New Year’s Eve with the Cambodian Angels

Siem Reap Travel Blog

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After spending the whole day wandering through the majestic of Angkor Wat Palace, as well as enjoying the beautiful Apsara Dance of Cambodia, I stopped by at Angkor Night Market to do a little sightseeing and shopping.

I was surprised at the modern, organized layout of the market, where the vendors were very friendly and spoke English. It was beautifully decorated with small huts full of a million, colorful handmade crafts and the floor was paved with large river stones. I felt so comfortable just cruising the area, while keeping an eye out for unique souvenirs for friends and relatives. 

Suddenly, in the middle of this fun side trip, I was approached by a local guy. He handed me a small flyer saying, “Please make time to come visit the kids in the ACODO house.

They have dance performance every night.” This young guy seemed very sincere and friendly, so I accepted the flyer, looked it over and asked him some questions trying not to appear like a snob, though deep down I wasn’t very interested about the idea. While I was talking to him, I realized that he couldn’t stand straight and seemed that he was having a bit of a problem with his leg. He must have caught my expression and he said, matter-of-factly, without asking for symphaty, “My left leg was badly injured when I stepped on one of the buried landmines. It will never back to its normal condition.”  That will certainly get your attention, if not  start to break your heart.   I asked him about directions to the ACODO house and then one simple question, “Should I bring donation?” He replied, “You don’t have to, the kids may still need some help, but the most important part will be your donation of  time and love.

The next night, I took a tuk-tuk that brought me to the ACODO house.  I was still a little unsure and was still battling with myself about the whole idea of going there.  I went with a fellow traveler, since I wasn’t sure about the neighborhood, and we thought, “Well, this will be different.”  If only we knew! With anticipation, I entered an old building through a very small metal door. I was welcomed by some little girls who ran towards me with big smiles. They held my hands and said, “Hi teacher, how are you?” I was wondering why they call me teacher, but didn’t bother to ask, but something about that gesture actually made me feel much better and more welcome to be there.

There were not too many proper chairs in the area, so I just sat down on the floor with the girls, who engaged me in easy conversation, which was in roughly 10 seconds after I metting them. There were about 50 kids of different ages at the facility, and almost all of them were chatty, bubbly and lovable, except for a few shy kids, who though quiet, gamely climbed on my lap. These kids really tugged even harder at my heartstrings. I also saw that my friend was also sitting with some young boys in another corner of the compound. He also seemed to be captivated by this unique group of kids.  I felt something different that I couldn’t explain, but I felt blessed I came.

In just a short while, a Caucasian lady sat next to me and all the girls said hi and addressed her as teacher too.

She was a volunteer teacher from Europe. When the girls had to get ready with their dance performance, I got an opportunity to have a little chit-chat with her. I asked the reason she became a volunteer teacher. She simply said, “My initial plan was to stay for 7 days only. However, I ended up staying longer. I have been teaching here for the past 3 months. I fell in love with the kids.”  

She also explained that the ACODO house was not really an orphanage, but more a home for kids whose families just didn’t have the means to take care of them at this time. She then took me around. I gasped when I saw the condition of their bed rooms.The sight of a big room with insufficient lighthing, cramped with old little bunk beds and torn, thin mattresses brought tears to my eyes.

I wondered how, despite their situation, all the kids seemed well-behaved and happier than any group I’d ever seen at any school. Even the kid with the severe burn scars on his face and the young man with the injured leg seemed uncomplaining about their condition.

I seated myself on an old couch in-front of a small outdoor stage, about to watch Apsara Dance by the kids and teenagers. I was enthralled by their beautiful home-made costumes, obvious enthusiasm and graceful movements.  Oh, don’t forget that while 25 young people were on the stage, another 25 were sitting amongst and on us or more likely all over us, watching the performance of their friends.  I must add that the dancers were magnificent - they showed much skill and talent for a group so young.


After the play was over, the performers mixed with the small audience, maybe six visitors, and playfully competed with the other kids for the attention of the adults.  I spent some time talking to the staff and other volunteer teachers in charge of running the house and asked about the challenges to providing this type of lodging and care for the kids.  It wasn't a surprise that money is always a need for food, building repairs, clothing, school supplies.  But even with all these concerns on their plate, not once did the staff ask for a donation. I guess sometimes you don’t have to.  I’m not sure anyone has a heart so hard they wouldn’t want to help out a place that operated on such compassion and caring. 

Before I left the house, I said goodbye to the kids, who walked me to the door and kept asking, “Teacher, will you come again tomorrow?” I could only smile while trying to hide my tears.

My short tuk-tuk ride to the hotel was spent thinking about how wonderful the evening had been, and how close I came to not going.  What had made me decide to attend something that isn’t on the regular tourist's path? Whatever it was, I am deeply thankful.

The next evening my friend and I were slated to go to a high-tech, laser show that came with a rave review at the Angkor Wat temples.  Of course, I thought, I needed to do this, as it was choreographed to also display the story of how the temples had be “discovered” in the late 19thcentury. The tickets were $80 a piece, so it must be great. 

As the afternoon wore on something kept nagging me.  I realized what it was and thought: why was I going to spend a ton of money at a laser show?  This wasn’t really the reason I came to Cambodia, was it?  What about the kids? Couldn't they use that same money for a better purpose?  And, wasn’t it New Year’s?  What about a small party right there with the kids?  After a bit of convincing at the hotel desk, I was able to get a refund on my laser show tickets, told the tuk-tuk driver that I was going back to ACODO House, but could he so kindly bring me first to a convenient store!

My friend and I bought snacks and soft drinks and more snacks and more soft drinks, loaded them up the tuk-tuk and went to see the kids.

This time, when I arrived, instead of holding my hands, the kids hugged me. I mingled with the staff and the volunteer teacher who welcomed me as part of their big family. I helped them to prepare the snacks and handed party favors to the kids. The sparkle in their eyes and the big smiles on their face showed how grateful they were to experience this. When music started playing, we sang along and some kids started dancing. We ate, we laughed and we had a good time. One little boy ended up sleeping on my lap as the night wore on.

When the clock showed 11:59:50, we counted down the seconds together. The kids blew the trumpets in excitement and I would never forget the happiness etched on their faces. They looked like a bunch of heaven’s little angels playing on earth. I realized that there was nothing grand about the celebration: There was no fireworks; leave alone a laser show. However, the happiness within couldn’t be put to words. The only thing I know was once again, I felt so blessed.

I sent them to bed and said goodbye. That was the hardest part of all since I was leaving Siam Reap the next day and I would never see them again. I left the place with a heavy heart, sorry to be leaving.  With tears in my eyes, I said a little prayer for the precious children, “Dear Lord, bless their little hearts.”    

*This article was published in Venture Magazine on November 2011. 

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