I wanted to write a separate post about an eye-opening afternoon I had with our camp leader Han. In my opinion, what made Cambodia so special was the truly selfless and kind people within it. Han not only embodied this, but also encompassed every reason as to why I wanted to volunteer and to explore the world (and the people in it).
When we arrived in Camp Beng Mealea, the group were taken on a special tour of village, were blessed by a monk, as well as visited the famous Beng Mealea temple, a smaller, less touristy version of Ankor Wat. Unfortunately as I was still poorly, I didn’t partake on this tour. Han didn’t want me to miss out, so took me on my very own personal one later in the week.
On our afternoon together, I was lucky enough to learn more about Han and his life prior to joining Camps, as well as a special insight into the community. Coming from a poor background, Han was sent to Siem Reap at a young age to live in a temple with his granddad, who was a monk. Here he lived a poor but free life, spending most days climbing the temples within Ankor Wat.Eventually he moved back to the village as a young adult, spending a lot of time and money working at an orphanage run by his friend. On days he couldn’t afford food, he would venture off into the woods to find edible plants and berries. Despite his best efforts, sadly the orphanage closed down. It later became apparent that the owner and his friend had been stealing from the cause. It was not the first time I’ve heard of this sort of corruption across South-East Asia, which still very openly happens today. However what struck me the most was that regardless of everything this man had done, Han held no animosity towards him. Eventually leaving the orphanage behind, Han came away with no money, but instead three children that loved and looked up to him (or as he put it, followed him around), who he eventually adopted.
As we explored Beng Mealea temple, Han began explaining about a project he had been working on since his time at the orphanage – providing families with bicycles. You wouldn’t believe how invaluable one bicycle could be to a family who may need to travel a long distance to get to school or to the market for food. Because of this, Han had spent years, which he still continues today, raising money to obtain as many as possible. On two separate afternoons, the kids in the village kindly lent us their bikes (which Han had funded), so we could explore more of the village and surrounding area. Covering a lot of ground, it certainly put into perspective the importance of these bikes within the community.We left the temple behind and Han decided to show me the local forest. As we stepped onto a baron part of the land, with the remnants of what was once a massive lush jungle in the distance, Han talked about Cambodia before the Khmer Rogue, which was once 73% jungle. Nowadays there is roughly 3% of this left, due to the government’s greed in selling land and encouraging logging. Han was genuinely hurt by this, so had made it his mission to start returning the land to it’s former glory. Although there was a committee of people who are responsible for the jungle, unfortunately they could not afford to take time away from earning valuable money, to plant and sustain these trees. Han hoped that in the future Camps would approve funding to dedicate time to this site. We can only keep our fingers crossed!The last part of our afternoon Han drove me through the village, explaining about the people’s every day life. We came across big wooden houses, small tin houses (similar to what Han lived in as a child) and fields full of food such as mango and cashew trees. It appeared that the community were wealthy with all its vegetable, fruit and nut farms. But on closer inspection, it wasn’t the local people who owned the land, it was as Han referred ‘the big man’, whose mission it was to steal the land from these poor families to export tonnes of goods to countries such as Thailand. I was taken aback by learning this, how could a country that’s been through so much, still be struggling because of the wealthy exploitation of groups of businessmen, as well as the government. It just wasn’t and still isn’t fair.
Returning back to the camp, I felt overwhelmed with emotion of everything I had learnt. Although we had previously spent time together, I was still a stranger to Han, so the fact he opened up so sincerely and honestly made me feel enormously privileged to have spent such an insightful and special afternoon with him.
Nowadays, Han dedicates all of his time to helping the community. If he’s not listening to the people in it, he’s working hard at a project site, or within the camp. I can’t put into words what an incredible, happy, full of life and inspiring man he is. I can only hope that one day he gets his wish of building a house for his wife and daughter and becoming a self-sufficient farmer, living off the land. Although he explained he already has fish (which he phones his wife everyday to check on), but has to get his neighbour to kill them, as he can’t bear to harm any animal.As much as I love a landscape, or a purple-skied sunrise, my most valuable and memorable moments have been meeting and listening to people within these beautiful countries I’ve been unbelievably lucky to explore. I know for a fact that I will never forget the afternoon I spent with Han.
Jessica Storm ✌️