Founder of Hands on Journeys, Simla’s petite frame, gentle eyes and infectious smile are deceiving. She’s a driven, passionate and selflessly caring powerhouse, who wells up as she describes the living conditions we’ll encounter the following day and the impact her projects are already bringing to a tiny village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.
You can’t help but be inspired to join her cause.
Whilst voluntourism is not new, Simla believes Hands on Journeys’ format is different. She stresses the importance of empowerment – giving the tight-knit community the skills and tools to create their own source of income. We’ll work with the families to improve facilities and sanitation around their home, as well as encourage them to construct chairs and other products they can sell or swap at market.
After a decade of travel for pleasure and many years working in the tourism industry, for me, embarking on this journey was about discovering a very different style of travel. Making a conscious choice to align with a grassroots, sustainable tourism-focused company. A company offering both the chance to intimately experience the heart and soul of the country, as well as making considerable effort to empower change and inspire health and hope to a desperately poor village that, until today, has survived on the strength of love, unity and family.
Early the next morning our bus weaved through traffic out of Siem Reap; soon turning off the road to trundle a short distance down a muddy side street. The sun seared overhead, the air still and steamy following a tropical downpour overnight. We reached the tiny village on foot and were immediately greeted with open arms from several children and elders, while the shy smiled from a distance.
Within the compact fence-enclosed compound was scattered a half-dozen ramshackle wooden huts with rusty corrugated tin roofing. Some homes were raised on concrete stilts; others were low-set with sodden dirt flooring. Inside deep puddles lay beneath a bamboo-slated platform, where an entire family would sleep side by side. Around the yard clothes were strung out to dry and rubbish littered the perimeter. Nearby playful children with nut-brown skin waded shin deep in drains flooded with rank cloudy grey water and floating trash. One squat toilet was shared between 30 people. The youngsters washed their faces and bodies under a hand pumped well. This was the same water pump from which they’d cook, clean and collect drinking water. Anywhere in the developed world, the water would be considered highly unsuitable for human consumption.
Their living conditions were basic. There was little privacy for the women, no toys for the children and few possessions other than the necessary tools of life. Yet despite their lack of material things, their kindness, protection and love for one another was undeniable.
This beautiful woman is Yiey, or Grandmother in Khmer. She’s 85-years-old and at a time in life when many her age would be getting taken care of by others. Instead, this gracious and guiding soul stands as the leader and caretaker of this extended family group.
Investing in the next generation represents the greatest opportunity for change. These darling children currently take turns to attend a nearby pre-school and school. By showing our dedication to teaching, we aimed to inspire the youngsters to focus on their education. Incredibly smart and determined individuals, if given the guidance, they have the power to create a brighter future for themselves.
Simla’s ideals for Hands on Journeys also foster ownership. Rather than giving new facilities for ‘free’, village elders pay a small fee for their new water filtration units (albeit a tiny fraction of the retail price), supplying the families with essential potable water for drinking and cooking.
In rural areas of Cambodia, one in five children die of waterborne diseases before they reach the age of three. It’s a heart wrenchingly unacceptable statistic and a simple life-sustaining resource so many in the developed world takes for granted. Whilst many charity organisations are already pouring extensive efforts into the supply of water filtration units, education and employment opportunities, so much more needs to be done.
Projects within Hands on Journeys’ adopted villages are given the best chance of making a lasting difference. Careful consultation has been made with the elders to create a clear list of objectives based on their primary needs and wants. Prior to our group’s visit, preparation work included construction of a new well, a massive tidy up of rubbish littering the yard and the addition of bins encouraging them to collect trash in a centralised area for regular burning.
During our two days on the ground, and achieved in partnership with the families, new gravel flooring was spread to cover muddy common areas; their outdoor kitchen gained both a new floor and extended preparation counters; and tables purchased and seats constructed for school work and a place to eat together. The most valuable addition was two water filtration units, installed alongside the new well – removing this tight-knit community from the 33% of Cambodia’s population without access to safe drinking water.
Hands on Journeys will return to the village regularly from January 2016 to complete subsequent projects as prioritised by the elders. The kitchen will be extended and roof added, two homes will be elevated on stilts and their leaky hole-ridden tin roofs replaced.
With good intentions but no follow-through, a previous volunteer group gifted a poorly constructed toilet that overflowed within a month of use. It too will be replaced. Once it’s felt the families have been given the best possible opportunity for a brighter future and the momentum for initiative, health and education is instilled in both young and old, will Simla move onto another small community in dire need of a helping hand.
It’s a small drop in the ocean for one of Asia’s poorest countries. But rather than visitors who turn a blind eye while heading for ‘must see’ attractions of temples and beach-party destinations or making a spectacle of poverty-stricken living conditions for the enjoyment of tourists – today a new age of travel is emerging. The empowerment tourism movement, together with a host of established NGO organisations, has the power to exponentially build awareness and instil hope in a country on its knees.
Many moments spent with this resilient group warmed the heart, but none more so when we returned the second day to discover the men had worked through the night, rebuilding their kitchen and constructing seats we’d started together the day before. Proving the theory that providing the tools, skills and motivation can empower them to make lasting and ongoing improvements to their village as well as opportunity for income. (Previously the men were found to be sleeping in close to noon having had little reason to rise earlier.)
During our visit, what struck me most was the fire in their bellies and eagerness to take advantage of the small but valuable resources we’d provided. The spirited youngsters gave classes their undivided attention, concentrating through pressed lips and screwed up noses keen to impress us with their answers. The parents worked hard to prove their appreciation by shovelling and hauling rocks, sanding and hammering. They watched on and smiled at the infectious laughter of their children as we introduced them to games of leapfrog, limbo, statues and duck duck goose.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, when Simla and our Cambodia guide Chamreun return with the next group of passionate travellers from all over the world, they find the villagers have advanced the projects on their own initiative.
I’m fortunate to be travelling Cambodia and Vietnam as a guest of Hands on Journeys, a new travel company offering sustainable small group tours of India and Cambodia/Vietnam. Their carefully crafted itineraries include a balanced mix of hands-on work assisting communities in need, a knowledgeable local guide, site touring and activities, comfortable accommodations and a high standard of delicious local meals. If you are ready to travel with a purpose, meet like-minded people and make a difference in the countries you visit, I strongly encourage you to check them out: www.handsonjourneys.com.au