In 2008, when I first visited Cambodia, I was fortunate to meet and work with some students from Samrong Village in the Angkor Thom District. They included Pon, Cheay, Salin, Salet, Hak and Meam. They were amazing young students to work with, so eager to make us feel welcome and teach us about life in their homeland. In exchange they wanted friendship and conversation. Our project was called Friends Forever, and it soon became evident that this was an appropriate name because today we are friends on Facebook who still take an interest in each others’ lives and who still maintain our friendships. When I returned to Cambodia in 2012, I was delighted to meet up with Pon, Cheay, Salin and Hak once more. I also met Chang, who lives in this village. Salet was away working on a cruise boat and Meam was working away from the village when I visited, but Pon and Cheay were once again part of the Friends Forever project and Salin and Hak were volunteer teachers in the village, which we were fortunate enough to visit one afternoon.
Soon after my visit to the village, I learnt that the volunteer teachers were part of a non-profit educational team called Angkor Kids Center, which was providing free education in English language to several hundred children in the village. If these kids learn to speak English, there are many opportunities to get paid work in the tourism industry in nearby Siem Reap and the Angkor temples region. Hak, Salin, Pon and Cheay spoke of their teacher, a man who had helped them to learn English and who had founded the Angkor Kids Center so those with English-speaking capacity could pass on their language skills to the village children. His name was Samnang Chhon, or Sam to his friends. I never met Sam, but we soon became friends on Facebook. I followed his updates on the activities at AKC with interest and provided a little support when I could afford it. The more I came to know about Sam, the more I liked him. As an educator, he is an inspiration. He has given so much to the people of his village, especially the children. I wrote to Sam to ask if it would be possible to visit AKC on this visit to see the new school that he and his volunteer friends had built. I was delighted when he agreed to be our escort on a visit to the village.
Sam and his friends made us very welcome at Samrong Village. Hak joined us. He is now working in a hotel and is a very impressive young man with excellent English. We visited the agricultural centre where students from Ivanhoe Grammar had recently helped to build a piggery. Sam’s lovely mother spread out a mat for us at her home and we sat and enjoyed her hospitality. At Hak’s house, he and his sister shared out coconuts and we were entertained by his young nephew, Phum, who sat on the steps with two coconuts of his own.
Eventually we reached the school, where happy children were playing out the front, waiting for the teachers to arrive. Salin joined us, always smiling, so proud of her school and her children. The two classrooms were soon full of children chanting English sentences. There were more kids in the library looking at books. This is a place of learning. The education of these children is paving the way for a better, more prosperous future for Cambodia. I left the village, so proud of what my friends had achieved.