to Phnom Penh was smooth cruising once we got on National Route 1. But I was still foodless for almost a half day now. I was given a nom psalm chrouk by the locals as a snack, but couldn’t bear to eat it. I wanted something more wholesome like rice. We fought starvation until I arrived back in Phnom Penh at 3:30 to the scent of fried chicken at Lucky’s.