45 celcius, humid as heck, & 54 screaming orphans

Trip Start Apr 01, 2011
Trip End Apr 21, 2011

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Wat Opot

Flag of Cambodia  , Takêv,
Thursday, April 7, 2011

We have become slack in our vacationy attitude.  We left organizing the recommended driving to Wat Opot orphanage too late and he was already busy.  The recommended driver was supposed to charge us $15.00 US, but Phala at the hotel was only able to get us a tuk tuk driver from outside to take us for $20.  Serves us right. 

The drive to Takeo province was spectacular in a tuk tuk, if a little dusty and occasionally smelly.  The houses and shops soon thinned out, along with the road quality,  and we were able to view more of the Cambodian countryside, stretching out from the road with scattered trees and rice fields on a flat plain with the rare small mountain dropped onto the earth at random.  The side of the road was dotted with the occasional house or thatched hut with goods out by the road for display.  The objects for sale seemed to still exist  as groups - a group selling similar fruit or a group with meat hanging by the road for sale.  We passed more populated villages, glittering Wats (temples), drove by farmers carts piled high with grass, or were passed by cars and motos (scooters) tearing down the road with their horns blaring.

Side note: Driving through the countryside of Cambodia really gave us a better view of the poverty some of these people live in.  Hammocks or a flat surface of thin tree trunks seem to be a usual bed.  Four walls do not exist on every house and 'house' is a broad term.  Many of the buildings we saw couldn't have been more than one room that kept the rain off your head in the wet season, some of them were built with boards and a roof, others were thatch and wood pulled from the fields or forests.  Some were simply tarps and corrugated iron to house a whole family.  Usually the buildings were on stilts to avoid any pooling water in the wet season and any farming tools that these people had were in fairly poor condition and not terribly secured.  Theft was apparently not uncommon, mainly as a means of survival, and there was little to no access to medical facilities or schooling for children in rural areas.  Even if there was a school, the quality of education is apparently suspect and possibly little more than a babysitting service for a few hours a day, and that is for the families who can afford to send their children there.  Many families cannot.  With no education and no social assistance, there isn't any way out of poverty for these people any time soon.

The trip took us about an hour before we turned off the paved road into what seemed like a small village, stopping by the small wooden stall that stood for a corner store to ask for directions before finally rolling to Wat Opot Children's Community.  This was to be our base for the next three days and we were volunteering with the children. When we pulled up a small crowd of screaming Cambodian children swarmed the tuk tuk, followed by the woman who was to be our host, Melinda.

We had lunch shortly after arrival and then Melinda gave us the grand tour with the two other volunteers who had arrived the day before, Australian sisters named Claire and Monica.  We were later introduced to Kate, the twenty-two year old American nurse, but at the moment she was isolating herself because she was sick.

Wat Opot Orphanage: Description and some history!

The orphanage consisted of several buildings that were spread out over a surprisingly large area, with four or five square 'fish ponds' breaking up the grounds.  The buildings consisted of an office / former hospice for HIV patients, a crematorium, several houses for families that work at the orphanage or are living with HIV, a dormatory, volunteer quarters, kitchen, a two classroom / computer room building, a multiple room building with the arts / crafts / other offices, pens for chickens and pigs, wash house, and a soon to be playroom.  I may have missed some.  The complex is a fantastic size.  Many of the buildings have been donated to the site by charitable individuals, groups, or organizations.

Wat Opot Children's Community was originally founded and run as a hospice for HIV / AIDS patients by an American nurse / Vietnam vet named Wayne Matthysse and his Cambodian buisness partner, Sann Vandin who started a group called 'Partners in Compassion Cambodia.  Wayne was unfortunately away due to family reasons, so the site was currently being managed by Melinda, also an American woman who had come to Wat Opot several months ago and was there for the long term.

During the time it ran as a hospice, Wat Opot has seen about five hundred people die to AIDS.  Due to the stigma around AIDS and HIV in Cambodia when Wat Opot was founded, families were not willing to dispose of the bodies, so Wayne and the nearby Wat monks constructed the crematorium on the site as well as a stupa to bury the ashes in close to a traditional Khmer method.  It was previously unheard of to bury remains of different family members in a single stupa, but  since building hundreds of stupas on the site was simply not feasible, it has now become accepted for the people around Wat Opot.  Today the crematorium is still occasionally used by local families who cannot afford a funeral pyre or crematorium for their family members elsewhere.  One side of the crematorium is also a memorial for many of the individuals who have died at Wat Opot, and is used as a memory and prayer area for the children and families on the orphanage.

Since HIV medication has been funded in Cambodia by other countries, Wat Opot has not been officially used as a hospice for some years as more and more individuals are able to survive with HIV.  However, due to the stigma around HIV and AIDS, many of the children whose parents died in the hospice at Wat Opot were not welcome back into their extended families and had nowhere to go.  This is partially how Wat Opot transformed into an orphanage.  

The stigma around HIV remains strong in Cambodia and so the Children's Community continues to grow as time goes by.  Only about one third of the children at the site have HIV, and not all of the children are actually orphans, however all of the children have been impacted by HIV in some way that has brought them to Wat Opot.  Now it is a bustling site with a social service providing HIV home healthcare and education for the rural communities, and houses families and more than 50 children between the ages of 18 months to 19 years old.  It is a huge testament to how far we, as a world, have come with HIV that the hospice here is no longer needed.

If you'd like any more information, go to http://www.watopot.org/

What We Did:

We spent three days at the orphanage helping with a few different projects and getting to know the kids.  Gabrielle focussed on the jewelry (obviously), however the children didn't require much guidance, mainly supervision, as the children have a tendency to take things (a practiced survival tactic for many of them.  Sharing or having group possessions `is a foreign concept).  A small group of kids would come into the room and immediately start beading.  Finishing a project was not always on the cards, but many of them produced interesting and beautiful pieces that the orphanage then supplies to a fair trade shop in Phnom Penh called 'Rajana' (pronounced Rahjah-Nah). 

The trademark piece of the Wat Opot kids is the bamboo bracelets.  The bamboo is cut into small squares, drilled for stringing then seven blocks are painted into a scene or similar scenes by the kids.  It is their work from start to finish.  The kids were each allowed to keep one piece that they created and the rest went to support the community.  They had a wicker board that they proudly pinned their finished products on to be displayed for sale when they had completed each piece.

We also worked on cleaning out the new playroom to be.  Melinda, a fan of order and organization, organized us and the children in an impressive display of teamwork and child labour to refresh the cobwebby and dusty building.  Literally.  The building had heaps of spider webs in and around the rafters, dust covered everything, broken pieces of tile and brick littered the floor along with leaves and who knows what.  And apparently the building had already been cleaned once.  With gathered brushes, water bowls and clothes we set to it.  Some of the kids swarmed the ceiling, climbing up the walls and wiping down the rafters, throwing their dirty clothes down to other children who rinsed them and threw them back up. 

Others swept up clouds of dust from the ground or scrubbed at layers of it on the walls and shelves.  The kids slipped between the outside windows and their protective grating to give them a wipe down, however by this point the clothes were so dirty we were just pushing the dirt around.  They seemed to think it was great fun and Melinda treated them to a Khmer ice cream sandwich from a passing salesmen for their efforts (it was an ice cream like texture but we think it was frozen coconut milk / something else with a slight purple colour that they stuck in a small bun).  The adults went in later to finish the cleaning and attempt to sluice down the floors with water.

It took us some time to learn the names of many of the children, and to wrap our brains around Khmer pronunciation (Dan's first time with Maori kids anyone?) but over the three days we could identify more and more of them.  We enjoyed spending time with them, whether it was jewelry or playing jungle gym off Dan (they discovered the fun game of being swung in circles by their arms - this game developed large queues very quickly and many protests when it was shut down due to dizzyness), the kids were a blast. 

We played frisbee, worked on the computers with them, and hung out with them as they swam in the dodgy looking fish pond, which started to look appealing during the scorchingly hot days.  It was so hot.  did I mention it was hot? The heat evaporated your energy with immense efficiency and left you a sweaty mass in the dust. 

Meals were pretty simple, something that Melinda was working on with the cooks.  Melinda was a vegetarian, but apparently it wasn't possible to cook a flavorful khmer meal by simply not adding meat, so mostly we were treated to rice and boiled veges with soy and hot sauce provided.  We were sometimes surprised with a bit more of a tasty mix, but many a meal was saved by Melinda's personal stash of home made satay sauce, of which she generously shared. 

On our last full day, Melinda organized a tuk tuk to take us to a nearby temple, dating from pre-Angkorian times.  It was a bikeable distance, but due to the heat and the quantity of kids who wanted to join us, the tuk tuk seemed like a great option.  The tuk tuk was piled up with the two of us, Claire, and seven kids sitting on laps or any spare space they could fit their small butts.  Two more of the older boys shared a bike and raced the tuk tuk out there.  The race was actually close, with our tuk tuk struggling over the pitted road and the weight of so many people.  Many of the kids had never ridden in a tuk tuk before and the trip itself had them all chattering excitedly. 

As became a usual discovery, the ruins were on the top of the only hill in the area and involved a bit of a climb in the immense heat.  The kids swarmed around us, making loud monkey screeching noises to ward off the nearby monkeys of previously stated viciousness, and led us in and around the temple ruins.  We decided to make the foolish trek down some rather steep and numerous stairs to another set of ruins below us.  These had deteriorated to mostly a set of large stone blocks with few carvings left visible, toppled stone and overgrowth filling the inside of the temple.  After making the sweltering and more difficult than it should have been trip back up, we gathered the kids, shouted them all green mangos (not as appealing as it sounds, but they seemed to like it) and headed down to the tuk tuk, very much appreciating the shade and transportation back to the orphanage. 

We were sad to go the next day, having enjoyed our experience at the orphanage so much.  The kids were fantastic and the work that Wayne, Melinda and the other staff were doing there was inspiring.  It was a great insight into a side of Cambodia you don't get to see as a tourist in the cities. 

A few stories:
The kids here were truly survivors. Ages were hard to tell, as all of the kids were extremely small (3 or 4 year olds wore western 6 month old pants) and looked about two or three years yonger than they actually were.  One girl, estimated to be about nine years old, said she was thirteen and while her mother was dying of AIDS had been selling flowers to tourists in Phnom Penh to support her mother and baby sister, taken to the orphanage once her mother died and was now learning to be a kid again. 

Another was one of three sisters whose mother died from AIDS, initially taken in by her uncle but once he had the three girls tested for HIV and only hers came back positive, she was separated from her family and sent to the orphanage. 

One of the older boys was from a fairly wealthy family whose father brought home HIV and infected his mother.  When his parents died, the community didn't want anything to do with him and he came to Wat Opot.  He is currently studying every night to finish school and hopes to become a doctor with the intention of offering services to the local village.

We hope we can visit Wat Opot one day again in the future and see how the kids have progressed, and in the mean time look to find ways we can assist with offering them continued support.  If anyone wants more information on the orphanage, feel free to contact us or the Children's Community as they seem to always be very happy to have volunteers and any support they can get.

All our best from Cambodia
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Nate on

I like Virek's attitude

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