We are walking through a cobbled passage leading from Pub Street back to the main road in Siem Reap. The dense heat, infused with lemon grass, diesel and an inflection of tiger-balm, is draped around our shoulders like an invisible arm.
“I cannot explain to you how happy I feel at coming here,” I tell Phea for like – I don’t know -the sixteen millionth time.
“I am very, very happy you all came here too,” Phea replies, for possibly for sixteen millionth time as well. None of our group have tired from expressing the wonder and love we’ve felt for Cambodia since arriving here just a week ago.
Ever since we touched down in the ornate airport at Siem Reap and headed out into the jungle where we spent three days building a water tower for the school children, Cambodia hadn’t stop surprising us with her daily love and gifts and beauty.
Now we were back in Siem Reap. Around us danced a crazed melody of noise; tut-tut beeps, bass beats from Pub Street, lilting Khmer voices, belts of laughter and engines rumbling. My shoulders bump against Phea’s as we walk and he remarks, “You are a strong woman, Bethan.”
I am uncertain as to whether he is referring to my character or physique, but what strikes me in that moment is that it’s my taste for strength that has brought me to Cambodia. In August 2019, I’d joined a gym on the Isle of Wight, UK, called TJs. Here I’d started attending a five day a week early morning bootcamp. Result? My strength and fitness increased massively.
But then something else happened too.
On entering TJs it became clear that this wasn’t any gym. It was in fact a pulsing community of sweat, fun, banter, character and comradery. It wasn’t some sterile environment of isolated people pushing weights, but a living, breathing, strength-training, human driven entity headed up by the Marsh family.
During one early morning session, the Big Chief, Steve Marsh, told me about the charity work that TJs had embarked on over the last fourteen years. This had begun with fundraising and project steered trips to Romania. Four years ago they began taking groups on active trips to Cambodia to help fund the Romanian work. These trips to Cambodia were an opportunity for the TJs people to have a good time, make a difference and create a win for some less advantaged people.
“I’d like to come to Cambodia,” I said.
“I’ll send you the details,” he said.
The trip was split into two halves; one half was a week spent in a remote school where the children had no fresh drinking water. We’d be there to build a water purification tower. It sounded meaty, physical, purposeful and right up my street. There’s be no creature comforts, no proper washing facilities, no mirrors, no luxury; just us and the land and the build. It would test me and I liked that.
The second week was equally as compelling; mountain biking through the rice paddies of Cambodia, exposed to extreme beauty and breath taking views. Nice guest houses. Maybe a little bit of gin here and there. Equally as attractive but in a different way. I juggled the two options for a few days, then came back with my decision. I wanted to do the build. And I wanted to bring my fourteen year old son with me for the ride.
Fast forward to early November and there we were in the school yard.
We shovelled hard soil (some shovelled more than others), mixed concrete on the ground and removed rubble. Songs were sung. Jokes were cracked. Beers were cracked too.
Little Khmer village children began creeping in from the edges of the compound. At first they were shy, but gradually they grew accustomed to these strange white, mountain-sized people and we would sit and play cards, Jenga and do colouring with them.
A woman came each day and bought us chickens for our dinner. We went to her house and helped her pack up rice and the men helped lift those heavy old bags into her rice loft. We laughed and mucked about with the her kids. I’ve never met children as nice as her children.
That night someone came to the camp and asked Phea for help. One of the hen-lady’s children – the youngest – was unconscious and fitting. Phea took one of our vehicles and got the family to hospital but it wasn’t looking good at all. They thought the child had Meningitis and they had no medicine to help him. The next day there was a heavy feeling in the camp. Phea looked wiped out with lack of sleep. The brother of the sick kid, who we’d been hanging out with for days, came down and sat quietly, gazing off into the distance. We tried to cheer him up but he wouldn’t be comforted.
Later that day there was the sound of a motorcycle coming down the track. It was the hen-lady’s oldest son. He came and gave some news to his brother. The baby was okay. They’d brought down his temperature and it looked like it wasn’t Meningitis at all, but Dengue Fever. Dengue is spread by mosquitos, but was curable. The whole thing was sobering though.
It acted as a stark reminder of the health risks these people faced every day.
On the final day of our build, we got up early. Cleared down the camp. Got in the trucks and left. The little rice-boy, son of the hen-lady, was cycling down to see us. He didn’t realise we were leaving and by the time he’d get to the school all those crazy, strange westerners would have gone. In our place a tower for clean water was left.
Driving away from that place, I had no words. I had no way of conveying to anyone in my life back at home just how incredible the experience of that build had been and that’s why I kept on telling Phea again and again, how happy I was.
“Phea, in our country, we call this a win-win.”
“What do you call a win-win?”
“How happy we all are to come here and be with you. It’s good for you and it’s good for us. You are happy. We are happy.”
We’ve reached the end of our walk now; past the little stalls selling one dollar scarves and trousers and trinkets and treasure.
Phea turns to me and says in his gentle, kind way,
“To me there are three wins, Bethan. There is the win for you and TJs Gym because you came here and enjoyed your adventure. There is the win for me, because I can make this adventure happen for you. But the third win is for the Cambodian children you’ve helped. They now have clean water to drink. Their win is the best of them all.”
He is right. It is truly a triangle of wins. And at the top, are the children. The beautiful Khmer kids. And they are lucky to have us come and do our little bit – but I feel like their biggest luck-out is having someone like Phea in their country, who has their backs and continues to prioritise them over everything.
Phea’s Triangle, I thought. Such a simple model, yet if the world took on that model, imagine how the world would be.
If you are coming to Cambodia, I would urge you to consider doing a little charity project whilst you’re here. The experience will change you in a way that’s impossible to convey. I also 100% recommend Phea and the 20K Team. They looked after us every step of the way, providing seamless travel, endless knowledge and information, warmth and fun and humour. Their authenticity and genuinely made them feel, not just like guides or even friends, but family.
I can’t wait to come back again.