Cambodia is amazing.
My consciousness was first introduced to Cambodia when I had a Cambodian student in my post graduate class a decade or so ago. We chatted occasionally. He said things were bad. I did not know how bad. The period of Pol Pot (1975 – 1779) and the Khmer Rouge saw the death of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians through the combined result of political executions, starvation, and forced labor, about 25% to 30% of the entire population (Wikipedia).
About 25% to 30% of the population.
Three decades of war left scars in many forms throughout the country. Land mines, laid by the Khmer Rouge, the Heng Samrin and Hun Sen regimes, the Vietnamese, the KPNLF, and the Sihanoukists litter the countryside. In most cases, the soldiers who planted the mines did not record where they were placed. Now, Cambodia has the one of the highest rates of physical disability of any country in the world. It is generally accepted that more than 40,000 Cambodians have suffered amputations as a result of mine injuries since 1979. That represents an average of nearly forty victims a week for a period of twenty years.
We saw many paths marked with a clear “do not go here” sign indicating the path had not been cleared of land mines.
One person told us that as the enemy of the time laid landmines to kill the Cambodians, the Cambodians laid landmines to fend off the enemy.
Those wars left other marked effects on the Cambodian population. The median age is 20.6 years, so more than 50% of the population is younger than 25. Cambodia has the most female-biased sex ratio in the region. UNICEF has designated Cambodia the third most mined country in the world, attributing over 60,000 civilian deaths and tens of thousands more maimed or injured since 1970 to the unexploded land mines left behind in rural areas. The majority of the victims are children herding animals or playing in the fields. Adults that survive landmines often require amputation of one or more limbs and have to resort to begging for survival.
Think of the children.
Maimed. Abandoned. Orphaned. Abused. Sex-traded. Smuggled across borders. Can it really get any worse?
Think of the children.
Into this mix came Geraldine Cox, an Australian, more than that, an Adelaidean, who travelled to Cambodia first for work and then with friends as a tourist. She fell in love with Cambodia and fell in love with its children, especially the orphans.
As it was told to us, she was quickly back in Cambodia after her holiday, having resigned her job and reorganised her life. She worked for the Princess looking after some orphans under the protection of the Royal Family. But as political and economic circumstances changed, the Royal Family could no longer support the orphans or provide employment for Geraldine.
She took the responsibility for those orphans herself. Without Government assistance from Cambodia (except for some land) or Australia. She shook the purses of everyone she knew. She went on speaking tours raising money. She opened several orphanages in Cambodia. She built buildings, found staff, fed and clothed the children. Educated them.
Before I visited Cambodia, I searched the internet for orphanages to see whether I could take things from Australia for them. I found one in Siem Reap. I made contact.
I had heard of Geraldine. She has spoken on radio and TV here about the Children. Some time after I made contact with the Siem Reap I discovered it was one that Geraldine had set up. I was really pleased that it had that Australian/Adelaidean connection.
When in Siem Reap, I called and spoke to the Director. He advised us to come to visit that day, as the children would be dancing local traditional dances and playing traditional music.
It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. They graciously took us on a tour of the orphanage – we saw how they live, where they are schooled, where they eat and where the food is cooked. We saw where and how they slept (70 children in two albeit large rooms), the library, the children’s play room. We heard how the learned Buddhism especially chanting each day and how every child learned traditional music and dance. We saw the rusty bikes that the older children ride to secondary school each day.
And mostly we saw the children.
These children had suffered everything you might imagine from my descriptions above. Everything imaginable and more.
Yet, look into those faces. Look into those eyes. See the happiness and joy beyond imagination that Geraldine Cox and her family of workers, paid and unpaid, bring to these children.
We heard them sing. We saw them dance with a perfection that outstripped a professional dance company I saw later. We saw them play. Even as young as 6 they were proficient on the instruments.
I was in awe.
And most amazing of all, this family of 70 children, when they were not performing themselves, they watched with rapt attention, sang along to the songs, and were absolutely one with the performers.
I will not forget.
Geraldine, you are one amazing woman.
Cambodia, with such a past, you produce such wonderful wonderful children. The future of Cambodia.
Cambodia is amazing.
if you want to read about the orphanage, visit the website (the orphanage website).
if you would like to read more about Geraldine Cox, visit here and here. You will notice that some of the details of her story are different to what I mentioned above – my writing was what was told to me during my time in Siem Reap. The details don’t matter – the spirit does.
Browse our other travel stories here.