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A holiday with a purpose: Weekend in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian Children’s Fund

My friend Tammy has been volunteering for the Cambodian Children’s Fund for the last few years.  She shares her story of a recent long weekend in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh may not be the obvious choice for a long weekend break with a child but, for us, this holiday was all about a child.  The child in question is Srey Ka – the 3 year old my family has sponsored for the last year through the amazing Cambodian Children’s Fund – and we were going to visit her for the first time.SONY DSC

Getting There
We took two suitcases – one for us and the other crammed full with our daughter Maggie’s old clothes, toys and books along with donations from friends.

We flew with Dragonair from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh on Thurs morning.  The flight was a quick 2 and a half hour hop.  With the one-hour time difference between HK and PP – we arrived shortly before lunchtime.  We obtained our visa on arrival which costs US$20 per adult (only payable in US dollars) but as we had forgotten our passport sized photographs we had to pay an extra US$5 per person.  We had taken US dollars with us but I noticed an ATM machine close by where others were making US dollar withdrawals.

Where did we stay
We stayed at a small boutique hotel – the White Mansion Hotel – where I’d previously stayed in 2012.  The hotel is a converted colonial style mansion house and set up more with the business traveller in mind than as a family holiday destination.  Rooms are airy with high ceilings and windows.  Ours had a balcony opening up onto the busy (and fairly noisy) road and a large separate bathroom with shower, no bath.  And while the room was spacious enough to easily accommodate both the huge King size bed and the separate single bed provided for our daughter, the room I had been given on my previous visit was probably twice the size for the same rate.  It was also surprising that in a large room there was very little wardrobe space with only one wardrobe and four tiny drawers between the three of us.

Hotel Facilities
Phnom Penh PoolThe hotel itself is lovely: the staff friendly and courteous and only too happy to help.  There is a small lap pool – at this time of year only warm enough to swim in once it had been warmed by the sun for the morning – and an on-site cafe that serves a range of French and Cambodian style food from 7am to 9pm and really good breakfast options.  Minor quibbles would be that when we arrived our room wasn’t immediately available.  Also on the second day we had to ask for the child’s pack advertised on the website as it had not been included in the room.

The spa is also nothing to write home about: fairly rustic for a city hotel but still good value at US$30 for a 90 minute massage.

The room was US$130 per night for the deluxe double room including breakfast.  A babysitting service is available and only (female) staff employed by the hotel used.

What did we do
On our first day I had to leave my family as I had arranged to do a couple of interviews while we were in Phnom Penh.  So while I went off with the private driver I had arranged for the duration of our four-day trip, they spent a couple of hours by the pool.

SONY DSCWe had arranged to meet Srey Ka on Day 2.  We first met Srey’s designated translator at one of CCF’s 8 facilities and from there travelled together to see Srey Ka at CCF’s nursery program facility.  It took us around an hour to get there.  We were really excited to meet Srey Ka but she was incredibly nervous and shy – to be expected I guess – so while the other children were clambering all over us, trying to grasp the camera, touch us, touch our daughter, she stood in the background, checking us out from a distance.  The translator told us that even at such a young age, meeting a sponsor is a big deal and particularly for children who already have had much trauma in their lives. For Srey Ka, we learned that, unbelievably, her older sister had been beaten to death by her father last year and so – even though one of CCF’s biggest aims is to keep the family unit together – Srey Ka has been removed from her parents for her own protection and is now in full-time care with CCF.

Even though I’d visited CCF before and appreciate these children are the lucky ones, I was still taken aback seeing the difference in terms of size, weight and development between them and our little girl – who is pretty small herself by ‘normal’ standards.

The hardest thing for us was seeing the tiny babies – not enough staff to give the pre-toddlers constant care – lying in rows on their back on the floor.  The eerie silence shouting out that these children have a complete absence of parental care and so never learn to cry for a cuddle.  It was explained that for most of these babies their parents were either drug addicts and had been deemed incompetent or serving prison sentences.

Our visit to the facilities was probably just over an hour at the end of which Srey Ka had warmed to us but not enough for us to be able to take her for lunch or-the treat of all treats for the CCF children – ice cream.  We’ll save that for next time.

You can support CCF in lots of ways – either by a one-off general donation, a specific donation to support one of CCF’s programs or as a child sponsor.  But sponsoring a child is a big commitment.  Unlike some other NGOs the sponsors are encouraged to fully participate in the child’s development, including swapping email and letter correspondence with the help of the translator, regular photo updates and visits such as ours.  Our idea is for the relationship to be between Srey Ka and our little girl, Maggie, so when Maggie outgrows clothes or doesn’t play with one of her toys they go into a box for Srey Ka.  Ultimately we hope Maggie gets as much out of the relationship as Srey Ka will.

Where else did we go?

With the main focus of the trip firmly on our CCF visit we only had the one free day and we chose to visit Phnom Tamoa zoo.  While there are options such as the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, we didn’t feel this was appropriate for our little girl.  We spoke with another family, though, who had visited both and they said it was well worth the visit and their children (1, 4 and 6) hadn’t seemed unduly perturbed.  They also did an overnight road trip to Siem Reap – which they said was amazing but they wouldn’t recommend to do by car as the roads are in such poor condition.

We had a bone-rattling hour’s journey to the zoo.  Nevertheless it was a good opportunity to see the Cambodian countryside.  Cambodia is still very much emerging from the ravages of its’ long civil war and you can clearly see the country’s many scars as you leave town for country.  Buildings in disrepair.  Temples abandoned.  Homes that look more like thrown together market stalls.  The whole struck me as a beautiful yet broken land.

SONY DSCThe zoo itself was really interesting.  I wasn’t sure what to expect and was dreading it would be some sort of gimmicky rip-off place but actually it was far from it.  A hybrid of zoo and safari park, it was a drive and walk park with a diverse range of animals from deer to tigers and even some huge crocodiles.  We paid US$8 for a local guide to take us around and he was very knowledgeable.  He also helped to deflect the many children trying to sell us food for the animals whenever we left one of the many enclosures.

It is also very dirty so take clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting very dusty.  I’d also recommend taking little ones to the toilet before and after the zoo as mine isn’t so great with a hole in the ground!

Where did we eat?

We ate at Romdeng which was recommended to us by a friend.  The place is run by Friends International, a charity that trains and employs former street kids.  We had a table outside in the garden.  Very relaxed ambience, good food with a designated children’s menu.

For my birthday meal we ate at the more upmarket Malis.  I was very impressed by both the restaurant and the food.  A lovely birthday treat.

We also ate at Le Cafe, the cafe annexed to the White Mansion.

In summary

Not our usual type of holiday but a holiday with a purpose.  Not an inexpensive option either.  However, I think we’d agree worth every cent!

The private car was US$30 for half day, US$50 for full day and US$80 for an out of town trip.  So expensive but essential unless you want to travel around the dusty roads by tuk tuk – not an option if you’re there for any kind of business or don’t like the idea of eating dust!

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE CAMBODIA CHILDREN’S FUND, PLEASE VISIT THEIR WEBSITE https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org or contact Tammy Allman tammy@cambodianchildrensfund.org

2 comments

  1. Mawgan Batt

    Wonderful piece and really inspiring.

  2. Nicola

    Hi Mawgan, completely agree. As soon as Tammy told me about it, we also signed up to sponsor a little girl. I’m hoping to take Daisy out to Cambodia later this year to meet her xx

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