August 17, 2010

Today I had the opportunity to see two sides of poverty in Cambodia. I woke up early so I could go to the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. During the dry season the Tonle Sap drains into a tributary that feeds the mighty Mekong River located miles away. Once the monsoon season begins, the Mekong becomes bloated and actually reverses the flow of the tributary filling the Tonle Sap. The lake can raise as much as 40 feet in a single wet season.

The ebb and flow of the lake maintains a current of life for over 2000 people. The communities of the Tonle Sap float along the lake and live from its waters. Seeing how these people live reminds me of the floating town of Belen in the Peruvian Amazon. The roofs of many of the house boats do not reach above 4 feet. The people work, eat, and play from the lotus position.

It’s amazing to see how well people have adapted to life on the lake. They are resourceful and are constantly working on their boats, fishing nets, spears, and other needs. It seems as though the lake provides them with enough in terms of food. However, it is evident that education, health and sanitation, and lack of resources are major problems in the area.

The other half of poverty I experienced was the rural poverty that permeates the nation. The majority of Cambodia’s population lives in rural regions. Driving in a tuk-tuk through the country side is like being in a movie. The land is flat and checkered with squares of rice fields; some patches swell with water, while millions of lime green blades fill the others. Storm clouds fill the horizon and the hard packed red dirt road is lined with people coming to and from Siem Reap: walking, or on bikes or motor-scooters. I must have passed hundreds migrating to and from the small city.

When I arrived to the future Youthlinc site of Peak Sneng, I met with community leaders and establish a partnership to help them improve their quality of life. In our 2 hour discussion, the aftermath of Cambodia’s history of violence form Khmer Rouge became more and more evident. The rule and fighting of the Khmer Rouge left an entire generation without education, which is now the community’s top priority. Access to medical care is also a major problem; it generally takes at least 2 hours to get to the nearest hospital. Many of the poorest families do not even possess basic agricultural knowledge to grow their own crops.

There are many needs and many ways that Youthlinc could help this community become more self-sustaining. I am still amazed by the resilience and humility of this people. They are so kind and eager to lend a hand and share a smile. The future teams that come to Cambodia will gain so much from the rich, full lives that fill this country.

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