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Charity work in Cambodia: Meeting students of the Sala Bai Hotel School

My cousin and I are both expats who live far away from our other relatives. Consequently, at times, we are each other’s parent, child and sibling. So, when he asked me to join him on a trip to the Eighth World Wonder, I said yes. No questions asked – I didn’t even know the itinerary!

Another reason I said yes is that my cousin has decided to start a new life; he’s not sure what’s next, but it may involve leaving Southeast Asia for good. He certainly seems to be wrapping things up; catching up on things that he wanted to do over the past ten years but never got around to.

 

And so we travel to Siem Reap, the Cambodian town that hosts tourists to Angkor Wat. The traffic on the long road from the airport to the town’s centre reflects its diversity: young women on bicycles; old men steering trishaws; mini-vans, trucks and mopeds dragging wooden carts stacked with merchandise.

My cousin’s idea for the trip revolves partly around Touch, the initiative of another expat in Singapore, American Sam McGoun. Sam set out to bring charity a step closer to those who were donating to it – to “touch” the ones on the receiving end. With the help of Touch, we visit an educational facility run by students of the Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School. At Sala Bai, students are taken in from Cambodia’s poorest communities and taught, free of charge, cooking, serving, bartending and other roles in the hospitality industry.

 

Our trip is a chance to meet these students, some of whom are willing to share their stories.

Loor Saloeng, 27, from Ampil village in Pouk district, 18km northwest of Siem Reap. Front Office student, 3rd intake:
“I’m the third son of a family of seven children. Both of my parents were farmers. My father passed away in 2007, after I had graduated from Sala Bai. The most important thing Sala Bai gave me was the skill set required for the hotel industry. Before that, I only knew about farming. I discovered a new world. Siem Reap was so big compared to my village. And personally, I learned what a future meant. I started to consider my future and to plan how to achieve what I wanted to do. It entirely changed my way of thinking.”

Meeting Loor Saloeng throws us right into the heart of the matter. It’s not just about educating a family member and helping to bring food to the table. It’s about giving perspective to someone who had never considered anything other than their immediate surroundings. For an expat, that’s incomprehensible – like my cousin who is about to venture into the world, furthering his career. A story like Saloeng’s makes me count my blessings and thank the world for all the opportunities I have.

 

The school carefully selects its students in an extensive procedure. Students’ families can earn a maximum of US$25 a month. To make sure that this is the case, volunteers travel nationwide to visit the families in person. Applications come in from all around the country because Sala Bai has created a name for itself.

When I ask the founder of Touch why he chose Cambodia, Sam McGoun takes his time to reply. “It’s the smiles,” he says finally. “But Thailand is also the land of smiles,” I reply, “so why Cambodia?” Again, Sam takes a few seconds to reply. “Wait a few days,” he says. “You’ll see.” 

During dinner on the first evening, I’m allowed into the crowded kitchen. It dawns on me that each and every young man or woman around us is a Sala Bai student; from the big-eyed lads at the front desk and the smiling face of the boy that pours me a soda, to all the white-coated chefs in the kitchen. Every one has a story.

 

Oun Sok Sara, 20, from Oddar Manchey. Restaurant student, 9th intake:
“I am 20 and I come from Oddar Manchey province. I am number six of the family. My father was a soldier, and he left when I was still a child. He never came back. When I was 16, my mother was unable to support me so I went to live with my grandmother. Then my whole family moved to Banteay Srey, in Siem Reap province, 40km from Siem Reap. The NGO Enfants du Mékong supported my studies till I was in the 11th grade. I was 19 then, and they asked me if I wanted to join Sala Bai. I had heard of it through friends and I really wanted to go there. It would get me closer to my mother at the same time.”

Another Sala Bai former student, South Chantha (Restaurant student, 3rd intake) is our tour guide to Angkor Wat. He tells us he’s been learning German to help with his tour-guiding. His biggest problem was saying the “ü” sound, as in über. Then he turns sideways to show us how he’s been practising in front of a mirror. He lifts his shoulders, purses his lips and lowers his hand as if he is his own conductor: “Uuuu…”

 

The road leading to the Angkor Wat site is dotted with monkeys. We find our way through the hairy rascals who are indifferently managing each other’s daily toilet. The temples rise up in the distance. South Chantha points out Ta Phrohm temple, where Angelina Jolie did her scene as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Walking around this location, so well suited for the fantasy genre, it’s not the movies that fill my mind. It’s the reality of it all. I love how gracious, bare-breasted women suddenly appear on the walls of hidden corners, frozen in stony poses between sunbeams and moss.

In Sala Bai’s eight years of existence, 704 people have been accepted and all have graduated – completely free of charge. All graduates have found a job within three months of graduation with a monthly salary between US$50 and US$100, reaching US$200-300 a few years later. That’s a lot more than the US$25 their families live on.

Chorb Phary, 23 from Battambang. Housekeeping student, 9th intake:
“I have one brother of 28 and one sister of 25. My mother died six years ago when I was 17. My father lives with my sister. He is a farmer and works on an as-needed basis, which creates an unstable situation. Our house is made of planks on stilts that are only a metre high, and the roof is made of leaves. I went to school till the 6th grade. I left school because my parents were too poor to pay for it. I heard of Sala Bai from my aunt, who advised me to apply. Of course I was afraid because I had very little knowledge of English and I was so far from home with no family in Siem Reap. But I was accepted! It is such a great opportunity for me. But I will not forget my family. I will support my father and send my family some money when I earn a salary.”

On our last day, my cousin and I decide to go horseback riding to see some of the countryside. There are fields of green as far as the eye can see; grazing buffalo and cows laze in the shade; in between the palm trees are houses of different architectural styles, from leaf huts to French colonial, and a Chinese temple.

In the evening, we share dinner with all the participants on the trip. Everyone wants to contribute to Touch and to Sala Bai. One guest, working at a computer firm, has ideas on interactive applications for the website. Another runs a company that provides customer relation services, and suggests contacting up-scale hotels to take in interns. And yet another would like to write an article. We are all inspired.

It seems to me that my cousin, perhaps thriving on this entrepreneurial energy, or perhaps because he is truly relaxed in the comfortable surroundings, has found some peace of mind. Enough to decide, just hours before our flight, to extend his stay by a few more days. His new beginning starts with a sabbatical.

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