If you missed this news, my niece Marisa and her husband Tim (and their young children) are expats living in Vietnam, where Tim works for an international resort hotel company. Marisa has many Vietnam stories to share. This one will knock your socks off … (Oh, and don’t forget—you can click on any photo to enlarge it!)
You Don’t Have to Be Angelina Jolie
I just returned from a short trip to Siem Reap (which literally means “defeat of Siam”), the ancient capital of Cambodia. For most of us Americans, Cambodia isn’t your typical “top 10” vacation spot (unless perhaps you’re Angelina Jolie), but we live only a short flight away and it’s easy to get to and from Vietnam, so we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go.
Siem Reap airport reminded us of an airport you would find on one of the Hawaiian Islands—the planes land on the tarmac and the building is a small indoor/outdoor A-frame structure with a warm welcome. Cambodians have embraced the masses of tourists that come there each year to see Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple complex that dates from the early twelfth century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; this year 3.5 million people will visit and by the year 2020 they expect 7 million visitors.
Angkor Wat is the main reason we were there too. We wanted to see the temples.
And really, the temples are stunning, but this post isn’t about them. It’s about our visit to Tonlé Sap Lake, which, we would learn, is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. It is home to some 1.2 million people who are majority ethnic Vietnamese living in extreme poverty.
On our third day in Siem Reap, after we’d seen all the temples, Tim and I headed out to see one of the “floating villages” on the lake. Our hotel concierge had recommended it and it sounded interesting, so there we were on our tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw) with big smiles on our faces, headed down a dirt road to the lake.
On the way there we saw the usual things that you see living in Asia. Lots of motorbikes, men sleeping in hammocks, people eating street food, and so on. But there were things that were different too. Different than you see in Vietnam or Thailand.
The wooden houses were very small (I’m talking 100 square feet) with as many as eight or nine people in some of them. Most all of the children were barefoot and naked—as young as two years old, playing right on the side of the road. Some were jumping rope or wrestling with their sisters and brothers and some were playing with garbage. But the kids were smiling and waving as we drove by. I waved back and half-smiled but my heart broke at the same time. Watching these kids, I couldn’t help but think of my own two children at home, nearly the same ages.
About thirty minutes later we arrived at the lake. A young man named Thanh greeted us and escorted us to a cashier. We paid $20USD each for a one-hour private guided boat tour around the lake. We hopped on board the wooden boat with Thanh and two other local guides and headed out onto the lake.
Thanh had grown up on the lake in this particular village where we were about to go. His father was Vietnamese and his mother Cambodian. His father had passed away when he was six. Thanh and his mother had moved to town with the help of a good Samaritan, a British man who years ago had visited the lake and paid for him to go to school and learn English. Because of that good fortune, Thanh now makes enough money as an English-speaking guide to live in town and take care of his mother. Thanh is twenty-one years old, and that stroke of luck seems like a miracle to him.
I could tell by the way Thanh spoke that he had a deep understanding and connection with the people and life on the lake. “There are around 150 families living in this particular village,” he explained. “They are too poor to live in town.” I thought, Poorer than the people we just drove past? Is that possible?
Thanh explained how these people lived on less than one dollar a day, how they were often hit with typhoons and malaria, and how there were over one hundred orphaned children living at the school on the lake because their parents had perished while fishing. I couldn’t even fathom it. By that point my half-smile was gone and I was overcome with sadness. I was in disbelief.
Soon we arrived at the floating village. It was astonishing—there was so much life going on! Mothers washing their laundry, kids playing and swimming, men fishing, grandparents resting, babies nursing, and all inside small wooden boats no bigger than my king-size bed.
The wooden boats had small stoves with fires burning in the back where women were cooking and boiling water so they could eat and drink. There were no toilets, no sinks, no showers on these boats. Some were bigger than others but all still small. Really, really small.
I tried taking it all in. I couldn’t have even imagined that this community existed, that people actually lived like this. I know it sounds naïve, but I am not. I promise. I live in Vietnam, which is undeveloped and rife with poverty, but this … this was new to me.
As we cruised around the lake, we photographed the people and their way of life. Using boats they would travel between friends’ houses, or move their fish from one location to the next, or go to the local “watering hole,” where philanthropists had provided safe drinking water for them. Here these people were, just going about their daily life. I saw one man washing his hair and brushing his teeth over the side of the boat in the lake water and another taking care of his business just a few feet away. And there we were, just watching. I felt helpless.
And then, not a moment too soon, Thanh asked us if we wanted to help. “Of course,” we said, “tell us how and we will.” He took us to the community market where we could by rice to donate to the local school. A local Cambodian man runs the small market from inside his tiny boat where he gives back to the community 35 percent of what he makes. This man, who probably makes $5 on a good day, gives back 35 percent of what he makes! I was inspired.
We spent nearly all of the money we had brought with us and bought 90 kilograms of rice (about $90USD). As my husband loaded the two sacks of rice onto our rented boat my eyes filled with tears. Why didn’t we bring more money? I thought. Surely, we could do more. For goodness sakes, the shop owner gives 35 percent. The tears were streaming down my face now. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
We headed over to the school where classes had already dismissed … but the kids who lived there, who never left there, who have no parents, were still there. The boat was more like a barge and probably the biggest in the village. It consisted of three classrooms and a living room, I guess you would call it. This is where the kids slept, just there, on the floor.
The kids were playing games and hanging out, just like any other kids would after school. Some were dancing, some were playing marbles, and some were just quietly sitting in their desks.
We unloaded the rice and brought it into their kitchen area, which was just a couple pots over coals. It was enough rice to feed all of the students three meals a day for the next week. A Vietnamese man runs the school and lives there with his wife and kids. He didn’t speak any English but the expression on his face was enough for us to understand how grateful he was.
Soon enough all of the kids were coming up to us and posing to take pictures while throwing out peace signs and big grins.
One approached me with a bucket of candy he had gotten from a small boat located directly next to the school that sold the same type of things you find at a gas station convenience store. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do. Thanh said, “Buy the small bucket of candy for $3 and give it to the children.” I fumbled through my pocket and pulled together the money and gave it to Thanh. Suddenly, the kids went crazy! They were dancing and laughing and jumping around. As I gave out handfuls of candy the children swarmed me. All those little hands waving in the air trying to get my attention. It was overwhelming. It was like I was a superstar, like I was Angelina Jolie.
In that moment, I thought about my own kids, my own happiness, and about how it was so easy to give. How every day we could do so much more. How thousands of other children were living on that lake. It doesn’t matter if you are rich and famous, or just an average person who works for a living … there is always more you can do to help others. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to help these kids, even if it was small. I looked over at my husband; he was smiling and laughing, and now, so was I.