In Cambodia less than three days, I find myself driving 10 minutes out of Siem Reap to Vi HeaChhin, a small village in the Svay Dong Kun commune, to pick up 25 children who attend a free English school and take them out for dinner.
My dear friend Jonny Wilkie (aka “Jonny One Eye”, as he is known in the Yukon) had this idea, knowing it will be ridiculously cheap and in turn I can take part in a fun trek.
Wilkie is quite a character in the Yukon, as some of you know. I knew he would be in Cambodia – Jonny has a sort of eidetic memory, obsessed with war history and knows extensive details of the Cambodian genocide.
He offered to be my personal tour guide when I arrived, and I took him up on this offer to see his beautiful land, with it temples and museums.
Taking 25 kids out to dinner in the city with “Mr. Jack” turned out to be a great idea PHOTOS: Rebecca Hogarth
It is after 6 p.m. and dark as we come into Vi HeaChhin. From what I can, see the “school house” is a bamboo hut with a slight concrete foundation. Inside hangs a single florescent bulb, and 2×4 pieces of driftwood are nailed together to form crude benches and tables.
As we sneak into the back of the classroom, cute faces peer over their shoulders at us. The children were aware since the beginning of class that “Jack Sparrow”, (because of Jonny’s eye patch), was coming to take them out to dinner into the city. “Mr. Jack’s Day” is written on the whiteboard.
Roeland Ghesquière, the teacher and developer of the school, points to a cow and says, “Is this a pig?”
The kids answer, yelling in unison, “No, this is not a pig, this is a cow.”
Ghesquière was a technical director for an opera house in Belgium, but after being let go because of government cuts to arts subsidies, he came to Cambodia to sponsor brothers Kimsan and Sam (whom Jonny befriended, and now I also call my friends), and their village.
He built the school and teaches English one to four hours every evening (except Sundays) to all the children who want to attend.
A lot of the children are left unsupervised because their parents are either working or trying to earn money. So it appears that Sam’s house, located in front of the school, and his backyard with a kitchen and toilets, is like the community centre.
Sam says if the kids don’t attend the evening class, they are just running around.
Sam says he realized the importance of speaking English after a UN soldier coaxed him with a dollar to say “hello”. For two years, Sam learned alongside a monk who was taking English studies and volunteered to teach him as he learned.
Class ends and we pile into tuk-tuks, or three-wheeled taxis. I share mine with eight children. As I clap my hands and say, “yay, yay”, they all start clapping and cheering. We have the rowdiest tuk-tuk.
Riding with the kids in the rowdiest tuk-tuk
In Siem Reap, we head to the locals’ restaurants that are outside on the street, where the food is good and cheap – on average, $1.25 for a full-sized meal.
We exit the tuk-tuks into the reserved tables ready for us at Sara’s, a local I have befriended. She always has her baby, Romania, on her hip as she works from 4 p.m. until whenever thedrunk tourists stop coming for food.
The children inhale a full meal and drink. Except for giggling, not too much conversation takes place. Some of the younger children have never been into the city or used a fork – they’ve always eaten with their hands. They are very busy.
As it gets somewhat late, they say their thank yous and pile back into the tuk-tuks.
We end the night back in Siem Reap, after dropping the kids off, with Cambodia’s famous $2 half-hour foot rub. I’ve never had a proper foot message, so the pampering, I must admit, is really nice.
I will really, really miss them all and will go back when I can. I am staying in touch, especially withKimsan, who has health issues I want to help him with. Poor diet and hygiene have lead to lethargy and so forth.
He is only 23 and the sweetest. I will miss him saying “sanks you” after having his picture taken.
Now, I am heading south to Phnom Penh, the capital city. I will be visiting the Killing Fields, where they uncovered 9,800 skulls and made an outdoor display, and the genocide museum.
Before I leave, I plan to spend the day in Siem Reap buying the kids some English reading books for school. I hope I can make it to the cheap market before it closes.
Rebecca Hogarth has been a resident of Dawson City since 2007. She feels the energy of the Yukon and the encouraging people within allow her to shine in so many ways.