Our 5th Return to the Kingdom of Wonder – December 2015

December 5, 2015

As soon as Dave and I stepped off the plane in Siem Reap, that recognizable smell and familiar humid, heavy air greeted us. It is too dramatic (and a bit presumptuous) to say we are “back home,” but this

Kandara, Barbara and Dave upon arrival 2015

Kandara, me and Dave.

fifth visit feels different. We don’t feel that giddy, anticipatory feeling of arriving in a new country, but rather, a bit giddy returning to a familiar sense of place where we look forward to seeing people we care about deeply.

After 13,000 miles, 30 hours of traveling and more airplane movie-watching than I care to admit, we were greeted by the welcoming waves from friends (and EGBOK colleagues) Osman and Kandara. I am reminded that no matter where you might be in the world, seeing old friends who are just as happy to see you as you are to see them is about feeling cozy on the inside.

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Me and EGBOK graduates

And the students –- oh my, they look younger than ever! However, I know all too well their average age hasn’t changed, though mine certainly has. It was particularly heartwarming to be greeted at the EGBOK Learning Center by former students who ran up yelling “teacher teacher!” while the new students wondered who that gray haired lady was. These students shyly stood up and politely smiled as they bowed with the traditional sompeah greeting – hands held in a prayer form and raised to their noses.

Dave and I are here for only 17 days this time, unlike our past three-month stays of volunteering at EGBOK. We won’t do any sightseeing this time; we are ambitiously focused on our individual agendas with the best of intentions to be useful.

Students engaged in money madness simulation game  (1)

Last year’s Mad City Money

Dave is heading up his second Siem Reap Money Madness event –- a terrific interactive personal budgeting program where students learn to identify costs that are fixed (food, rent) versus those that are unexpected (medical needs, flat bicycle tire) or optional (motorcycle, smartphone, nightclub life), and how to still save and send money back to their families living in the rural villages. This is not easy for any person, but it is especially hard when life has involved few material items and then suddenly, the world is nothing but a big glitzy shopping commercial. Siem Reap overflows with flashy tourists, bright lights and lots of shiny objects. Resistance isn’t futile but it sure is hard, especially for a twenty-year-old young adult.

I’ll be hosting the fourth annual EGBOKERY, where the “child in the student” is encouraged and playing is the lesson plan. I shall once again show how we humans are hard-wired to build when given graham crackers (more practical baking pounds of gingerbread), icing and mounds of candy.

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Well-traveled candy

Our checked baggage, weighing in at a hefty 45.5 pounds, was packed with ingredients to make these creative construction structures. Marshmallows may weigh little, but let me tell you, gum drops pack a heavy punch on the scale.

But my real priority here is to provide support for the final phases of EGBOK’s forthcoming café that will help generate revenue for the school and provide on-the-job training for the students. In the past five years, restaurant growth here has skyrocketed.

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Hard Rock Cafe faces off with a Khmer Statue

In addition to new independent entrepreneurial ventures here, there is also the regrettable Western fast food invasion -– Burger King just opened two days ago and Hard Rock Café soon celebrates its one-year anniversary. Well-funded foreigners are grabbing both prime real estate and headlines from locals who have launched some terrific restaurants.

And, much to my dismay, The New York Times recently overlooked an opportunity to help the local Cambodian talent. In July, the feature “36 Hours in Siem Reap” mostly promoted non-Cambodian chefs. My letter to the editor never got published, but I felt it necessary to remind the newspaper of all the Cambodian talent they unfortunately overlooked. It is clear, we have a tough competitive landscape ahead of us but I know EGBOK is up to the challenge.

For the time being, we are staying with our friend Osman outside of town.

Osmans house

Osman’s home outside of town

If you want to know what living a hospitality mindset is all about, reserve a stay at Chez Osman. The warmth and generous spirit of Osman was evident the day I met him 4 years ago and our friendship has continued to grow from that initial meeting.

Osman at home

Osman, our host of all hosts!

 

Dave is happily riding a moto I’ve named the Green Hornet.  And instead of waking up to the familiar sounds of chanting monks and bustling traffic, we hear grunting water buffalos and crowing roosters. It’s going to be a good stay.Dave on the green hornet arriving at Osmans

 

 

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An EGBOK Wedding!

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Kot’s transition

Yesterday Dave and I attended the wedding of Ty and Kot, two graduates from EGBOK Mission — a school romance we didn’t even know was happening under our  noses last year.  We met Kot soon after her arrived from her village.  It’s been stunning watching her own transition from villager to student and now bride. Ty was  a standout -– always volunteering to help “teacher” set up the projector or get supplies for a class.  This wedding highlights how EGBOK helps make life-shifting events happen as our students find opportunity, hope and bright futures for probably the first time in their lives. It was definitely a day of celebration.

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Kot and her bridal party blue

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Young family member looking on

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The wedding took place at Kot’s home in a very poor, rural village one hour’s drive from Siem Reap.  As per the local wedding tradition, the bride, groom and bridal party changes clothes every hour throughout the day-long celebration — less depending upon the wealth of the family. We witness two spectacular clothes switches from bright blue to emerald green. A whole village attends a wedding, but not in the way I expected. Extended family members and neighbors sit on the outskirts of the festivities and eat at another time. Young children collect empty cans in hopes of earning money without ever cracking a smile. Whenever I glanced around, I’d either see a child picking up a can or spot a hungry dog scavenging for scraps at my feet. Attendees dressed in their best clothes while those on the periphery donned every day clothes.

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Ty (groom) and some of the EGBOK team – Osman, Reatanak and Severine

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My dance partner and I “cut the carpet” as family and neighbors ponder the show.

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Speakers blared behind me and my new dance partner

EGBOK staff and alumni ate and drank enjoying the various courses. We were trying not to go deaf as we listened to pounding bass-driven Cambodian music blaring that made conversation nearly impossible unless you shouted in your neighbor’s ear.

No matter the decibel, whenever I hear music, my body automatically begins to twitch and shimmy, even when sitting.  So there I was in default mode when I noticed a far table of Khmer guests smiling and laughing as they watched me unconsciously boogie. Not being deterred, I  returned the smile, shrugged my shoulders, and continued what came naturally.

A few minutes later, one of the women came up to me, indicating I was to dance with her.  Nobody was dancing but under the hot sun we found space for a dance floor. The crowd watched — most with amusement but some showed no expressions at all.  After I mirrored my partner’s moves and she appeared pleased, we danced and danced. Soon, other people joined us when suddenly I found myself  in the middle of a circle of people, dancing with an older Khmer man, missing one eye and smoking down his cigarette without ever removing it from his mouth.

He was gettin’ down with arms flailed in the air, body bent, hips shaking and not once did he break eye contact. I did the same and together, we cut quite the jig.  We kept at it until my initial dance partner had had enough, shooing him away so I could continue dancing with her again.  When it was time to leave, the woman would have nothing of the sort happen. She grabbed my arm and urged me to stay.  Just one more dance she insisted…so we did.

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I had a good dance teacher

Some other photos of the event: enjoy!

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Soknak, one of EGBOK’s social workers, posing with style!

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The wedding couple with some goofy girls from EGBOK

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Kot so happy with Bong Serey from PDI, ( partner with EGBOK Mission)

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EGBOK Mission Country director congratulates a newly engaged couple, one from EGBOK. Yes, another wedding on the calendar!

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The EGBOK Mission family

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Family elder with a beautiful baby boy

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EGBOK team member Kandara and Kot

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Osman and Severine getting a photo set up just right…

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EGBOK team member, Dara, enjoying the festivities

!

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Some gals (and a guy) from EGBOK getting some shade

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Entrance to the wedding

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Formally Introducing the Cornell Students for EGBOK Mission

woman holding yoke of items4 million people are visiting Siem Reap this year  walking the ancient temples at Angkor Wat, buying souvenirs at  hundreds of night market stalls, or putting their feet in large tanks of water where  garra rufa fish nibble dead flesh off wriggling toes.  Others seek or stumble upon more profound and life-changing experiences during quieter moments spending time with local Cambodians. Developing  a greater understanding and appreciation of the struggle and opportunities now occurring this country as the Khmer people try and re-build their lives is both heart-breaking and inspiring.

IMG_2543Cornell students, CIPA (Cornell Institute for Public Affairs) graduate students Ben Garcia, Allison Urbanski, Zhou Fang and and undergraduate Kira West, are here for 12 days to achieve both an understanding of this dynamic while creating an experience or product that fulfills three goals. (1) generate revenue for EGBOK so it can be more financially sustainable (2) appeal to the tourist who will want to purchase whatever we decide to offer (3) convince leading hotels to promote the idea we’ve created.  No small task.  Below are the goals of the students

Zhou FangZhou EM bio

I am passionate to join SMART- EGBOK Mission project because of the three reasons as below. Firstly, I believe in the necessity of an NGO being sustainable via social enterprise model. I feel it is meaningful to help EGBOK Mission to find the best way to fund its program and further expand its impact to the community. I hope to utilize my marketing skills and critical thinking to make the final product concrete and doable, which could add value for EGBOK Mission. Also in a bigger picture, this project provides a snapshot of the NGOs operations here in Cambodia and how they deal with local issues with various ways. As a MPA student, I really want to see what the operations models on the ground are and I could learn from the field staffs. Last but not the least, the immersion of Cambodia culture is a must.

Allie UrbanskiAllie EM bio

There are many things that attracted me to the SMART program, but the most powerful of them was the EGBOK Mission itself. After researching the nonprofit prior to my arrival in Cambodia and visiting the center while here, it is apparent how profound an impact the organization has on enhancing the opportunities for Cambodian teenagers who not only want to better their own lives but also the future of their country.

Additionally, I have always gravitated towards working with organizations that provide a humanitarian service. However, I possess little knowledge on the operational dynamics of organizational structures. While participating in this program, I hope to learn from my team and my interactions with hospitality professionals on how organizations operate and the best way for them to remain sustainable.

Kira WestKira EM bio

I hope to get a lot out of these two weeks in Cambodia. Personally I would really like to culturally expand my horizons and learn about the culture. I really want to try new things and see some of the amazing things Cambodia has to offer. Professionally I hope to gain a better understanding of market research methods as well as a better understanding of the intersection between Hotels and Non-profit organizations like EGBOK Mission. I would also like to continue expand my product development knowledge. For me the most important thing to do is to make a positive impact, I’d really like to help EGBOK Mission continue to do their awesome work!

Ben GarciaBen EM bio

There are three main reasons why I embarked on the EGBOK mission project. The first reason is that I wanted to experience a different culture. I had never traveled to Cambodia, much less the eastern hemisphere so I wanted this to be an opportunity to expand my horizons and become more open minded. The second reason I came to Cambodia was to gain a better understanding of poverty, and the factors that enhance it. By analyzing programs for low income communities and working with their beneficiaries, I hope to develop powerful and sustainable models to reduce poverty in the future. Finally, my last reason is because I really want to add value to EGBOK. I believe it is a great organization that is positively impacting the lives of many individuals, and anything I can do to expand their impact would result in a fulfilling experience.

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Arrival of the Cornell Team

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Mr. Krum our tuk tuk driver, me and Allie at the Siem Reap Airport

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Zhou arrives from China!

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Kira gets the “most endurance award to get here” after literally days of traveling. She has stories to tell to grandchildren.

Day 1 Ben with Venerable Y-Nol

Ben speaking with Venerable Y-Nol, program director for Life and Hope Association at Wat Damnak in the early morning.

Our four Cornell students have all arrived. Some a little wearier than others, but they are here. Today is our first full day of meeting together. I’m exhausted and I don’t have jet lag to blame.   Ben and I began the day early (he has been here 3 days so jet lag, thankfully, is lagging) meeting with the Venerable L-Nol at the Life and Hope Association at Wat Damnak.

The Venerable is a trained lawyer and that, rather curiously, came through in our short but refreshing conversation. He will provide a tour for the students on Thursday that I sense will be memorable.

Day 2 morning meeting

Our first time together in Siem Reap.

Day 2 Allie looking at ammo jewelery from war to peace

Allie looking at ammo turned into wearable art

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Zhou with a playful little doll at the store

Great energy from the students.  After everyone woke up, we convened over coconut juice and iced coffees (iced coffees fueled the day).  We had one orientation where I explained the “laundry list” of items from personal safety and setting personal goals to courtesy and protocol, including  the treatment of tuk tuk drivers soliciting riders with respect and warmth.  Then off to the restaurant’s shop, where creative and beautiful handiwork is for sale, including jewelry from ammunition and cluster bombs. We live in a strange world.  One day, murder and mayhem, and the next, beauty and art – all out of the same material.

day 2 Allie and Kira at sewing school

Allie and Kira thinking of all the things they could have made for themselves. A win win situation as far I’m concerned

Me in my dress

There is a great back story about this dress, but for now, just know this incredible seamstress created magic in a day.

Then off to the Park Hyatt Siem Reap-Life & Hope Sewing School to tantalize the students in getting clothes made for themselves. I had my own dress made a few days ago and it was a great experience for so many reasons. I wish the same for the students.

day 2 Greeting by student with towel

Ben getting a cool towel by a student as Kira settles in.

Then arrival at EGBOK! Cold towels and cool water were provided as Sev presented a great overview to what EGBOK Mission does and how “we” do it. I say “we” because I’m so honored to be part of this organization but really, it is “they” – the staff that create these opportunities for our motivated Cambodian students.  So fun to see these worlds overlap, connect and hopefully, create some magic.

Day 2 SEv orietnaiton

Sev, our Learning Center Manager, presents a great overview of EGBOK Mission

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Getting tour of the learning center, sparking ideas for experiential guest experiences.

Following up on Sev’s presentation, Ben shared a presentation he did at Cornell for a big hotel company that offered lessons and insight that would  help us as we move forward with our project.

Tonight dinner and initial reflection, review of questions for 3 interviews tomorrow with hotel general managers and then we build upon what we learn each day.

Amazing opportunity and inspiring experience to see these students tackle the challenge with such engagement and enthusiasm.

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The Team (with Dave as photographer!)

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2014 – The Best Launching of a New Year

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Lotus prayer floats gliding down the river carrying hopes for the new year

It is New Year’s Day and Siem Reap is as quiet as it will ever be.  It is a national holiday and just about everyone, locals and tourists alike, were out late celebrating last night. The peak of Dave and my festivities were at La Residence, the luxury hotel managed by hotelier extraordinaire, Cornell Hotelie alumna, Carla Petzhold-Beck.

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Carla Petzhold-Beck, hotelier extraordinaire

As we watched hotel guests launch prayer floats down the river, fireworks exploded over our heads as the champagne flowed.  Carla has brought a touch of elegance and a whole lot of  fun into our lives here. We felt like a Cinderella couple, toasting the remarkable good fortune in our lives.

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Cornell Students – Zhou, Kira, (me and Ben) Allie and Ben meeting at Cornell during the fall semester, 2013

But no rest for the weary here! I’m madly preparing for the arrival of the Cornell students from the SMART program (Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team), who will help identify what product(s) EGBOK Mission should launch to help generate income for the organization, expand exposure and attract new donors. The bottom line — make EGBOK Mission sustainable by generating a stream of revenue — generating business that will enable us to continue serving young adult Cambodians who now have minimal, if any, access to job and life skill opportunities.  The Cornell students and I have our work cut out for ourselves when they arrive on Monday.

Indochine pepper package

Indochine’s Kampot Black Pepper – amazing pepper

As I was sharing the outcome of a meeting I had today with the lovely Kim RAN from Indochine Spices (source for Kampot Black Pepper) to Dave, he began this new year with the best damn idea. The man really can think out of the box sometimes and this time, it was brilliant. He connected the dots between EGBOK Mission, Cornell University, a product concept and an integrated marketing program that would benefit all of the constituents and the goals for what the SMART students are focused on achieving.  The clarity of this vision has never felt so clear and realistically achievable.

And, my earlier conversation with Kim over Cambodia soda and sweets was equally as inspiring. Her background was humbling and reflected the common theme here of overcoming adversity through hard work and luck. The phrase “luck is when preparation meets opportunity” never seemed so true as she described how she met an American, “Uncle James”  at Angkor Wat. This gentleman  provided her with the initial support and ultimate opportunity to change her life.  We chatted for over an hour, both of us becoming more engaged with one another, sensing our meeting was the beginning of a long relationship.   At one point, I felt chills and fought back tears; our paths had more in common than I would ever have imagined.

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Fireworks above our heads – inspiration for the new year

This is going to be a good year. I can just feel it.

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The Slippery Slope of a Smile

Smile by artist

Smiling art by artist Yue Minjun

I am creating a professional development program with our Education Coordinator, Dara, Kong, tailored for our EGBOK Mission graduates. There will be three parts – Self-Awareness, Customer Service and Leadership.  Interestingly, the subject of smiles came up recently, and it provided me with “teachable moments” that relate to all three parts of the professional of developmentprogram. I was chatting recently with Mara, my former student who I wrote about in the previous blog, who brought the subject up.

It is said that smiles connect people by breezily transcending cultural differences, but really, the smile can create a slippery slope when dealing with people of different cultures.  Though kind and gentle in its very definition, a misplaced smile can be misleading and misguided, causing negative workplace relations or poor customer service, depending on the people involved.

Me and Mara

Mara (on right) and me

Mara had made a mistake at work.  He had smiled while his director, an Australian bloke, was explaining the consequences of Mara’s error. It was just his natural reaction.  His director, Mr. Tom, became increasingly annoyed, asking Mara “what is funny about this?” challenging Mara to explain his expression.  Though Mara couldn’t explain why he smiled, it had to do with “saving face” – the cultural circumstance when a person feels uncomfortable, doesn’t understand another person or is unwilling to admit a mistake.  It’s a mask to avoid public embarrassment. But to the receiver, it can be interpreted as condescending, insubordinate, dismissive, or just plain annoying.

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When asked if I could take a picture after I bought a basket, this woman seemed truly delighted.

Knowing Mara, being uncomfortable and embarrassed probably caused him to smile. But the cool thing here, and this attests to Mara’s emotional maturity and self-awareness, is that Mara had the wherewithal to realize a mixed message had occurred, causing a problem and his director.  Mara learned how smiling was not appropriate when another person was exhibiting discomfort, confrontation or frustration.  He realized he needed to respond to the behavior of the other person, rather than behave in a way that made him feel more protected or secure.

Listening to Mara’s own professional development actively at work was very encouraging. To me, this was a huge cultural leap that many of Mara’s peers will have more difficulty learning and embracing.  Mara’s good fortune is also that he has a supervisor who wants Mara to understand the impact of his behavior.  (A general manager of a local hotel shared her own frustration when an employee kept smiling as he told her he was quitting his job.  She too asked, “What is so funny? Are you happy you are leaving?”   Though she recognized he was saving face, the mask of the smile was exacerbating.)

To Mara’s credit, he didn’t keep this valuable lesson to himself only. Mara now coaches his staff not to smile when a customer is complaining, but to listen with intent while they actively find ways to fix the situation.

So with a smile, I bring this little story to an end. A story and lesson in self-awareness, improved customer service and emerging leadership – all based on one misplaced smile.

Cynical realism artist

A smile sometimes isn’t always what it seems. Artist Yue Minjun is part of the cynical realism movement

Mama!

But sometimes, a smile is just a smile.

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The Week in Review

Dave and I have been in Siem Reap for over 2 weeks — hard to believe. Sometimes it feels as though we arrived yesterday, and at other times, it feels so familiar, as if we never left.

The week began with a friend of Osman’s, Fabian, a puppeteer (see his amazing shows at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWpn6iSoe9w).  He showed the students at EGBOK Mission a few tricks, and the students loved the challenge of keeping a fabric bag in the air.

Fabian teaching students

Fabian teaching the students

Emerging Acrobat

An Emerging performer at EGBOK Mission

The week was filled with  meetings with hotel general managers and new vendors to prepare for four Cornell students to arrive and help identify the best opportunities for a product that will yield a high profit margin for EGBOK Mission.  I’m setting the stage so when the students arrive, they can hit the ground running.

It isn’t just a product that we are seeking — we are also interested in creating a story that will resonate with tourists who stay at the leading hotels that are our supportive partners. Our goal is to have products placed in hotel gift shops, and ideally, promoted in the guest rooms.  Most of the vendors I’ve identified are from NGOs that already have relationships with  EGBOK Mission, including the The Kamonohashi Project, where local women (former victims of sex trafficking or those at risk) make beautiful woven products — ranging from book covers to wine carriers — from reeds.  We visited the project and saw the production in action. Not easy work, but the women welcomed the camaraderie and safe environment.

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The Community Factory where 125 women are employed

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We will soon teach teach English and introductory hospitality to young adults from this community.

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This woman is dipping the reed into a hot dye to create a deep pink color

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Weaving by an elder

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Venerable Somnieng Hoeum – Director of Life and Hope Association

Another possible partner is the Park Hyatt-Life & Hope Association Sewing School, directed by the Venerable Somnieng at Wat Damnak (temple), which is located just two minutes from our learning center.  The Venerable is now getting his masters at Harvard University.

Kim kampot pepper

Kim Ran, part of a family-run business producing the amazing Kampot pepper in Cambodia and selling it here and in the United States

Other possibilities include a product with Kampot Pepper from the Indochine Spice Co. where the young woman above, Kim, explained how her “sponsored father” from the U.S. runs the export business from San Francisco where he was a Stanford professor.  Her family of six siblings and a mother is another story of struggle that has led to determined success. Typically, a helping hand is all that is needed to initially give the people here an opportunity to thrive.

Dave and I also continue to help our guesthouse owners, Chanthou and Socheata, develop promotional programs, including a new Happy Hour with food specials.  Today,we had an official taste test and tomorrow we launch the promotion!

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Socheata prepping the food

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Fellow guesthouse resident, Teganyi, enjoying the smells of lemongrass and galangal on food

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I’m taking notes as Chanthou and Socheata prepare the food on their new grill

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Dave supervises the action

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We are ready for the tasting!

All in all, a very good week.

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