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This event took place over 5 months ago in August 2009, I will try to remember every single detail as possibly can.
During my stay in Cambodia, apart from checking out all the ruins in Siem Reap, I also spent a day with the KILT and it is definitely one of the highlights of my vacation that will stay with me forever. While tourism is one of the important sectors of the economy in Cambodia, not many tourists are actually aware how serious poverty is in this country. One of my intentions to visit Cambodia is to get in touch with locals and spend some time with them, get myself back to basics, to eat the food they are eating and to experience the ways they are living. One day is probably not enough for me to fully experience it, but developing an awareness of their current situation is what every single tourist should do while visiting this country.
When I first arrived in Siem Reap, I was put me in touch with Kourosh, a tourist who was meant to be here for a 2 weeks holiday has now been staying over 3 months, helping the landmine victims at KILT and giving out rice to the poor who most needed. KILT is stands for Khmer Independent Life Team, a home to 15 young people with disabilities, is founded by Bel Muy who himself is also a landmine victim with an interesting life story to tell.
I met up with Kourosh and Bel to have a brief chat, to express my intentions. As they never have any visitors to the KILT headquarter (the house they live in) before and I am the first person to show interest, so Bel is not quite sure how the members will react to have visitor around, and definitely doesn’t want to turn it into a freak show. However they are struggling paying the rent for the house which I am told is around US$200 per month, so to have visitors at the house means income to them. With a small donation, they have decided to let me spend a day at the KILT house where I will mingle with the members and helping out as much as possibly can.
First thing in the morning, I was given a lift by a local school teacher (can’t recall his name, I’ll just call him Mr X) on a motorbike to the KILT headquarter. The house is no further than 5 km from the tourists central in Siem Reap. Everyone is already awake attending to house chores when I arrived, and I can see they are also putting on their best behaviour in front of a stranger. Some shy away while some simply giggling at the sight of my arrival, a silly tall giant sitting at the back of the motorbike with the suspensions almost snap it half.
Sunday is usually a busy day at the KILT. Apart from having me as a guest at the house, they will also invite friends who are also struggling to put meal on the table to join in for a big lunch together. It is also the day where Kourosh volunteered himself to handle out food to those who needed most in the nearby village as part of the Touch*A*Life project. Unfortunately, Kourosh and Bel are still up north trying to buy the new crop of the rice harvested and won’t be able to join us for lunch. I am suddenly assigned to be the new ambassador for the Touch*A*Life project just in case Kourosh can’t make it back on time.
The first person I met in the house is Supal, who is sweeping the fallen leaves outside the house when I first arrived. He was born with cerebral palsy with only one leg bendable. I feel uncomfortable just by watching him sweep with restricted mobility but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He is a very chirpy lad and extremely friendly, more than happy to show me how the rice miller works.
Consider yourself lucky, because at KILT, if you want rice, you will have to mill it yourself. The brown rice bought are all newly harvested from the padi field, still with husk intact. An initiative by Kourosh and donations from kind hearts, he is reintroducing hand-milled brown rice to urban Cambodians who in many instances can not afford the factory milled white rice that they are now accustomed to. As we all know that brown rice has better nutritional value with lower GI, but to them it is less expensive to produce and the beneficiaries of this program are rice farmers, the millers, and the people to whom the rice is donated to.
The process is not easy – the rice is first pounded to get the husks loosen up from the rice, then go through the milling process in the millers, the brown rice will come out mostly clean detached from the husks. Then the fanning process by using a wide shallow woven tray will get rid most of the husks. The whole process are repeated until there are enough hand-milled rice for a meal. Trust me, I was sweating like a pig after just 10 minutes on the miller.
Then I met Chandra, who is a landmine victim living in the KILT house. She can speak a little English enough for me to understand and communicate with. Today she is in charge of the lunch and with the money I donated, I was asked to follow her to the local market, where she will get some of the ingredients to prepare for the lunch. One thing I noticed is that everyone in this small little town seems to know each other and always willing to help. As we only have one motorbike, a local man kindly offered to take Chandra to the market, while I was sitting at the back of another motorbike with Mr X, following right behind.
Chandra bought kangkong (Chinese water spinach) and a bunch of lady fingers. Both cost no more than AUD$1.00 I believe. On our way back, I only then realised that meat is possibly not in their diet, they simply can’t afford it. By the time we got back to the house, the other KILT members are all already gathered around in the kitchen area preparing the lunch.
Touch*A*Life is beautifully simple program started by a fellow Malaysian, Mavis Ching that provides free nutritious vegetarian meals on a weekly basis to those in need. The team at KILT will help with the cooking and deliver the meals in and around Siem Reap. In return the entire team at KILT get to share in the meals they’ve prepared and also earn a salary for all the cooking and delivery of the meals.
The lunch they have prepared is actually quite scrumptious despite being vegetarian. There are omelette with onion and carrot slices, a simple stir fry kang kong with garlic, and Bok Lahong, a Khmer version of the coleslaw salad similar to Thai Som DTum but with shredded carrot, cucumber, pineapple pieces and some chopped red onions. All served with their hand-milled brown rice which is very moreish compare to the white rice. As it is a pretty hot day, I kindly asked Mr X to take me to a local store and I bought a carton of Coke to share with everyone to quench the thirst.
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There are musical instruments in the house where everyone can have a go at jamming under Mr X’s supervision, he is a music teacher at the local school. So after the meal, there is a jamming session which provides light entertainment much needed after a hard day preparing meals.
By now, everyone is also much more relax and comfortable with my appearance in the house and having a good laugh together before I set off with the boys on the motorbikes again.
Chandra cooks up some more omelette and packs everything into yellow takeaway box individually and everything is ready to go. Unfortunately, Kourosh and Bel didn’t make it back to KILT house in time as predicted, hence I’ve been given the job to overlook the whole process and make sure taking photos and writing all the names down.
During the conversation with Kourosh the day before, I asked him how does he justify who are in need and who the rice should really give it to. He didn’t have a straight forward answer for me, but a malnourished children always gets the priority. He also emphasised that rice is almost as valuable as gold to the poor people in the rural villages. “There was one time, a female prostitute came up to me and asked for the food but we had to decline as we suspect that she will sell the rice to other people in return for money and spend it on drugs. Now whoever the rice we are given to, we will stand there and watch them eat right in front us just to make sure.”
Today is only the second run of this program, so basically we are tracing back and look for the people who received the rice from the first visit. We don’t have to travel far, Mondul3 (pronounced Mon-du-bai) is a very poor village just past the checkpoint into the Angkor Wat heritage area. Foreigners will never realised there are actually poor villages just around the corner on your doorstep, hidden among all the luscious green forest within a 10km radius from the tourists central in Siem Reap.
The first house we visited is a family of four, then an old couple who pretty much sleeping in a makeshift shed with no front door. Our arrival has definitely disturbed the peace of the neighbourhood, and soon we are surrounded by the inquisitive locals in the hope for having a piece of whatever we are giving out. That’s when I felt so terrible because we are only giving food to those who we think that they deserved the food, while the others are probably just as hungry and getting nothing.
The next person we are giving the rice to is an old grandmother living with her amputee son who is also a landmine victim. On our way to the next house, we drove past the old couple who we gave the food earlier again, and found them actually happily sharing their food with some of the neighbours. That’s what this project is about, to nourish the spirit of sharing one’s fortune with others whenever possibly can. And the last house we visited is a single mum with two daughters whom Kourosh and the KILT team have helped a lot, simply because the youngest daughter Monika was extremely malnourished months ago when they first met her. We only had enough food to give to 4 different households, but it is a start.
I’ve noticed Kourosh has been back to Siem Reap recently to continue on his charity project with the KILT team, especially during the Ketsana Typhoon in September when the KILT headquarter was seriously affected and lost most of their resources. What a good man, I wish Kourosh and the KILT team all the best, to make my only one day at the KILT house the most memorable time while I was in Cambodia. I am looking forward to be back in Cambodia in the not too distant future.
If you are planning a holiday in Siem Reap and interested to help the KILT team by paying them a visit, please contact the management at Golden Temple Villa (ask for Dannay) and they will able to assist you and put you in touch with Bel or Kourosh. KILT wants to show more people what they are all about and they also need the support that visitors may bring. Hence they are slowly open to the idea of having visitors around, as long as it is done in a good non exploitative manner – small groups who donate a minimum amount and are respectful of the fact that this is a house and a community of people and not a tourist site.
A donation is never a bad donation. Sending a donation is simple. You can use Moneygram or Western Union. The cost of bank transfers to send and receive are too high. Once you have given your donation to Western Union or Moneygram they will provide you with a MTCN code number which you email to Bel Muy via his facebook or personal email. Please send any donations directly to the Manager of KILT Muy Seu Bel. DONATING VIA MONEYGRAM/WESTERN UNION Name: Muy Seu Bel Telephone: +855-12 33 52 87 Address: Khmer Independent Life Team Wal Village Kok Jouk Khum Siem Reap Province Kingdom of Cambodia NEWS: ATFT will donate 10% sales on every single ATFT tshirt sold from our shop. Please visit our shop today and make a kind donation.
Part 1 – Postcard from Cambodia – Siem Reap