A first-hand account of on-site visits with GoPhil partner programs in Siem Reap.

12 January, 2018 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

I open the door to my balcony at roughly 6am and am greeted by a surprisingly cool air for what I’ve come to know over the last week as a typically hot and humid Siem Reap. The sounds of roosters in the distance and a tingling of nearby music mingle into my ears as I wipe my eyes open to a new day. The music resonates and I listen for several minutes even though I’m already running late. It’s a light clanging of rhythmic bells and a soothing chant that is almost omnipresent. There is no telling from what direction it comes because it is simply everywhere. Not obtrusive nor annoying as a neighbor’s music can sometimes be. It is, for me, a melodic piece of peace.

Later in the morning over coffee I play the short clip I recorded for Gemma Marshall, GoPhil’s Regional Development Manager. Knowledgable after her 3+ years of living in Siem Reap, she tells me that it is the music of mourning. Someone has died and this could be the first day of remembrance, though it is not uncommon for people to also arrange a funeral ceremony 100 days after the death of parents, children or relatives.

A bit of time later into the day after visits to two GoPhil programs, we stop by The Victoria Hotel for a quick glimpse of a photo exhibition – a professional photographer’s images of war-ridden Cambodia have been paired with the commentary that teenagers of today, post Khmer Rouge, feel as they look at the images of times past. The captions for each photo embody a young perspective that is emotionally confusing for both them, as the new generation of Cambodia, and for the stranger (me) reading their powerfully poetic words. The captions tear away my eyes and I am overcome with emotion.

I return late in the afternoon to my hotel and the music is still present. It is louder now. Stronger. And I wonder…
Of all the people in the photographs of earlier today, how many never had this peaceful music played for them?

Let us now skip back to the beginning of my trip…

• • • • •

03 January, 2018

This is my first visit to Cambodia and I find myself in Siem Reap, a lively city overflowing with tourism. Neighboring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is surrounded by ancient temples and historical beauty. The streets are absolutely littered with bustling businesses and tuktuks catering to tourism. The people smile, they appear genuinely friendly and there is happiness in the air. It is tough to imagine that just a few decades ago this country was nearly demolished by genocide.

I did a fair amount of reading prior to my trip in hopes of better understanding the history and current crisis of Cambodia which, time and again, is referred to as the poorest country in Southeast Asia. I would highly encourage anyone making a visit to this beautiful and fragile country to read:


The Road of Lost Innocence, Somaly Mam*
When Broken Glass Floats, Chanrithy Him
First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung
Alive in the Killing Fields, Nawuth Keat


* While reading this book I knew nothing of the controversy surrounding Somaly Mam and it was only much later brought to my attention. Whether her story is 100% autobiographical or fabricated in part is still of great debate around the globe. For me personally, there is no question that this was the most powerful and insightful piece of literature I read before my trip. I believe that regardless of its validity, her courage to write, publish and be the face of this brutal subject matter brought forth great and positive change for many women.


I kick-off my time in Cambodia with a few days to explore before our NGO visits begin. I take in my surroundings by cruising the streets around my hotel, a location that fortunately allows for walking down roads that tourists normally wouldn’t find. It’s dirty and aromatic in both pleasant and unpleasant ways, there are neighbors butchering chickens and intoxicated construction workers who invite me to sit down and play cards with them. The hotel encourages me to take a tuktuk everywhere, but then I’d simply drive by these honest moments and I don’t mind returning home covered in sweat and my feet a bright color of mahogany from trekking down the red clay roads. I think it is just uncommon of their visitors, which speaks volumes to the typical Cambodian visit. One could easily spend a week in Siem Reap exploring temples, eating extremely well and shopping for locally made wares without ever learning about the history of Cambodia or all of the NGO work – both good and bad – going on at present.

I visit the temples on my second day in Siem Reap. I hire a driver and hit the road solo so as to have a private experience which I know will be personally magical. My only request is to go to his favorite spots whatever those may be – the smaller, quieter temples that are often overlooked. I quickly learn that when it comes to temples at Angkor Wat, there are no temples that are often overlooked. Everywhere we go there are hordes of people, so I spend the majority of the day cruising around in the tuktuk chatting about his family, his life, his story. That interaction, honestly, is much more beautiful for me than any perfect photo of the sun rising and reflecting over Angkor Wat. I can see that on Instagram whenever I want!

In the end, I am here to visit NGO programs with GoPhil Co-Founder Lydia Dean and GoPhil Regional Development Manager, Gemma Marshall, and we have many to visit in the days ahead.

• • • • •

05 January, 2018

Today we visit the Women’s Resource Center, one of GoPhil’s New Discovery programs run by Cambodian women for Cambodian women. WRC’s mission is to provide emotional support, referral services and informal education workshops at zero cost so that they can be empowered to make informed decisions about their lives.

We are greeted with extreme enthusiasm by an entirely Cambodian team of bright female souls. Vanthat, WRC Executive Director, sits with us in their small yet comfortable meeting space to offer us an overview of WRC’s work, the issues they face, and what has been accomplished with GoPhil’s funding.

As a New Discovery, funding focused on remodeling and redecorating their space to provide a more comfortable and safe atmosphere, as well as marketing materials to share with women around Siem Reap. One of the most impressive pieces of collateral they created is a wallet-sized three-fold business card with a simple yet incredibly meaningful message:

How do you feel? However you feel, you are not alone. We are here for you.

We discuss at length the challenges facing WRC and the women of Cambodia, and more importantly the steps that WRC are taking to provide a safe space for women to receive therapy and counseling.

  • 40% of women have attended secondary school or higher.
  • 12.7% of women said their parents wouldn’t allow them to attend school.
  • 37% of teenage girls who have never been to school are becoming mothers.
  • 1 in 3 men report perpetrating physical or sexual violence toward their female partner.

While the numbers before us are honestly on the positive side of the scale in comparison to other regions in which GoPhil works, mere numbers cannot negate the value and importance of WRC’s work. These are issues that women face around the globe and it is inspiring to know that a courageous group of women in Cambodia are advocating for and providing this place of healing.

A glimpse into the powerful work of WRC and part of their presentation to us can be seen here:

• • • • •

08 January, 2018

This morning we sit down at a cafe with William and Sophe who represent Community Cares First Organization (CCFO).

CCFO have been leaders in the field of transitioning out of residential care and supporting families and children with reintegration, kinship or foster care. CCFO is also actively working with communities and young people on several levels. They run workshops and one-on-one advice sessions for young people in order to help them transition into the world of work.

As a GoPhil New Discovery, CCFO received funding of nearly $5k last year to run a series of in-depth workshops over the course of 8 weeks for young adults. These workshops included career counseling, CV and cover letter writing, interview techniques, work place etiquette, learning and practicing soft skills and being empowered to know employee rights.

Over the course of 8 weeks with workshops every Friday, CCFO focused on soft skills and job readiness modules relevant for entering the job market. Astonishingly, of the 15 young adults who participated in the workshop, 8 have already found jobs and of the remaining participants, several have made the wise decision to finish their studies while CCFO is actively working with the rest to find work.

Despite their incredibly important work, time will tell whether this little gem will succeed in the ever-expanding network of NGOs in Siem Reap. We were beyond thrilled, however, to learn of the successes and impact made with the very first New Discovery grant to CCFO and look forward to receiving final impact summaries of the participants involved in the coming weeks.

• • • • •

09 January, 2018

This morning we meet up with GoPhil donors Sharon & Alex, both of whom just so perfectly happen to be in Siem Reap during our time here. As former president of the Benicia Rotary Club in Benicia, California, Alex has supported GoPhil’s efforts for several years running and is here on behalf of the Benicia Rotary and their funding of a soccer training program at HUSK.

HUSK’s core focus is working with the communities of Treak & Kompheim villages located in Siem Reap. HUSK sponsors a broad and fascinating range of programs that focus on the basic needs of villagers – food & nutrition, clean water, shelter, sanitation and education – all with vocational learning opportunities. In addition, HUSK also employs several women from the community to produce softies soft toys which provide them and their families an income.

In the words of HUSK Co-Founder Anthony, “One of the biggest problems that we face at the moment is that we currently have the majority of our students attending government school in the morning, which means we have 90% of our students (approx. 400) here in the afternoons. We have three classrooms and the library, but it’s quite regular now for a one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock class – all three classrooms running back-to-back. We’re almost bursting at the seams.”

Government school in Cambodia only goes for half a day as there are simply not enough teachers, classrooms or resources to provide a full day of education. If children attend government school in the morning they typically spend the afternoon at HUSK and vice versa, where more than 450 children (from grades 1 – 12) are currently attending HUSK’s free education program. The English classes at HUSK’s Kompheim Community School were an impressive and inspiring activity to witness.

On the concept of financial loans with exorbitant interest rates which have become a real problem across Cambodia, HUSK Co-Founder Fiona shares, “Loans are regularly handed out to anyone and everyone with not qualifications or understanding of the financial terms to people who cannot afford them. People are getting more and more loans with interest rates at 30% – 40%, and so you have families that may have an income, but not an income that can cover the cost of their loans.”

After a visit to the school, we head out to another HUSK location where we find the Softies Income Generation Workshop. One of the biggest challenges vulnerable families face is earning an income. Most of the families HUSK supports have no land, they are generally uneducated, perhaps having reached a Grade 4 primary education, and with few skills.  They are reliant on menial & back breaking labor jobs.  Life is hard & extremely physically demanding, when there is no work, life becomes extremely difficult. The idea of the Softies program is to provide women (with families) the opportunity to learn sewing skills and produce a range of Soft Toys which are sold locally in Cambodia allowing them to supplement their income. HUSK now has a team of eight women all supporting their families and working full time making not only Soft Toys but a range of other items like laundry bags, coasters and simple clothing items. These women now have a way to earn a regular income and meet their basic needs.

Also at this HUSK location we explore the impressive computer literacy & IT lab, before finding a number of excited soccer stars on the field waiting to meet Alex who will be administering a soccer practice with HUSK’s growing soccer team!

• • • • •

10 January, 2018

Today we pop in for a visit with Kevin and Corinne at GoPhil partner Free to Shine. We bring with us both Sharon and Alex, along with Alex’s brother, Nick. It’s almost as if we are running a mini GoPhil Journey and the energy is awesome!

Free to Shine seeks to tackle sex trafficking by empowering young women through education and helping to keep them in safe environments. They support with scholarships, monitoring girls attendance, community education on trafficking and its root causes, and seek to work with families and support them to ensure children are brought up in family care as a first option. They believe that whilst a girl remains in education she is less vulnerable to trafficking, whilst at the same time gaining an education and skills that will give her a brighter future and protect her from trafficking in the longer term.

GoPhil offered its first pilot grant to Free to Shine in 2017 to roll out a new educational video resource featuring successful female Cambodians. These Cambodian role models have jobs that young women can aspire to such as medical doctor, business owner, police woman, tuktuk driver as well as a teacher. Workshops on how to reach these job goals will accompany the video resource and work in conjunction with their already successful community classes on human rights, trafficking/safe migration and child sex abuse. Free to Shine are seeking to deliver holistic support and empowerment to young girls and encourage them to take charge of all areas of their lives.

Later in the afternoon we head for Opportunities of Development thru Art (ODA) where GoPhil donor Sharon has recently funded both the installation of water tanks and all associated piping to deliver fresh water to the center, along with the installation of solar panels that generate the electricity needed to fuel the new water pumps.

We arrive at ODA and the space is simply filled with the bright energy of children and learning. Leng, the founder of ODA, is also a very talented artist and part of the space is dedicated to his amazing artwork that is for sale – painting, prints and greeting cards. Currently over 30 children live at ODA near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. They are a complex mix of disadvantaged children who have no one, or no one able, to care for them. Leng and his wife provide support for the children’s academic needs, health and psychological wellbeing. To ensure meeting the children’s medical and health needs, ODA partners with the GO Healthy Kids Fund. Through the use of art, founder of ODA Leng provides education and hope for these vulnerable children.

• • • • •

11 January, 2018

Today we visit GoPhil partner PEPY Empowering Youth, where Executive Director Sarakk provides insight into what it takes to establish and run this organized and successful NGO program in Siem Reap that is making powerful progress. PEPY offers scholarships to students wishing to study at university or vocational college in Siem Reap, and provides both scholarship and non-scholarship students with additional soft skill training in the form of ICT, English and Youth Empowerment classes in its own Learning Center to ensure these young people have all the skills required to gain their chosen careers.

PEPY has also established a ‘Dream Class’ at Kralanh High School, which works with students in grades 10, 11 and 12 to introduce them to the concept of dreaming big, exploring what careers they are interested in pursuing, and developing the particular skills, ideas and connections that will help them to secure a bright future for themselves and their families. We step into a ‘Dream Class’ where we share in brief conversations with PEPY students discussing their dreams and hopes for a life after PEPY.

• • • • •

12 January, 2018 – Final Thoughts

It’s incredible to think that a full 10 days have already passed. I feel as though I barely scratched the surface of what is Siem Reap from a tourist perspective, but I took a pretty deep dive into everything going on in the NGO arena of the city. The amount of information received and the openness of these programs to share with us leaves me feeling invigorated and energized and ready to hop on board in any way possible to offer support. It’s an incredible line-up of programs that GoPhil has chosen to partner with and ultimately, delightful to see each of them making such great headway and progress.

That said, it was brought to our attention on several occasions the growing issue of uninformed giving, foreign financial dependency and the sheer abundance of NGO work going on in Siem Reap. To quote one GoPhil partner, “of the 300 or so NGOs that currently exist in the center of Siem Reap, only 41 of them are registered with the ministry of Cambodia.”

Thus, we walk away more dedicated than ever to continuing and strengthening the very important conversation about informed giving and responsible tourism which is paramount for GoPhil. These topics will be a focus of the upcoming GoPhil Journey to SE Asia in September 2018, which will also provide you the opportunity to visit and witness first-hand the amazing work of the programs you’ve just read about.

Also please do stay tuned for a more detailed post on responsible tourism and giving from GoPhil Co-Founder, Lydia Dean, later this month.