CAMBODIA TALES 2001
Sunrise and a ray of hope
It was 8.30am and I was waiting for Rosanna White in the early morning sunshine, sheltered in the shade of a palm tree in front of the Independence Monument. Rosanna is the volunteer co-ordinator for the Sunrise Children's Village, a Phnom Penh orphanage with a high profile, due in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of its founder and patron, Geraldine Cox. Described by some as 'larger than life', Geraldine was on one of her regular trips abroad seeking out funds to keep the orphanage afloat and the day to day administration was in the capable hands of Rosanna. I'd been in e-mail contact with both of them for a few months before my trip and they'd kindly invited me to visit the orphanage, temporarily located in Takhmau, some fifteen kilometres south of Phnom Penh.
Geraldine's high profile - she's written a book, there's an award-winning documentary about her life and a feature film in the offing - and her tireless work go towards providing a home for around fifty disadvantaged Cambodian children between the ages of 3 and 18. Most are orphans, all have sad tales to tell, but the orphanage provides them with love, food and shelter as well as regular schooling and extra English, computer, sewing, music and dance classes, designed to give them the chance of a brighter future. Its a worthy cause which many Australians support with individual and corporate sponsorship. However, as Rosanna explained on our drive out to Takhmau, a great deal of extra funding, as much as $600,000, is needed to fulfil the Sunrise dream envisioned when Prime Minister Hun Sen donated ten hectares of rent-free land to the orphanage. It's certainly an ambitious project and the publicity created by the support of some very famous Hollywood names is currently giving it real momentum, while Geraldine's powers of persuasion continue to play their part in making the dream come true.
A toot of the horn and the gates of a non-descript villa opened up as we were welcomed in by Sopheun, the orphanage's housemother. Rosanna received an update on the latest batch of cuts and bruises, tantrums and colds (and the theft of a bicycle) since her last visit a couple of days earlier before giving me a guided tour of the tidy, but cramped house and grounds. On the ground floor were the girls dormitories (the boys sleep upstairs), with hammocks and mattresses taking up most of the space and a few of the girls busily drawing pictures with coloured crayons. Outside, the more boisterous boys were playing games of tag and marbles and I joined in a game of football with Chanry and Sin Long, two eight year olds, who were obviously best of friends and who hammed it up for my camera. I also showed my skills, or lack of them, with another group who were playing 'tot sey' (foot shuttlecock).
Nearby was the well-stocked computer room, where Phalla, the computer teacher, was fixing a pc on his day off with the help of a couple of the older teenagers. He showed me how the recent rains had flooded the room and damaged the wooden computer stands and was very keen to hear about my website devoted to my travels in Cambodia. Outside, I met Sok An, the head cook, who was preparing vegetables for the children's lunch with some of the older girls under an awning in the concrete yard, when Sary and her wheelchair (she's the only disabled child in the orphanage) whizzed past and came to a halt at the water tap, where she began washing some clothes. Rosanna explained that Sary, a polio sufferer, is now learning to walk with the aid of callipers and a brace and is fiercely independent, but an absolute sweetie.
Upstairs, we visited the volunteers room, which also houses the medicine cabinet and is where Geraldine, the patron, sleeps when she's in town. Next door, the dance and music practice was already in full swing. The children are working hard in preparation for a once in a lifetime visit to Australia for an arts festival, and rehearsals form a key part of each day for those lucky enough to be going. The orphanage is home to about fifty children and over half of them will be making the trip to Adelaide in March 2002. Today was a Sunday, so no school meant extra practice sessions for the dancers and musicians. In a cramped room, I grabbed a seat to watch the dance teacher, Monitha, guiding a group of the youngest girls - six to eight year olds - through their traditional Khmer dance routine. They were delightful and were followed by the youngest boys who danced and banged their coconut shells in harmony as Srey Mao (right), the youngest of the girls with a smile and a nature guaranteed to melt any heart, sat on my knee to watch her friends perform.
At the back of the room, some of the children were playing traditional Khmer instruments to accompany the dances and were being tutored by 70-something year old Mr Chea and his daughter Thierry, both outstanding musicians in their own right. Next on the dance floor were the teenage girls and particularly 17 year old Srey Mich, the orphanage's leading dancer who glided across the floor with grace and poise in abundance. Following them, as the tempo increased, were a mixed group of four boys and four girls who moved in well-rehearsed unison and who rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable hour watching the children perform. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I forgot to take any photos until near the end. I was mightily impressed. This wasn't a performance staged for visiting guests but a daily practice session, yet the timing and elegance of all the dancers, whatever their age, was a joy to watch. They'd worn their normal clothes for the practice, so I'm sure they'll look even more professional when they wear their hand-sewn costumes for the real thing.
I had another quick kick-about in the courtyard with Chanry and Sin Long as Rosanna did her final rounds of the villa with most of the children giving her a goodbye hug. Then it was back in the 4WD and out into the busy back streets of Takhmau and our return to Phnom Penh. My visit to the orphanage had been a brief but thoroughly enjoyable one. The children I met were happy, the level of laughter and their playful nature made that abundantly clear, but their temporary premises are simply too small. Its a stop-gap until the Sunrise Children's Village and the dreams of Geraldine, Rosanna and the children themselves become a reality. I sincerely hope that's sooner rather than later.
Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.
Cambodia Tales 2
November 2001 marked my 7th trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.
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