By Jason Noghani
Spending lockdown and the following months of this year in Cambodia has been an educational experience and a privilege unlike any other to say the very least! Not only were the circumstances of fellow expats and myself quite unlike most other places during this period, due to relatively few Covid-19 cases (for a variety of reasons) and a comparatively normal way of life that still continues, but the fact that only a fraction of berang (“foreigner” in Khmer) have remained since lockdown, has meant that those fortunate enough to remain have most likely been able to experience Cambodia in greater depth and with greater clarity than previously. Angkor Wat is almost empty, the comparatively fewer berang make us feel less like outsiders to the already accommodating Khmer, and things that may have previously gone unnoticed may now draw our attention.
One such thing that caught my attention were the various non-profit incentives aimed at alleviating Khmer in disadvantaged situations; something of which occurs in developing countries across the world. The socio-political particularities of Cambodia make this instance one that not only sheds light on the distinct aspects that make these incentives authentically Cambodian, but also how these can provide answers to humanity as a whole.
Why a Culture of Charity?
Without drawing too many comparisons, one main difference between neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia is the difference of living standards. Whereas Thailand has significantly benefited from years of tourism and remaining unaffected from Western colonialism, Cambodia has not had the same fortunes; having experienced some of the worst of the 20th Century’s atrocities, with repercussions still being felt to some extent today. Therefore, not by choice, most Khmer are confronted with living conditions that do not directly correspond to their potential as human beings, which when contrasted with the various similarities that they have with berang (basically exactly the same apart from some local customs and a noticeably greater emphasis on the collective than the individual), reinforces the unfairness of life circumstances, and how our actions could directly affect this for better or worse.
My time spent living in Cambodia has shown how most fellow berang share the same views on this matter, and like me, also cannot help but love the Khmer people (for those who have not been to Cambodia, the Khmer are quite literally some of the friendliest, most inspiring and accepting people on the planet, and for me they are the very best thing about this amazing country!). This does not mean, however, that we always act in a charitable manner, as not only do our actions often contradict our words or intentions (usually by lack of awareness), but given that Cambodia is commonly known as the Asian Wild West (East!), it therefore attracts the Good, the Bad and the Ugly!
Nevertheless, there have been many amazing souls who have devoted much of their lives to the betterment of the Khmer people’s situations and prospects, as exemplified below.
Some Prominent Examples of Practices Advocating the Culture of Charity in Cambodia
To name all charitable acts and organisations currently operating in Cambodia would be too many to list, but several significant contributions have been made which evocatively reflect the culture of charity within the country. Perhaps when we thinking of charitable organisations, the first thing that may come into our minds concerns the wellbeing of children, which in a country like Cambodia is of considerable concern, due to decades of poverty and war-torn conditions, resulting in generations of orphaned children. Furthermore, many young children in impoverished conditions are unable to receive a basic education, as many are required to fulfil manual labour obligations to help their families, and unlike Primary (Elementary) education, Secondary (Junior High) education upwards is privately funded. Organisations such as the Operation Hope Foundation make it possible to sponsor a young Cambodian child, which can enable them to go to school and receive an education and opportunities that they would otherwise be denied.
Although the wellbeing of children is the utmost responsibility of any generation, there are also adults in disadvantaged situations who have also benefited from various charitable endeavours. The Epic Arts Café in Kampot is a UK registered charity which employs locals with disabilities, and revenue from the sales of food and beverages in the supporting café goes towards local arts’ incentives. Similarly, The Bayon Pastry School in Siem Reap, which was set up in 2014 and teaches up to 20 local women per year to become pastry chefs, is also funded by the supporting café on the premises. Café’s it seems are fruitful places for charitable activities to take place, such as APTBY (A place to be yourself), another café in Siem Reap, which provides respite for the local LGBT community to find others to confide in and avoid persecution (despite being more open to LGBT rights than neighbouring countries, Cambodia still has homophobia running within various societal circles; particularly amongst older generations).
There have also been endeavours from various organisations who have sought to archaeologically retrieve and conserve remnants of Khmer culture that were decimated under the Khmer Rouge regime. One prominent example is CLA (Cambodian Living Arts), whose mission it is to conserve Khmer culture for future generations, and also archaeologically retrieve anything that may have been lost during the years of the Khmer Rouge regime. Similarly, the KCDI (Khmer Cultural Development Institute) in Kampot enables orphaned and disabled children to learn music and about their musical cultural heritage, and the KKO (Khmer for Khmer Organisation) in Siem Reap, provides educational opportunities for impoverished youth; thereby enabling them to learn more about their heritage, and increase their opportunities in adulthood.
Siem Reap it seems is a hotspot for expounding the culture of charity, as various NGO’s there and in the capital Phnom Penh have been created to ensure educational, social, environmental, medical and cultural incentives are implemented, to help young Cambodians who would otherwise be disenfranchised from such enrichment. This does not necessarily mean that other places are neglected, although it is unsurprising that places further off the beaten track would receive considerably less attention than more popular tourist destinations.
Furthermore, in light of the economic consequences of the pandemic, it is important to consider economic limitations when embarking upon various charitable endeavours. Fundraising may not be as easy it as it once was, which means that other means of currency will have to be exchanged – namely, cultural exchange rather than monetary exchange as a means of mutual enrichment.
What are we Doing?
LTTW and its related organisations have embarked upon two projects that correspond to advocating charity in Cambodia. There is firstly the roots music project with Phleng Khmer musicians from Takéo province (in light of the observation accounting for less touristic places, Takéo province is far less touristic than popular neighbouring tourist mecca Kampot), with the intention of enabling the musicians to record and promote their music to a wider audience, with potential performance opportunities outside of Cambodia once travel and social distancing are no longer an issue. However, not only will we hope that this project will benefit these amazing people and musicians, but can also provide an opportunity for mutual enrichment, whereby ideas can be exchanged, and both parties can learn and reciprocally correspond with one another. Proceeds from revenue for the recordings and the transcriptions of their music (as much traditional Khmer musical education relies on oral teaching methods), will go towards the musicians and their families, and proceedings from what would usually be my cut for production and transcription services, will go towards one of my local friends and his family, who have inspired me through their persistence to continue against all odds, despite economic difficulties during this unforeseen time.
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The other project that we will be embarking on, will be helping to raise funds for the medical centre in M’Pay Bay, on Koh Rong Sanloem island. On this link, you can help sponsor the cause, of which the current target of £3,000 has almost been reached! However, this is just the beginning, as having briefly conversed with Tim Seel (the wonderful soul who initiated this project), the ambitions for a fully equipped medical centre would require much more funding to reach the desired standard.
Even though this and the Phleng Khmer project will be discussed in respective articles in the coming weeks, it is nonetheless important to highlight the significance of the medical centre on M’Pay Bay. Since lockdown, the future of the village is somewhat precarious, given that the living standards of the local community has been largely due to foreign incentives and investments. With fewer tourists and business owners jumping ship due to economic uncertainties, the living conditions for the local community could deteriorate unless certain actions are undertaken. Given the importance of universally available education and healthcare, it therefore becomes imperative that a properly funded and equipped medical centre, which also cooperates with the neighbouring primary school, is established. Therefore, at the very least, the residents of the island are still able to have their basic needs met, and tourists can become incentivised to explore the island paradise (known as Cambodia’s worst best-kept secret due to being overshadowed by the larger neighbouring Koh Rong island), with assurance that their medical needs can be instantaneously met, without needing to travel to the mainland to receive basic treatment.
We hope you continue to join us on these journeys in the not too distant future!
Even though this article specifically focused on Cambodia, the practices described could be applied to any culture or society. The economic repercussions of the pandemic will mean that we will need to become more charitable by nature if we are to endure the difficult times ahead. We can also learn this from the Khmer. Despite having always been a collectivist society, living in Cambodia has shown that this is not only by terms of value systems, but also by means of necessity, as they are all too aware of how precarious their situation can become if they do not undertake responsibility to ensure their community’s wellbeing. This also highlights another virtue I have noticed amongst most Khmer I have met; namely, that despite financially struggling, their strong cultural values ensure that the vast majority will not cheat, steal or exploit others, even if making money is their utmost priority.
Unfortunately, we have neglected such values during years of economic prosperity in the West, as material gain replaced moral virtue, but now this is becoming increasingly less of an option, as the economic difficulties of the foreseeable future will mean that we will need each other’s support more than ever. However, if we are to successfully fulfil this, we will need to become dependable ourselves in order to give unconditionally without ever taking more than our fair share. Even though a country like Cambodia and other societies that adhere to collectivist and community-orientated practices may be able to weather the storms ahead, we in Western societies should be aware of this if we are to avert falling apart as a society or within ourselves.
This in itself can work in a very straightforward sense. The economic fragility of our times in a country as economically precarious as Cambodia has made me more aware of where I am spending my money. Instead of necessarily satisfying all my urges (as I would have typically done on previous holidays to Thailand!), I am beginning to think more of the cause and effect of such actions. Instead of thinking of where to stay each time I return to a place, I return to the same guesthouses to help their owners who have since become friends. I eat and drink at a handful of places to help friends running businesses and supporting those who I feel deserve to be supported for their services. Whenever the locals here stop me on the street to come and drink with them (which they like to do quite often given their hospitable and jovial nature), I always make sure I have something to give in return, given that the advocation of sharing food and drink is universally practiced here. Even though these are little things, it has gone to show how a little can go a long way in different instances – if anything, it brings some inner happiness knowing how such gestures can make a positive difference to someone else’s life! It is positive to know that Cambodia is not the only place where such incentives are taking place right now (such as in Bali), so perhaps there are changes taking place around us!
We have to advocate glocality – acting locally whilst thinking globally!
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Speaking of glocality, above is the artwork of locally-based tattooist Jef Oren, who in light of this article, I thought would be an opportunity to share his work; particularly as he has been recently tattooing me, is a brilliant artist and an all-round great guy! If you are ever in Kampot and need a memoire, definitely consider hitting Jef up!
Featured image by Maria Junia
Author: Jason Noghani
Jason Noghani is Listen to the World’s UK-based contributor. He is a composer, musician, cognitive psychologist, writer, illustrator, thinker, psychonaut and devout agnostic.