SINGAPORE (Feb 7): The 2017 film by Angelina Jolie – First They Killed My Father – captures the plight of a Cambodian family during the reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), or better known as the Khmer Rouge. Millions died under the regime which lasted from 1975 to 1979. One of them was James Bun Yong Roeun’s father.
Growing up, Roeun and his five siblings endured a life scarred by bloodshed and deprivation. Yet, he shows little bitterness when asked about the past. Instead, the 43-year-old tour guide turned bed and breakfast (B&B) owner channels his energy into welcoming tourists to his popular homestay in Siem Reap, immersing them in Khmer family life and the spectacle that is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.
He has also spearheaded a groundup effort to build a school in Phoumi Thnot, a village 15km outside Siem Reap. The village is home to some 176 families, most of whom work in construction earning just US$10 a day. Children play barefoot among discarded tyres with little access to education. “There are no schools within 10km around here,” Roeun says.
In 2018, he turned to crowdfunding and private donations to set up the school. Roeun has since raised US$15,000 for his Learning to Share Centre from donors all over the world, many of whom he befriended through his homestay and his time as a tour guide. Due to be completed by end February, the school will serve over 70 children ranging in age from five to 15 years. “I built the school because in my early childhood, I had no opportunity to attend school,” he adds. He believes that only education can break the cycle of poverty in Cambodia.
I met Roeun 15 years ago on my first trip to Siem Reap with my husband. Rolling our bags into the arrival hall, Roeun approached us, offering to be our guide. Over the next week, he impressed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of the temples, weaving history, folklore and archaeology to bring to life the chronicles behind the bas-reliefs and sculptures. He even introduced us to amok fish – a Cambodian culinary treasure – and gave us a window into the strength of his Buddhist faith.
After completing school, Roeun joined a monastery where he learnt ascetic discipline as well as English from the monks. He then decided to become a teacher, a vocation he enjoyed tremendously. When tourism began taking off in 2002, he answered a call by the state for Khmers who could speak foreign languages. He got licensed as a guide and went on to carve a stellar reputation, even winning bronze (third place) in the 2014 Wanderlust World Guide Awards. “When I first got the email, I thought it was a scam,” he says. The organisers flew him to London to receive the GBP1,000 prize.
By the next year, he had saved up enough to build a house big enough for his extended family as well as guests. Bunyong Homestay, a mix of traditional Khmer and French colonial styles, opened in July 2015 and has consistently ranked among the top five B&Bs in Siem Reap. Guests rave about his hospitality, authenticity and the Khmer meals cooked by his wife and mother. Next to the house, Roeun has built a classroom where youths from the nearby slums can come for free English and computer classes in the evenings.
Helping Cambodians break free from poverty is also the impetus behind Golden Silk. A working silk farm, it was set up by Sophea Pheach in 2002 to revive an age old artisanal weaving tradition while providing jobs for orphans and underprivileged women from the countryside. Pheach, whose family was exiled to France when the Khmer Rouge seized power, returned to her homeland in 1988 to volunteer at the refugee camps located along the Thai border.
Golden Silk is a veritable labour of love. Pheach shows us how the yellow silk worms, an indigenous and very rare species that produces extremely fine, gilded threads, are painstakingly bred and fed organic mulberry leaves. Yields are low but the silk has thermal regulating properties and feels like cotton, she says. In the past, the silk was only worn by Cambodia’s royal family and dignitaries.
The fibres are woven by hand on traditional wooden looms and it takes at least six months and prodigious work to make just 200 to 300g of fabric. But Pheach is undeterred. “I want to preserve our heritage while helping people,” she says. “It’s my life’s work.” The non-profit venture, which employs 100 staff, conducts tours at US$10 per person (by appointment at www.goldensilk.net).
On our fourth trip to Siem Reap, we decided to venture beyond Angkor Wat. At Phnom Kulen – a dusty, bumpy two hour drive away – we catch a sight of the national park’s cascading waterfalls. The mountainous area is a sacred spot for Cambodians and is home to an enormous reclining Buddha carved out of sandstone and a river with fertility symbols etched into its rocks.
At the Apopo Visitor Centre, our spirits are shaken by the horrors of landmines. Three decades of war has left Cambodia with a severe landmine problem and one of the highest amputee rates in the world. But our spirits are lifted again when we see how giant African rats – too light to set off landmines – are trained to sniff out explosives. Much more effective than metal detectors, these rodents are true heroes, saving limbs and lives. And in their own way, people like Roeun and Pheach are also heroes to their communities, empowering their fellow Cambodians to rise beyond adversity and build better lives.