Continuing the adventures of Sunny, our roving project guru in Camp Cambodia, in this post she visits Camp Beng Mealea for the first time, meets Han and the staff and goes for dinner at a North Korean Restuarant, which for a South Korean American, is a big deal!

CAMP BENG MEALEA- Tuesday June 7th, 2011

Today, we went to Beng Mealea. That is the village outside of Siem Reap where the Camps International camp is located. We drove through mostly countryside, passing by the “sticky rice village” and lots of enterprising motocyclists loaded with all sorts of goods (mattresses, pigs, etc) for the market. I remarked to Bunlay that I was surprised to see such a well maintained road and he said that it was indeed a toll road built by a private company. Beng Mealea is a small, sleepy farming community. The camp grounds are on a site that used to be just an overgrown field. A lot of work has been done on it in the few months that it has been in operation, so there is now a proper camp on site, with shelters, compost toilets, bathing huts and a kitchen. The farming fields on the site have been prepared for rice planting, and all around are fruit trees and plans for a veg garden. Bunlay brings more saplings and cuttings each time he visits the camp – this time we brought baby mango trees. At the boundary of the fields is the newly built well – a pump mechanism brings up water from an underground river that provides the camp with plenty of fresh water. They got really lucky striking the underground river – this was an unexpected surprise in an area that is constantly suffering from too much or too little water. The camp well has developed a reputation for being the best water in Beng Mealea already, so the neighboring villagers come over with their big buckets to draw water from our well. Because this is the “off season” when we don’t have any volunteers for a couple of months, the staffing at the camp was pretty light. A security guard, a cook, and the camp manager named Han were there to greet us. They were all really lovely, gentle people. Han is clearly an expert in agriculture and he really enjoys the farm work around the camp. The last group of volunteers had constructed the beginnings of a tree nursery and he was tinkering with plans for that when we arrived. When I stay overnight here, I will also sleep in either a tent or a hammock strung on the beams of the shelters. I’ve never slept a full night in a hammock before, so that will be interesting indeed. The funniest (funny? I mean horrifying) thing Han said to me was, “the only thing to watch out for are spiders. The big ones. The big very big ones. Oh, and the snakes.” EEEK! He wasn’t kidding.

We talked through the plans and what I’d be helping them do in terms of the project catalogue. It was very interesting to hear about the development of the relationship between Camps Intl and the community leaders so far. As one can imagine, it has been a struggle to get on the same page with the commune leader on the types of projects that would be most suitable for Camps. I think it must be quite difficult to manage community expectations – we come with a lot of energy, but the way in which Camps operates is certainly on a longer term time horizon than what other NGOs may try to promise and what the community leaders want. Not only do we have to think about the impact of our projects on the community (the “meaningfulness”) we also have to consider what our volunteers are best suited to do with their skills and time frame (the “actionability”). In addition, I think it will be a delicate task to ensure our projects ultimately benefit a broader community rather than individual people or families.

We left Beng Mealea in the early afternoon and drove back to Siem Reap. Anth had found some Khmer rock and roll music from the 60s and we were listening to it in the car. Bunlay remembered some of the music from his childhood. So much of Khmer’s artistic and cultural spirit was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years that even their rock n’ roll music is rare and little known by the current generation. Everyday, I feel the little reminders of Cambodia’s recent history – subtle and inoffensive, but it’s definitely there. In the evening, there was a big rainstorm and we couldn’t even pass through the center of town due to flooding on the streets. If the ancient drainage systems were anything like the current ones, I can understand why the Angkor Kingdom was in trouble! We went to dinner at Pyongyang Restaurant – North Korea’s first international restaurant. It was eerie. A gigantic hall that can seat hundreds of people with a stage at the front. The waitresses were these beautiful Korean girls. From the two waitresses we met at our table, they definitely sounded North Korean. It was so weird to hear these accents that I had only heard on television! The food was decent, but way too expensive by Cambodian standards. Kimchi was good. I had Pyongyang nyaengmyun. It was too eerie though. Not going back there again. Afterwards, Anth and I shared a bottle of wine on Pub Street and headed back to the hotel. It was a long, but good day.

There will be more from Sunny later in the week… BTW… that North Korean restuarant was very weird.