Friday, August 5, 2011


A day in the Cambodia Retirement Village

Last Saturday some colleagues from the #ibmcsc paid a visit to the Cambodia Retirement Village, a social project in Cham Bak village in the Prey Veng province, about 1.5 hrs north of Phnom Penh. The initiator of the project, Kim Vuthy, had kindly invited us to come by and meet the villagers. Also with us came Laura Villadiego, a Spanish journalist who covers the ASEAN region from Cambodia, and Vuthy’s girlfriend.

We left Phnom Penh early in the morning, somewhat bleary-eyed after a night out in the city but excited about the opportunity to learn more about the project and get to know the people.

At the village we were welcomed by Vuthy’s family, which lives nearby, and the villagers who gladly showed us around. The retirement village in Cham Bak is the first of its kind, and provides accommodation, food and basic medical care for elderly people. The rooms are equipped with wooden beds, with pictures of the royal family on the walls and small Buddha temples as the only decoration. Two of the rooms already had solar powered electric lights, as the residents proudly pointed out to us. There is a separate building which houses the kitchen and the storage room, and an open room used as the bakery. The restroom is of the Cambodian style that we are not accustomed to, and we found that somewhat difficult to use, in part also due to the low height of the roof.

Vuthy explained that the main job for villagers is rice farming, which is done only once a year during the rainy season. There are no irrigation systems, so for the larger part of the year there isn’t much to do in the village, once of the reasons why people are leaving the small towns to work in the cities or abroad. With a history of war and destruction and the economic development, the Cambodian tradition of taking care for the families often breaks and elderly people find themselves homeless and helpless. Here they have found a new home and people who care about their well-being.

The most touching moment was when Laura conducted interviews with the villagers and asked a resident how we liked the new retirement home: no need to wait for the translation of what he responded. The big, happy smile did speak for itself.

Besides taking care of elderly people, the project also aims at bringing generations together by providing educational resources for the children at the village, and through sustainable community farming initiatives with rice fields, pigs, ducks and catfish.

Before visiting the animal farm and carefully balancing on the narrow paths between the rice fields, we enjoyed a very nice lunch in the village. With our Khmer skills being limited to saying “Hello” and “Thank you” we were unfortunately language challenged again and couldn’t really engage in a discussion with the families. Likewise my attempts to ask the kids for their names rarely succeeded, but we made friends with them nevertheless and some followed us to the rice field. They were eager to pick up a few phrases in English from us and did very well, and we had a good laugh too. If you ever hear a little boy introducing himself with “Hello, my name is Klaus” you will know why …

In the afternoon we were pampered with delicious palm cakes, freshly made and wrapped in banana leave bowls and then, while our host was sorting out a few things at the village, were given an opportunity to do what we are worst at – do nothing.

The virtue of being able to patiently wait and and do nothing has amazed me in many places. The people running the street market on our street wait for customers amidst a variety of food and vegetable plates from dusk till dawn, prepare some more food, and wait again. The Tuk Tuk and moto drivers take their naps on the street until someone requests their services. The villagers sit on their bed in front of the main building, watching the kids play. The van driver doesn’t mind to wait for a few hours while we visit a sight or have a meal, and we only managed a few times to convince our drivers or tour guides to join. While the cities are generally more busy, people don’t seem as rushed or hyperactive for no good reason as they are in other parts of the word, and doing nothing for a little while is perfectly fine.

When we found that two additional packs of solar powered lights were waiting to be mounted, that was as a big relief. There was work to do! We inspected the existing installations, discussed where to best place the lights and battery packs to protect them from rain while allowing the residents to easily reach the light switches, attached the battery pack to the roof beams, and ran wires between the rooms. Most of the cabling work was actually done by the local people, who were much faster climbing the wiggly ladder, but we shared the sense of accomplishments when all lights were done, and the rooms, the kitchen and the bakery were nicely illuminated.

Our Corporate Service Corps assignment was somewhat unusual as we came to a city and mostly worked in offices, so the day in the village for us was also an opportunity to experience life outside of the cities and spend time with local families. As much as we enjoy our volunteering work with the clients in the city, helping communities here with business and technology insights, seeing an immediate tangible results and the appreciation from the people in the village was very rewarding.

We said goodbye with hugs and sompeas, and made our way back to Phnom Penh late in the afternoon.

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