Bigger Wow Than Angkor Wat??

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Where I stayed
Neth Socheata Hotel

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Visiting the Full Tummy Farms Orphanage near Siem Reap was a wonderful experience for us but I wanted to add a cautionary note for anyone thinking of doing something similar. Cambodia has lost a whole generation of parents through horrific wars, ongoing struggles with AIDS and a poor health care system, as well the devastation caused by landmines every year. That said, there have been a number of bad dudes move in to take advantage of well meaning foreigners. Most countries ban adoptions from Cambodia because of past concerns over the selling of babies who weren't in fact orphans (this may change soon as Cambodia demonstrates it has the proper checks & balances). With the ban in place, these same bad dudes (and dudettes?) started setting up phony orphanages with the idea of securing NGO and overseas donations, 'volunteer' tourists who pay for the privilege of working with the kids, and travelers like us who wanted to visit with the hope of helping out in a very small way. We were fortunate in that the orphanage we visited had been thoroughly vetted by the founders of Full Tummy Farms- the hard part for us was walking the tightrope of genuinely positive interaction vs human zoo- the kids took care of that and I suspect we'll be back

I had met the very hug-able sister team of May and Mary-Leigh at one of the memorial 5km runs that DH was hosting. They had shown up at a very uncivilized hour and helped us set up, organize, and close up the event. May was a coworker of DH and her sister is a bit of a wanderer and works in far-flung parts of the world. The generosity of spirit they showed us on the Run Day was just part of who they are- the next time I met the two of them together we were getting a debrief on their Cambodian experience.

The dynamic duo had gone to Cambodia with the express purpose of finding an existing orphanage that they could help move to a self sustaining status complete with pigs, chickens, a stocked fish pond and a small mushroom hut. Not content with remote oversight of the project, our two little Samaritans pitched in and organized the logistics of purchasing materials, putting plans together, hiring labour, and, I suspect, mucking out the pig stalls. They dedicated weeks to the project basing themselves in Siem Reap- they also ended up with a dedicated tuk-tuk driver and pimped his ride complete with signage for the orphanage (trying to encourage visits from any temple junkies in the Siem Reap area who might want to mix a 'today' experience in with their 'yesterday' experiences).

Our two entrepreneurs operate under the very catchy banner of Full Tummy Farms (website can be found here:  http://www.fulltummyfarm.com ) and I know that May continues to actively fund-raise selling her handmade jewelry and the like.

Knowing that we were heading to Asia as part of our never-ending coffee break, we wanted to at least drop in to see how the kids were doing and pass on the best wishes of the sisters. We had been hoping to meet May and/or Mary-Leigh in Siem Reap and maybe do a little honest work ourselves (I could use a bout of heavy labour- the cannons just aren't what they used to be), but ML fled the Middle East for a job in an even more remote location, and May has just started working for a tyrant who won't provide the needed time off. As a result I have to admit to being a little reluctant to drop in on a gaggle of orphans as complete strangers- would we just stare awkwardly at each other for a couple of hours? I was also worried for DH- as most of you know I had always wanted a whole herd of kids and would have been more comfortable in this environment, but DH opted to be barren and I wasn't sure how she would cope with this many tiny humans at once!!

We managed to hook up with John, the pimped out tuk-tuk driver, and arranged to have him pick us up and take us to a true local market where we would pay Cambodian prices for a few of the basic necessities. As well as the toothbrushes, shampoo, laundry soap, and foodstuffs, we loaded up on some toys and sporting gear (DH has always operated on the belief that children can be bribed). DH was getting frustrated because we couldn't get any meaningful discounts or free stuff- the vendors all knew we were buying for orphans but in a country like Cambodia hard luck stories are all around. We did get a bit of a discount from an older dude who was just pushing his mobile basket of watermelons into the market to begin the arduous task of door-to-door watermelon sales. His basket held 30 melons and we bought his entire inventory which made for a quick days work for our new friend- he even wanted to give me his cell number in case I needed more (who knew that watermelon salesmen had an office number).

With the tuk-tuk loaded to it's maximum capacity we headed into the National Park passing by many of the same temples we had crawled across recently. The park is huge and the orphanage is located within it's boundaries. Turning on to a small dirt road we saw our welcoming committee waiting at the gate- we turned in and had a running and screaming escort all the way to the main structure of the complex. At least eight of the children stood with home made bouquets of flowers, some even placed in huge banana leafs- what a reception!  Everyone pitched in to unload the tuk- tuk, quickly piling the cargo up on tables in the dining area. But nothing was touched- the kids could see the toys, the fruit, the cookies... but nothing was touched... these kids who have so little were more interested in talking to us than they were in tearing open bags to get at some goodies. I guess I was expecting a little of the Xmas mayhem we're used to back home- I couldn't believe how well behaved these kids were. When it did come time to dish out the fruit, the kids all sat down at the tables while a couple of the older ones purposefully handed out 1 orange, 1 apple, and 1 slice of melon to each child- this was their lunch for the day... and they couldn't have been happier.

We were served a more meaningful lunch of rice and veg (we both felt incredibly guilty but apparently this is typical of Cambodian hospitality) at a table reserved for the adults. The Director of the orphanage, Mr Thy, or Papa Thy to the kids, joined us and it was readily apparent that this was an absolute labour of love for this very unassuming man. The kids finished up quickly and sat watching us- not envious of our meal, just waiting for the opportunity to re-engage with us. When it was time for a tour of the complex, Papa Thy moved to the background and allowed his adorable miniature army to take over and show us around. It was heart-breaking and heart-warming. Most of the pigs had died but one of the two remaining was pregnant and nursing some piglets had the kids excited. The fish pond had been recently destroyed beyond repair by the worst flooding in years but the group had seen the value of the fish as both a dietary item and salable item and were planning on building a new one (beyond the destroyed pond, just the idea that the kids were walking around in knee-deep water for weeks was troubling). The living quarters were a tight squeeze for the number of kids now living at the orphanage but the children seemed to get along so well (they were all assigned to teams that took great pride in outperforming other teams in basic chores, cleaning, and even gardening (each team had their own plot). The eldest of the girls pointed out to DH the one tiny broken mirror that all the girls had to share and, on behalf of all women worldwide, DH declared it an unacceptable tragedy.

Aside from the unacceptable mirror situation, perhaps the most difficult action to accept was the treatment they were getting at the hands of the Apsara Authority- since the orphanage was technically within the boundaries of the park (although nowhere near any of the temple structures), this band of soulless bureaucrats has the final say on any and all building structures. Now I would be the first to support the concept if liberal doses of common sense were applied- the Golden Arches of McDonald's have their place but I would hate to see them obstructing the view of Angkor Wat- however, how a small bamboo and palm leaf hut to grow mushrooms for meals and a small income for orphans threatens the historical integrity of the Angkor Temples is beyond me (the picture posers crawling all over the temples are a much greater threat). Nonetheless the hut that May and Mary-Leigh built was stripped of it's mushrooms and is scheduled to be torn down as are a couple of other flimsy structures on the property. Papa Thy is putting up the good fight but this may have more to do with having the money needed to bribe the appropriate officials than anything else- right next to each of the temples are a number of similar huts selling all manner of souvenirs and drinks??

During the course of our tour, the kids discovered that DH and I weren't married, and immediately set out to rectify that situation. DH was ushered off to a secretive section of one hut and I was shown to another and was bullied into wearing a traditional Cambodian costume for my upcoming wedding ceremony. The rest was a bit of a blur- screaming and cheering ensued particularly during the reading of the vows by Sokna (a very funny girl with a heart of gold), with Rong throwing flower petals, and Borath working the room like a pro with my camera. We were then dragged over to the alter where we prayed to Buddha for good fortune- I felt like I was a gigantic doll in an elaborate game of dress up but I think DH and I are now married (legally recognized only by pint sized authourities in an Angkor Wat orphanage).

After the wedding we broke into the toys and were soon surrounded by a whirling dervish of badminton, volleyball, hula hoops, and hakisak. We needed to bring our care packages of food and toiletries, but it was great to see kids enjoying being kids. By the time we had to leave, we knew we had to come back for another day- this decision was greeted by cheers and a number of songs. What a day!

As luck would have it, back in Siem Reap we ran into Annie and T, an Australian couple we had met on our slow boat trip through Laos (as we learned in Australia, the Aussies shorten virtually every spoken word so it was no great surprise that T was T instead of Terry- although having colored his hair since last we met, the T might also stand for Trendy). We told them about our day and the next morning the four of us were squeezed into Johns tuk-tuk heading for the market for another round of pre-orphanage purchases. T and I focused on the practical items that were needed (flip-flops, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, and pillows- pillows were a particular passion for T- some sort of childhood incident I suspect), while DH was on a mission to correct the no-mirror-for-the-girls travesty and Annie wanted to add some fun into the mix with hair clips and nail polish. We even ventured into the meat market to pick up a few freshly plucked chickens and some slabs of pork to add to the veggies we had purchased. With the generosity of Annie & Trendy added in, John had to call in reinforcements in the form of another tuk-tuk just to carry our stuff.

It was another great day with the kids. The mirrors were a squealing hit and an assembly line quickly formed in order to apply the nail polish (our wedding coordinator Sokna had been using White-Out to give herself a French manicure). I had developed most of the pictures I had taken the day before and that created a bit of a stir. The few kids that had played shy the day before completely warmed to the visit today and there was a great deal of hand-holding, knee-sitting, and unreserved smiles. There was also a lot of singing and dancing- they even had a series of low volume songs for background music as we had our lunch (feeling no less guilty than we had the day before!). Some of the girls donned traditional costumes and put on a show of Apsara dancing that rivaled the professional performances we had seen in Siem Reap (apparently Papa Thy used to teach this dance style and wanted the girls to help keep it alive).

After a long day and with heavy hearts we prepared to leave. Sokna wrote her name on DH's hand and asked that she never be forgotten- that buckled DH at the knees and I knew it was time to fire up the tuk-tuk before adoption papers were being drawn up (it was sad to think that most of these kids would never be adopted- they would eventually just leave the orphanage). I suspect that Annie was on the ropes as well with a couple of 'be my mother' requests. It was time to go and the sight of these incredible kids all waving us off will be a lasting memory.

Angkor Wat is rightly on many Wonders Of The World lists but when I look back on the big Wow of Siem Reap, it will be the days we spent at the Full Tummy Farm Orphanage, with Angkor Wat as a stunning backdrop.

Note to Adam: if you're still following us around Asia you might want add this to your list. Highly recommended if somewhat emotionally draining. Contact John at john_angkor@yahoo.com or phone 012572412 (he can also help you with a day or two of Angkor temple hopping).

For anyone else reading this posting, May &Mary-Leigh operate on a shoestring- if you'd like to help you can find some guidelines on their website at http://www.fulltummyfarm.com
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Comments

Carol on

Wow what an experience the two of you have had! Looking at the photos it is heartbreaking to think that most of these kids will never have their own family. You have given them two days of incredible friendship and love. It is something that they will never forget. May and her sister have done an incredible job and I certainly hope that all those who are following your journey are able to help in some little way. The pictures are gorgeous and show that even though these kids have had tough lives they can still see the world with a smile on their face!
Thank you for this insight, Carol xxx

May on

Thank you SO MUCH for this blog. I almost feel like I am there. It is great to see the photos of the children...they've all grown so much in a year. Thanks for your generosity & for giving the children 2 unforgettable days!

kathryn on

May - what a fantastic place you have built. And deb and Vic - you have showcased it so wonderfully!!

My favorite entry of yours to date.

So wonderful and full of life. emotion, kids and MARRIAGE. Congratulations. I am tinging the wine glass, waiting for a speech!!!

adammarinelli
adammarinelli on

Thanks for the recommendation guys. We are planning the route for Cambodia and are certainly very interested in contacting the Full Tummy Orphanage!

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