When I booked my flight to Cambodia in September 2022, I was a little worried about the trip. It had been two years since I had landed in the Kingdom of Wonder and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to find in Siem Reap after the ravages of the pandemic. It was practically impossible for a foreigner to travel there during the peak of COVID and this was a town that was built on tourism. Without visitors, was I going to find that all my favorite hotels, restaurants and shops had shut down and the streets deserted? On the positive side, the main reason for my trip was to visit the students and their schools and I knew from my manager, Rathana, that everyone was doing quite well. When I finally boarded my plane in November of this past year, I was apprehensive about what I would find but excited to see my Cambodian family again.
There is a popular saying in Southeast Asia that goes “same same but different.” You’ll see in on tshirts and sometimes muttered by TukTuk drivers to explain something that is kinda the same but not quite. That’s how I found Siem Reap when I did my walkabout on my first day back. There were quite a few foreigners (especially French) and plenty of my old favorite restaurants (Le Tigre de Papier!) were still going quite strong and even new ones had popped up. On the downside, the tourist markets and especially the night markets were almost completely shut down. I ventured out to the temples, as I always do, and in some of the lesser-known temples, I was almost completely alone which was highly unusual for that time of year. Despite the economic troubles and the sense that Temple Town had gone through a lot, I was not surprised to find the Khmer people were just as welcoming, kind and resilient. It essence, it was same same but different.
Rathana had a packed schedule for me. There were schools to visit, current students to meet, potential students to interview and a lot of running around to buy school supplies, books, laptops and uniforms. The busiest day is always when Rathana and I sit down with all the current students, both from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and interview them one by one. We discuss their grades, their family life, their living situation, their jobs (if they have one) and especially their goals for their future career and how we can get them there. Our high school students sometimes struggle with what they want to do. One year they want to do teaching, the next year they want to have a business or go into tourism or even medicine. I suppose it isn’t any different than a typical high school student in my corner of the world.
Of course, there are some students who know exactly what they want to do. Meng Houy knew she wanted to be a doctor for several years but they stopped the Medical Entrance exams during COVID so she waited it out for two years but kept up her studying. I’m very proud to say that she passed the exam and is now in her first year of Medical School. We cover her tuition while she lives with her brother in Phnom Penh. Our university students inspire and pave the way for our high school students. Right now, we have university students who are studying Law, Medicine, Business Management, Marketing, Teaching and Travel/Tourism. When we sit down with our students, we want to make them believe that they can make anything happen, as long as they work hard, get good grades and abide by their scholarship agreement. We want them to aim high!
I also take time to meet with former students. I started the Savong Foundation in 2011 and only now are we starting to see our students accomplish their dreams which they started years ago. I was very excited to meet with Cheat who we supported until he graduated from the University of Cambodia with a degree in Marketing. He has become quite the successful businessman (already!) and has his own distribution company. Rathana and I met him for lunch and at the end of the meal, he insisted on paying for the meal. It may seem like a small gesture in some ways but it was hugely symbolic of the difference we have helped make in this young man’s life. He came from a poor family in the countryside and who knows what his life would have been like without a scholarship. I don’t think he would have been paying for a foreigner’s lunch in a fancy restaurant! We are equally proud of our newly minted graduates from this year; Krouch who graduated from University of SouthEast Asia with a degree in Travel and Tourism; Nhey who graduated from the Battambang Teacher’s Education College with a degree in Teaching; Chhart who graduated from the University of SoutEast Asia with a degree in Law and Chong with a degree in Business Management from the University of Cambodia. Congratulations to all!
With a couple of graduates this year, it was time to take on a few new students. This is always a tough time because, as a friend once put it, there is an “ocean of need.” We collect the applications and this year I narrowed it down to ten potential students whom we invited to my hotel to interview personally. After that process, Rathana and I narrowed it down to five students whom we interviewed at their home with their parents or caregivers present. This process took us to some interesting (very poor) places but it was important to really get a sense of how much the students needed our help and how supportive the parents would be. After a lot of hand wringing, I narrowed it down to three new students; Ouksa, Rathana and Bunseim. All are in Grade 12 and I feel that they have a huge amount of potential but really needed the financial support to achieve their career goals.
Normally, Rathana and I take a trip to Phnom Penh to visit our university students but we decided this year to go to Battambang, which is a city to the west of Siem Reap. I had never been there before but we had one student, Dalina, studying there whom I had never met because we gave her a scholarship during the COVID years. It was a lot of fun exploring the city while learning about our student and her family. We took her on the Bamboo Train which was almost like a go-cart on tracks which went at a surprisingly fast speed and then ended up in interesting photo-op adventure land. Battambang is not typically a tourist hangout but there are some incredibly beautiful corners and well worth a visit if you want to experience a uniquely Cambodian city. Although we have supported Dalina at a very reputable school, the Dewey International School, she will likely need to move to Phnom Penh to continue her studies if she wants to pursue a professional degree. She’s in Grade 12 now and when we visited her, she was interested in Architecture or Medicine…but just like the weather, that may change with the season.
In addition to our educational scholarship program, we also support music projects. In collaboration with the Nirmita Composer’s Institute, we typically organize workshops for emerging artists who can study with a group of distinguished faculty, led by Dr. Chinary Ung, Dr. Sean Heim, Dr. Koji Nakano and Susan Ung. Once again, as a consequence of COVID, the workshops had to be abandoned but to continue the contribution to Cambodian culture and traditional music, funding was directed towards a recording project of Mohori songs and the training of several young singers in that tradition. Mohori is traditional Cambodian music made up of a small ensemble of wind, string and percussion musical instruments. It likely dates back to prior to the Angkorian period and is still used for social and traditional events. The Mohori music project, spearheaded by Ms. Chanthou Kem, one of the leading experts and performers of the Mohori song tradition, recorded ten works along with a total of nineteen musicians. The songs have now been entirely completed and will be released soon on various platforms in the coming months. Now that Cambodia has once again opened up to visitors, our hope is that workshops will continue in 2023.
The Savong Foundation Cambodia has had an incredible year. I feel that we are supporting a great group of students who are not only working hard but also need the financial support to pursue professional careers. Without this support, there is no way that they could achieve what education can provide. When many of our families make $200 or less in the countryside and full-time tuitions in Phnom Penh can be $1000 to $1500 not including living expenses, then it’s easy to see why higher education is out of reach for many Cambodians even if they are at the top of their classes. And with this direct support, there is also the concept of radiating influence. One successful student will help motivate and inspire another student and upon achieving their career, then their whole family will also be supported. It’s just like paying it forward, Khmer-style!
I fully realize that there are plenty of nonprofits out there asking for money but the Savong Foundation Cambodia works hard to make every dollar count. Our overhead is minimal (we only have one staff member on the payroll) and we are dedicated to our students and know them like the family that they are. Yes, we are a small foundation but thanks to our new donors and our donors who have stuck with us for years, we have grown and have made an important difference in so many lives. And we’re very grateful for a positive word-of-mouth which is the biggest compliment that we can get.
Thank you for following our journey, now in its 11th year, and we look forward to another great chapter in 2023.
Dr. Phil Caldwell