Tim and Lindsey
Social Enterprise in Siem Reap - Part 2
With so much suffering in Cambodia of recent years, this has attracted several NGO and Social Enterprises to Siem Reap. We'd heard about a few of them so decided to visit a couple that intrigued us. A fascinating day which included plastic rubbish and rats.
It is the year of the Rat, and, according to the Chinese zodiac, I am a rat. So it seemed apt to visit Apopo and meet one of their HeroRATs used to detect mines and save lives.
These African giant pouched rats can search an area of a tennis court in just half an hour, sniffing out TNT with a 100% success rate. A human deminer with a metal detector can take up to 4 days to cover the same area.
So how did APOPO come about? A Belgian guy called Bart Weeijens used to keep pet rats as a child. During his studies, he was analysing landmine problem in Africa. He read an article about gerbils being able to detect explosives, and this triggered him to reflect on his boyhood pet rats. They were intelligent, easy to train and too light to set off landmines. This was the start of APOPO.
After successful mine clearance projects in Mozambique and Angola, APOPO was set up in Cambodia in 2015. Here, the rats find the mines and the CMAC personnel then safely clear them.
Also visiting APOPO were Gill and Ian, a Canadian couple who are also long-term travellers. The five of us enjoyed a 45-minute tour led by a very informative and friendly young lady. She shared how the rats are bred and trained in Africa, then, with their own passports, transported to Cambodia. The rats work for five years for about 3 hours each early morning, are given a special meal for their birthdays and then retire, enjoying a life of leisure.
She took us to a sandy plot, and we met Bosco the Rat, one of the smallest rats here. Crikey, Jac and I wouldn't want to meet the others in a dark alley! He, with his two human companions, gave us a demonstration on how he effectively sniffs out TNT.
I didn't realise that there were at least 26 million explosive sub-munitions dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War! So far APOPO together with CMAC has detonated over 45,000 landmines and UXO, releasing over 15 million square metres of safe land back to the local communities. What an impact!
Afterwards, we chatted to Ian and Gill for ages. They travel extensively in SE Asia and have a small business buying silver from local artisans in Thailand. They sell these online at www.thai925.ca or various fairs back home in Ottawa, where Ian wears his special Thai outfit! Oh, our imagination went wild!
They told us about Haven, a local restaurant and social enterprise, which one of Jac's friends had also recommended to her, so that was our next visit.
As we reached Haven Restaurant, a young waitress with "trainee" on her lapel led us to our table. We ordered our vegan meal; it was delicious. Later, the funky owner with plug earrings introduced himself, and we had the most delightful chat with him.
Paul Wallimann and his wife Sara travelled the world for two years to 2010, having a gap from their corporate jobs. They ended up spending seven months near Siem Reap working in an orphanage and discovered that the children had no support once they left the institution as young adults. This knowledge changed their lives.
After returning to Switzerland and founding a non-profit association called Dragonfly, they set up Haven here. It's a training programme based on the Swiss apprenticeship system. The students are given practical training and theoretical classes on the catering industry as well as learning life skills, including English, then later a four-month internship.
From the profit of the restaurant and Dragonfly, this provides the trainees with a monthly salary and a haven to live, hence the name. They have created a family-like community with a house mum giving the youngsters their board, lodgings, medical care and emotional support. Wow, Paul and Sara must be a life-line for many young people here, and from the sound of it, it was a surprise to themselves that they would set something like this; the magic of travelling.
I sensed that something was bothering Paul. The impact of the COVID19 virus has severely reduced visitors. Usually, people need to book a few days in advance to come to their restaurant; today, we were the only guests. How would they continue to pay the students?
Also, the economic situation here is unstable. Paul has predicted that many local people will lose their homes, as they often use this as collateral for the loan sharks, a big problem here.
Paul showed us around, and we noticed a row of cat trays, it turns out that Paul and Sara look after all the cat strays. What a special couple.
The weather was scorching, so we hopped into a tuk-tuk and visited Rehash Trash, which turned out to be run by Kate, a good friend of Paul and Sara's.
We were greeted warmly by a group of ladies sitting, chatting away, folding plastic bags, making woven string and crocheting. Rehash Trash is another social enterprise.
The idea stemmed from local children, was to provide a steady income for their mothers, many who suffered from addictions, poverty and abuse. The solution needed to be cheap to do with minimal or no raw material costs. Well, transforming free roadside plastic bags into stylish gifts ticks the box.
We'd come here for a workshop and had the option to make some coasters, bangle or key rings. Jac opted for the coaster and Tim, and I chose the key ring.
We cut dyed plastic bags into long strips, tied together and then started crocheting. Tim whipped through his, showing his dexterity, and even made a bracelet he was so quick. In contrast, Jac and I were a bit slow, My young lady was very patient, and I must admit that she kept taking over as I was making the stitches too tight.
We did laugh with the women, especially when they were guessing our ages. Tim and I were well pleased with their estimate; Jac wasn't though, but she had great humour and took the added five years in good spirits.
What a great place; a community of women cleaning up the environment by collecting the plastic rubbish, learning new skills, making charming products, meeting people so building up their confidence and self-esteem. The enterprise also offers the ladies literacy classes to read and write in Khmer as well as learning some basic English. Brilliant. There are some amazing people in the world.
The previous day, we had decided to move out of our Airbnb accommodation. Although it was a pleasant place to live, being spacious and central, the neighbouring restaurant's live music at midnight was far too noisy for us. Plus they had forewarned us that it would carry on until 2:30 am for the next three nights.
We contacted Riegiena and Marcel, who we met at Holland House in Phnom Penh, as they were also staying in Siem Reap. They highly recommended us moving to The Amazing Resort where they were staying – and it was amazing.
It was great to meet Riegiena and Marcel again, and we invited them out to our favourite vegan restaurant Banlle. They are a very easy couple to be with, and we thoroughly enjoyed their company.
Banlle was taken over by a young local chef, Pola Siv, who has travelled the world, including training in Switzerland and happens to be good friends with Paul and Sara from Haven.
Pola had visited the North Pole and was devastated by the impact of the climate crisis there. We're not sure if it was this that converted him to vegan food. He undoubtedly has put both his passion for good food and concern about the environment into action, delivering exquisite food at a reasonable price.
There you go, after yesterday's blog and today, it just shows you that Siem Reap has far more to offer than the amazing temples. Best to spend at least a week here, don't you think?