Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Savong and the Lost Boys

While teaching English in Thailand for a month was rewarding and fun, we left Thailand hoping to find a more fulfilling (and less expensive) volunteer experience. After emailing a few organizations and getting the sense that such an opportunity didn't exist, we heard back from a man in Cambodia named Savong who offered us a free place to stay at his school in exchange for teaching English. So, we hopped on the next bus to Siem Reap and have been teaching there for the past two weeks.

Since arriving, we've seen for ourselves why Cambodia is more eager for all the volunteer work it can get. Unlike Thailand, with no war or colonization in it's recent history, Cambodia has had a very difficult past. Within the lifetime of the older generation of Khmer (Cambodian people), the country has experienced the harm done by the US-Vietnam war, the great atrocities of the genocide carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese invasion that followed. Sadly, almost everyone over 30 can tell stories of at least one family member lost to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge or the nationwide starvation that followed. And yet, the Khmer's resilience and overwhelming "living in the present" mentality is almost more incredible than the stories they have to tell. Although Cambodia is in much better shape today, it still suffers from corrupt government, which pays teachers so little that they must charge students to attend school. It is for this reason that Savong (the man we emailed) established the free language school that we were to teach at.

After a ride to the beautiful countryside outside of Siem Reap to meet Savong, we were surprised to find him in a deep pit of dirt, wearing a faded tank top and shorts, his smiling face peering up at us. He jumped out of the pit and sat down with us to tell us about the school, his life, and his new project, the orphanage, which he was currently building a toilet for. We were told of his hard past, growing up in poverty with 11 siblings and finally being sent to live in an orphanage at age 9 after his parents could no longer afford to feed him or send him to school. In his early twenties, following in the footsteps of his avidly Buddhist father, he became a monk for three years. Savong's ideas and life are greatly affected by his Buddhist beliefs - especially karma - which greatly contribute to his genuine belief that a man who does good in the world will be successful and well liked. It was clear to us after living with him for two weeks that this belief what motivates him to do the work that he does.

It turned out that we weren't the only ones sleeping at the school. We were accompanied by Savong, his wife Aneed, two daughters, and two orphans who help Aneed look after the children, all of whom live there permanently. About 7 other orphans would join us for Aneed's delicious meals at the school, but they slept at the developing orphanage.

The school itself ran from 5am to 7am and 2pm to 7pm as the students who could afford it were at public school the rest of the day. Our job was to be there to help (often take over for) the permanent teachers there. To our amazement, the classrooms were packed full, with desks flowing out the door, all filled with kids who chose to be there and had to bicycle to get there before the sun even rose! While we found teaching in the 90 degree heat for 7 hours a day to be too exhausting to do anything else, Savong used his time between classes to get work done on the orphanage during the heat of the day.

Despite Savong's lack of formal knowledge of teaching, construction, or business, he's built and now runs a better school than some we've attended at home. Since its establishment in 2005, he has managed to find sponsors from abroad to completely fund the school's needs for teachers, librarian, school supplies, and electricity (run by a generator). Everything else, from its original construction to its management, Savong has organized and taken care of himself.

Now that the school is running well, Savong has a new project in his orphanage. Hoping to find similar funding, Savong has already begun taking on orphans from nearby towns. One boy named Gdang was found by Savong because his single mother, with no money to feed him, was going to sell him (all too likely into labor or even sexual slavery). When Savong heard of this, he bought the boy himself and took him in, to eat with his family and get money for school. Another boy (who looks 10 years old but is actually 16) was his family's bread-winner at age 7, working in a rice paddy for a wage. Similarly, with the consent of his mother, Savong took him in as well. All the rest of the boys have similar stories, incredibly tragic yet hopeful. Like most of the Khmer we have met, they are suprisingly resilient and happy.

Although we are excited for the final four weeks of our trip (vacationing through Laos and the beaches of Southern Thailand) we've discovered that volunteering is the way to travel. From eating with Savong's family and the orphans to going out to bars with the permanent teachers, we've met real Khmer (and Thai) people in a context that we never would have on a normal vacation. Besides saving heaps of money, we've also had the opportunity to help out a very worthy cause and feel useful in a country far from home.

Unfortunately, Savong's orphanage is a work in progress and isn't yet funded the wayhis school is. If you find, at any time in your life, that you would like to donate money or volunteer abroad, we strongly encourage and recommend Savong's school and orphanage. If you're interested in volunteering or learning more, check out Savong's website: www.savong.com
If you're interested in donating money, contact us: jirvine89@gmail.com

Just a note of how far your dollar can go...
Feeding all the orphans for one day = $15
Sponsoring one student to go to school every day = $20 per month

The School:

Students' shoes outside the classroom (6am).

In the classroom.

Our last day teaching.

Outside the school:
"Hey...Same shoes!"

Daily volleyball match.

The orphan's first American breakfast (made with love by Anna and Jamie).

The market in Siem Reap.


Our last day (at the beach):

Apparently, bikinis aren't worn in Cambodia.


  1. amazing update guys. i'm so impressed you guys are traveling around finding opportunities like this to do such meaningful work & really experiencing the countries in a way that tourists never could. it sounds freakin sick (copyright the sultan)! hope you keep enjoying yourselves & i look forward to more news from our intrepid traveling couple!


  2. This sounds like an amazing experience. It is nice to hear that you guys took the opportunity to take your trip a little differently, and in doing so made a difference.

    -Carl Anderson

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  4. you guys are superb!!! Your volunteering opportunities sound perfect and special. How did you find all the places you stayed/taught/volunteered at?
    I am so happy that you both are helping the world in the way that you are. You have touched so many people's lives in your few months of volunteering. I'm so proud of you.

    also, those pictures of signs were hilarious!!

    nina gordon-kirsch