A SMILE THAT MAKES CAMBODIA

A journey I made in Cambodia in 2015 and 2016, a little insight through my journey and what you can expect during your visit too.

What’s a holiday without a bit of adventure? If you’ve an inkling towards the exciting side of tourism, Siem Reap has a lot to offer you. Whether it be cycling the day away through the countryside or munching on spiders you thought you’d only ever squish below your shoe, this Cambodian city has something for everyone.

A decade ago, Siem Reap was the place where you stayed, ate and grabbed a beer or two between explorations of Cambodia’s 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat. Now the city that Angkor made is something of a destination itself, luring visitors with a lively and varied dining scene, stylish hotels, genial residents and a laid-back river town ambience. 

There is a growing community of Cambodian and international artists, performers and designers reviving traditional arts and experimenting with new means of creative expression, but please don’t expect dancing animals at Phare, the Cambodian Circus. A height of creativity, the circus runs every evening filled with dance, music, storytelling and circus arts come together in a sophisticated hourlong show staged by students and graduates of Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school, which provides free arts education to economically and socially challenged Cambodian youth. 

In the narrow streets or by the town river, you will find stands of tempting iced coffees made up with condensed milk and syrup or you could head to Little Red Fox Espresso, for a taste of luxury expressos. 

At night you’re in for a treat when the narrow streets and open areas expand with lights and stalls of the Cambodia Night Market, a place for Cambodian designers to showcase their admirable work to sell. What makes this market special, its mostly made up with homemade, recycled materials that are fabulous pieces of art, from sandals and bags to wallets and teddy bears.

The best way to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat is to rise before the sun and venture beyond the main temples. You can travel the fun way by tuk-tuk at 4 a.m. to be at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park, however the view is outstanding with the sun reflecting against the old stone of the temples, the experience itself is something magical. You can also cycle to the temples, which is a bit of a track but by goodness its great fun. I did both ways of transport, tuk-tut one day and bicycle the next. The countryside is beautiful, the temples are outstanding, the silence around the temples delivers a sense of peace whilst the surrounding areas covered in green forest with monkeys swinging from tree-tree and elephants walking along the roadsides, connecting with nature appreciating the environment around you brings you a huge sense of mindfulness. 

Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument and is one of the seven wonders of the world. This iconic temple complex in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia attracts nearly 2.5 million foreign visitors annually, a number that continues to grow each year, yet province remains one of the poorest in the country.

The passing tourists can do their part to spread the tourism wealth by staying a few extra days to explore beyond Angkor Wat and contribute to the local economy, conservation projects, and social enterprises that are paving the way towards a brighter future for locals and creating meaningful experiences for visitors

There are so many NGO’s (Non-Government Organisations) that allow volunteers to help make change to the poorest communities in Cambodia by offering your time and a small fee. This was my main purpose to visit Cambodia, an experience that was something I’ll never forget. 

I joined forces with Volunteer Building Cambodia by carrying out a skydive at the Coast of Northern Ireland and a abseil down the most famous and most bombed Hotel in the world in the heart of Belfast City to raise funds. 

The simple, sturdy Khmer-style wooden houses provide shelter and security for Cambodian families living in need. Poor education, lack of skills and a shortage of job opportunities mean many rural Cambodians are still living in extreme poverty with inadequate shelter.

The new builds replace fragile structures that offer little protection from the elements. I seen first-hand how improved living conditions change lives, through better sanitation, increased security, better sleeping arrangements and healthier living. Children in secure homes are less likely to get sick and more likely to attend school. It’s incredible.

VBC have achieved to build and provide over40 wells, 85 toilets, a warehouse, a community Centre with four classrooms, computer room and a library and over 200 houses with the help of volunteers across the world to donate, sponsor and visit to help be part of the organisation raising more than $900,000 in sponsorship.

This is incredible for VBC to be a small, grass rooted organisation that started by one-man Sinn Meang and a small team of builders. 

To think, the poverty rates are high in rural Cambodia, where many people are still living on less than $1 a day. The impacts of inadequate housing can take its toll on these families. I saw children who don’t go to school and many having health problems through lack of sanitation or secure housing and sleeping arrangements, yet their happiness across as if they have absolutely everything in the world. 

These guys prove that all you need is love and a smile to be rich. I couldn’t be prouder of these families for doing what they do on a day-to-day basis, the love is something I have never witnessed before.

I was lucky enough to meet some amazing people during my time there – locals and tourists and I left feeling inspired and that I had helped make a positive difference to the lives of the families that I built for. I loved all of it! It was everything and more that I hoped for. Building with VBC was very enjoyable. I learnt a lot through my experiences, how to appreciate the many blessings I took for granted and how heart-warming it is to give back to society. The smiles on the faces of the locals was my main purpose to keep motivated to continue, the joy was priceless. 

As the sun sets upon the magnificent Angkor temples, the party in Siem Reap city begins. Nightlife in the iconic Kingdom of Wonder offers an alluring variety of pubs, clubs, cocktail bars, and everything in between. In one quick stride down major roads in the city, you can indulge in a cold Angkor draft beer, bust a move on the infamous Pub Street and chow down on a fried tarantula. The Siem Reap nightlife scene offers an abundance of options for all types of travellers for a fun night out in South East Asia.

It’s with people from all over the world filling the streets dancing, drinking, eating, and looking for a thrill, the nightlife has a magnetic energy unlike anywhere else. Due to the city’s small size and concentration of most nightlife options located centrally around Pub Street.

The magic of Siem Reap started when I stepped of the plane, the extreme heat hitting my body, the quietness of the airport and the dirt track roads. The closer I got to the centre of the city, the busier it became with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles dodging one another, the stands at the side of the roads, children barefoot playing by the rubbish. The blurring music of Pub Street and the night lights dazzling my eyes and traditional dancers performing on the side streets. It was spectacular. 

What about my visit to the Pagoda every evening at 5pm. Wat Preah Prom Rath Pagoda is one of the most beautiful pagodas in Siem Reap. It’s a real beauty and my favourite, located by the river side near the Old Market. The monastery has many fine, colourful wall paintings and you will find many modern statues inside. Often, you will see monks who greet you with a smile and a sign of sampeah.

I visited every evening by walking around the grounds so peacefully taking in the colours of the murals and shrines whilst listening to nature, energizing myself inner self to meditate whilst sitting with the monks of the pagoda and listening to their chants and I closed my eyes and listened. It is something I do at home now.

I set of to Cambodia to meet with a pen pal who moved from Australia to Cambodia after his volunteering stint and he ended up working fulltime at VBC. It was amazing to meet after years of emailing and writing letters. Our meet was special, I felt as if I knew him my entire life. If it wasn’t for Jason, I doubt I would have ever visited Cambodia, so he gave me one of the best experiences of my life giving me hope, adventure, experience, friendship and leaving me inspired. I made many friends, some very close who I love and adore today. 

I jetted of from Ireland to Cambodia with a broad mind, taking everything for granted, my phone charger, a cooker, electricity, school. I knew it was a country experiencing poverty so I thought I would need to do my bit. 

Despite my fear of heights, I took on a skydive on the coast of Northern Ireland and an abseiled down the famous, most bombed hotel in the world raising a fantastic $5,000. 

My experiences extended far and beyond my expectations, I left the Country on my two visits feeling part of the culture of Cambodia. I loved Cambodia that much I could see a future there for me, however with other commitments, I needed to return home. I didn’t leave empty handed, I left this beautiful Country rich with happiness, friends, cherished memories and special moments. I managed to build 3 houses, a toilet, home repairs on another house, made a start on the community centre and left blessed by the Khmer Buddhist Monks.

When I arrived home, I needed to do more, I sponsored a family. A single mum and four children, I donated money for a lengthy period providing them with food and education for the children each month. Receiving pictures of these beautiful people enriched me with sincere proudness.

If you ever find yourself stuck for a holiday, I recommend Cambodia for an adventure of a lifetime experiencing culture, the outstanding natural beauty of the temples and the gift of volunteering, you will not leave disappointed.

James Keenan

MY HOPE TO INSPIRE

By sharing my experiences and beliefs, I hope I can inspire at least one person by giving them hope.

Hi Guys,

I wouldn’t say I am a fully pleadged blogger, professional and making money, i’m just a casual guy who is an amateur blogger sharing his story through words inspired by his lived experiences.

To an extent I will say unfortunately, but I can now see the positive impact of having a mental health illnesses by awknowledging my growing strength and believing in myself, having self respect and embracing courage.

When I first started blogging, I had some ignorant people share their opinions on mental health and suicide, commenting abuse under my posts. These persons and their their input slowly began to affect my want to express awareness.

I deleted blog after blog and started again, changed my name and shared what I felt is important to me. I do understand that a persons opinion is allowed and I fully respect that, I believe in having a right to express opinions however when opinions turn to abuse, it becomes a different story.

It hasn’t been all bad, it’s been powerful over the last couple of years sharing my lived experiences and allowing strangers to connect with me.

Receiving messages of gratitude admiring my bravery, showing courage and creating an awareness is a real joy that leaves me inspired. Reading such comments makes blogging worthwhile publishing.

At the beginning of my blogging journey I had always said if my story was to be shared and only one person was to read it and learn from my mistakes and errors and embrace courage, in sharing my story and showing courage is most definitely a story worthwhile sharing.

The statement that is often repeated in my blogs; “I hope to inspire others, like others have inspired me”  is a statement I strongly believe in and hope that I can inspire at least one person.

My hopes are realistic, I will not be able to inspire millions, but I write from the heart and writing about my life experiences is a method of managing my own recovery in a therapeutic manner to overcome a past of negativity, trauma and pain.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

James Keenan