A Smile That Makes Cambodia!

Siem Reap, Cambodia. The hustle and bustle of the hectic traffic, with tuk-tuks and bikes manovering around the bare footed characters of Cambodia, inbetween backpackers and tour guides, I found the culture enlightening and the experience already incredile. The smiles on the locals face’s and the many walking around without shoes and mopeds with medical drips attatched, stalls selling, snake and scorion and the loud music getting louder and louder as I hit Pub Street, a street made up with restuarants, bars, souvineer stands, hanging lantrons and fairy lights, a street that comes alive at night and doesnt end by day. Then you have your tourist attractions far and wide, many close and the culture itself is something beatiful, the language and mannersim as the khmer people communicate is somewhat gorgeous and a language i’d really be keen to learn. The attractions near and far, all beautiful, the local pogoda where I went everyday to meditate listening to the monks chant at 5pm, the countryside, although dry, yet beautiful and the outskirts of town, the quirky coffee shops, bakery and eaterys, many restarants and bars. I even managed to find an Irish pub which was small but awesome for someone Irish however it didn’t serve guiness. Within my first 24 hours I was in love and a bycle I hired the three weeks was mine!

The culture particuarilly stood out for me, the way of life, the laid back atmosphere of the locals and the charm of those who loved my Northern Irish accent, my blonde hair and my pale white skin. I even managed to have some locals and even a couple of foreigners at the Angkor Wat wanting their picture with me. I don’t know why, whether they thought I was famous and looked like some sort of celebrity which i’d find unlikely, but with speaking to a friend, I was told Khemer people love white people and like us in our Countries, we have our tanning solutions and in Cambodia they have their bleaching solutions to look paler.

The ladyboys, the drag acts and the khmer dancers, bring a sense of perfection, an eye opener to who people really are and respectfully so, their stories are incredible and their performances on stage and off absorb your attention to showcase their elegance. I seen many of drag acts, many of khmer dancers and fun karoke acts all very humourous but respectful.

Khmer Dancers

Cambodia has so much to offer and with the history alone, you will be immerised through education, culture and exploring. There is endless opportunities to travel, explore, work, indulge, relax and even volunteer.

Volunteer Building CambodiaSpeaking of volunteering, that is what brought me to Cambodia, the culture caught my attention, the stories I heard and a friend I met online, I wanted to meet. I found a penpal called Jason from Australia who then recently moved to Cambodia to join an NGO where he volunteered for many weeks. Jase and I penpaled for a little time, but then began to email a lot and before we knew it we became good friends and with no surprise, his humerous personality and his inviting friendship, the stories of his work and the charm he spoke of Cambodia… I couldn’t resist and started my journey.

IMG_1907 - Version 2
Jason and I’s first picture May 2015!

I visited Siem Reap back in 2015 and later in 2016 and on both occassions I volunteered for Volunteer Building Cambodia a locally run, community-driven NGO (non-government organisation), focussed on helping poor Cambodian families improve their living conditions. VBC is founded by local Khmer man, Sinn Meang in 2014. Volunteer Building Cambodia provides poor families in rural Siem Reap with safe housing, clean drinking wells, water pumps and toilet sanitation facilities. VBC builds solid houses for extremely poor families who lack the resources to build their own liveable homes. This is done through assessments to ensure those most in need receive the appropriate help.

It’s known about 80 per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas where a staggering 85 per cent of people do not have access to adequate sanitation and 35 per cent cannot afford to access safe drinkable water. Many families in rural Siem Reap still live on less than $1 a day and many families earning as little as $19 a month.

VBC try there hardest to look at ways to break the poverty cycle and help these families to become self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves. However this can sometimes be unsuccessful, on many occassions, proves trueness.

Over my two times volunteering with VBC, i’ve proudly built three houses, two of which I funded through two fundraising events, abseiling and skydiving raising almost $5,000. One of my biggest fears being heights, which I pushed myself to undertake and acheived both times.

During my volunteering experience with VBC, I’ve built a toilet and made some finishing repairs on another house that VBC previously built before my visit. However despite the two house builds I founded and the one I didn’t, I fairley enjoyed and I’m extremely proud to have had the opportunity to have acheived these goals.

The entire team behind Volunteer Building Cambodia, Sinn, Jason, Det, Bunthorn, Buntoeun and Keo, deserve recongitition for their hard work, dedication, love and professionalism within all areas of their projects. The passion clearly shows how much these guys have to want to make change for families who struggle to survive without the importance of the appropriate amenities. I’m honoured to have been given the opportunity to join the team along with other volunteers of whom I can happily call good friends. The opportunities are endless and I thank these guys for giving me the realisation to appreciate the small things that keep the world moving.

It’s now been over a year since my last visit and I wish I was able to travel out, however expenses have decided otherwise, but with the monthly news letters I recieve and following VBC through Social Media, I’m now able to confirm the VBC has extended and now have built and opened their very own Community Centre VCC, which sounds and looks incredible and I can’t wait to help on this new adventure in the near future.

It saddens me to announce that Jason no longer works for Volunteer Building, however he has taken a whole new different direction, funding his own NGO, A place to be yourself (APTBY). This NGO, helps support the LGBTIQ+ community in Cambodia which guides and allows khmer people to identy their sexual orintataion, something that isn’t overly known in Cambodia and thats done by supported counsellors and a drop in centre this provides a lot to someone who knows very little about theire own sexuality.

Volunteering in Cambodia filled me with so much pride; I volunteered at VBC for a total of six weeks and also volunteered at a soup kitchen called ‘A touch of life’  which reaches out to individuals providing delicious, wholesome and nutritious meat-free meals in a warm and friendly atmosphere served unconditionally allowing each indivual to be treated with respect and dignity. During my time volunteering here, I preped, cooked and served the meals and even packaged to those who are unable to make it to the soup kitchen itself.

I managed to get the opportunity to visit another NGO, Life Project Cambodia where I was privillaged to hear what yet another NGO do for their community offering education, a place to stay and out reach for Family assistance. Some of the stories told by the founders and director touched me hard, however, again and again every child had a smile on their face that couldn’t be wiped away. Thats a beautiful sight, to allow myself to walk away knowing that someone in need is happy with the help and support they are given.


I work wiithin the Health Profession and honestly, my next visit horrified me, so much so even writing this now has brought tears to my eyes. Here in Ireland and UK we complain about the smallest of things when it comes to our health and welfare, medical treatment and procedures. On approach to the hospital I was horrified how run down it looked and wondered why there was a queue outside the hospital of people in families, young and old indivuals lining up and with hanging out with Jason, he told me the hospital doesn’t supply food, therefore it’s offered outside of the premisises and i’m unsure if it’s paid for or not. Inside was extremely hot, cramped and the beds alone where disgusting with rust and with no matresses, but a bamboo mat, Jason invited me to meet a lady who wasn’t to well. Jason and VBC team built for her not long before my visit. It was lovely to see her and although she was in a great deal of pain, she still continued to speak freely and happily by a interpretur . In the real world, basising what I witnessed,this lady should hav been on a presured mattress, tiltd every two hours at a 30 degree tilt used by pillows and delicately dressing her own wounds which I identifified as grade four pressure sores  and worried that she may be suffering with gangrene. I spoke to her and her beautiful children and the ladys wife and they all seemed so happy considering the circumstances.  It broke me, tears rollled down my face and images I try to blank, keep cropping up.

Jason grew a bond with this lady and her Family and unfurnately she later passed away just hours of speaking, smiling and sitting next to her family. I found myself crying I only met the lady the once, however the circumstances and the running of the hospital was poorly and as for Jason, his emotions touched me, A man I thought was just a friend turned out to be someone strong, he let go of his emotions and let out his upset, that alone touched me immensely.

 It saddens me to think of all the luxuries we have in our own countries and we still complain and give off, want and spend like we own the world, when in reality, we have people not just in Cambodia, but in our own countries too struggling to provide for themselves and their families. My experiences on both visits to Siem Reap will forever hold a special place in my heart and still today overwhelms me, but not because of the poverty and how the people live, but how beautiful the country standsout and how extrodinary the people I built for, met and heard about show their strengths through a simple smile, a smile that makes Cambodia.

Like mentioned I’ve been to Cambodia twice and during those times I’ve met many a volunteer and some I still keep in touch with through snailmail, social media and email. However I met three great people in my life and pray I’ll continue to hold them close to my heart as my best of friends,  1) Jason, a man who will continue to inspire me through his actions, love and dedication, the guy who gave me the opportunity to volunteer and make contact in the first place. 2) Marj; bizare, but a woman who I met whilst volunteering and who is filled with such a beautiful soul and words so kindly spoken, somone who made me laugh, smile and cry. This glam gran, Marj is my Cambodian Mum, but most importantly, shes’s Jasons Mother. 3) A girl who inspires me every single day, I girl I met so beautiful and a smile that would outshine every star, she was a volunteer, passionate, emotional and friendly. She was a friend and still today we write regurally, text and email, she’s now one of my bestest.

Here is just some pictures that cares the reason for my title… For those who have nothing and live in poverty, drink dirty food, live homeless under trees and face serious illness and harm, yet each and every person I met whether they where in good health or bad, they always smiled and for that alone, tightens my heartstrings; we take life for granted when you have situations like this and i’m sure many places worse of, you just to be kind and let our universe take us on our own journeys in hope that we can share our love to reflect in prayer for those who suffer and those fighting each day to survive.

” Let us always meet each other with smile, for smile is the beginning of love, do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.’ – Saint Mother Teresa.

My trip was fantastically brilliant during my two visits and despite the fundraising, the challenging events, the emotions, the hard work, the heat, the insects , snakes, mice and rats… The only thing I can honestly say I regret about my first trip was my elephant ride around the temples. A beautiful experience, however it wasn’t until after it I regretted my decision to take part. Such beautiful animals and used as slaves for a wage for their owners, tied, starved and beaten. Horrifying. However the negative side of it doesn’t sound to great and I wouldnt encourage it, but Alana I wish to blame for my decsion, as it was she who had me awake at 3am cycing to the temples for sunrise and believe me, the thought of it was the fun part, however, thon bycle seat… My bum!

I thought i’d add few of my pictures from my two previous visits…

You have to visit… It’s a must!

-James Keenan


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