Culture, Travel

How a Death and Cambodia took me to Laos.

22 Sep , 2020   Gallery

It has been 10 years since a trip to Cambodia stole my heart and set me on a path I could never have imagined.

That trip transformed me in a way unimaginable at the time. A good friend of mine Phillip and I met up in Cambodia in 2010. This was the 12th country we’d seen together (Phillip was an avid traveler and I was lucky to have a friend able and keen to see the world). There was this new world before me, one of great beauty, both in nature and in its people.

After a few days, we were discussing the stark contrasts between life in Cambodia and in New Zealand. I was fascinated by observing people going about their daily lives. It was hard to miss the struggle and hardship prevalent there. Seeing firsthand the effects of poverty and many people missing limbs, the aftermath of bombs is a sight that has never left me.

The horror of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (s-21), a former high school used by the Khmer Rouge to murder 20,000 Cambodians followed by a visit through the killing fields just out of town made for a harrowing day.

Bones and clothing were still coming up from the dirt walkways where 1.7 million people were killed in the late 1970’s. The gruesome painting and photographs of torture and death overwhelmed me. This was so much more ‘real’ than my visit two years earlier to Auschwitz. Maybe it was because it occurred in my part of the world or perhaps because it was so recent? I am not sure.

Returning to New Zealand, I couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing the Cambodian people are to be re-building their lives in such difficult circumstances. I felt humbled and privileged to have been so welcomed and to experience a little of life in Cambodia. Much of the population is young because the older and educated were killed (21% of the population was killed). Still, I could not disengage.

Time for a Change and How to help?

I decided I wanted to see what I could do to help. To try and make a real difference where I could. I searched for projects that had an approach of “investing time in people” to make a longer-term difference (as opposed to band-aid volunteerism or Volunteer Tourism). I knew bad volunteering was becoming rife and I didn’t want to become part of that. I learned about the so-called orphanages in Cambodia and volunteers to help for a few weeks feeling good about themselves but often doing more harm than good.

How could I help by volunteering? Between my regular work in New Zealand, I spent 18 months researching organisations and sustainable, transparent projects. I spent time talking over ideas with my friend Phillip who shared the experience with me – something no one else will ever fully understand.

I figured out education could ultimately help solve other problems such as poverty, health, women’s rights, productivity and corruption, so  I refined my search to education-related projects. In 2012 a charity school in Laos responded to a message I posted and in 2013 I returned to Laos.

A shocking death

Travel is a very personal experience – one you can only truly share with those that you travel with. Phillip understood the profound impact Asia had on me. Shortly after returning from Laos, in December 2011 Phillip was attacked on his way home from work in Wellington and died the next day.

It was a horrific time for everyone who knew Phillip. I missed him immensely, especially now as I started to embark on my life-changing course.

More than anything, it was the sudden death of Phillip that reinforced the fragility of life and reminded me you have to do things while you can!

Cope Centre (11) (Large)

Child’s drawing of the bombings – Cope UXO Centre

Cambodia to Laos??

How did I end up helping in Laos instead of Cambodia? That was never the plan.

It was my first stint at the NGO School that impressed me so much I committed to this project and I ended up in Laos. Seven years later I am still assisting the school. The Lao teachers are running the school which is wonderful to see. Transferring skills and enabling the project to be sustainable and run by Lao was always a goal.

I have over the years of course developed a deep affection and connection to Laos. There are similarities between Laos and my intended original destination – poverty, processes, rules, unexploded bombs, bad roads and a whole lot more.  Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world as a result of the Secret US War, an issue I grew more aware of and passionate about when I visited Cambodia. Lao people rely on the land to grow food so this remains a problem.

My efforts here have come at a great cost to me personally, however, it is Laos that reinforced there is more to life than work so I  feel I owe it my time and efforts as it reminds me about balance.

I once read:

“Coming together is the beginning, staying together is the progress and working together is the success”.

I am lucky that I was open to being inspired. I hope I can inspire and empower others to achieve their dreams. I am so grateful to everyone who provides support. Friends have always been dear to me and I am constantly reminded a very influential friend is no longer with us, and sadly he never got to discover the beauty of Laos.

I have learned a lot more over the years, how things really work, and better ways to help. Too many projects have little to no impact and even less follow-through. Always a disappointment to see, however, there are effective ways to help.

Please support Laos and visit one day. I can guarantee you will not forget Laos!

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3 Responses

  1. Ross James David Murray says:

    What a great story David. It’s nice to to know what’s going on over there and all the good deed’s you have done. I miss you hope you can get home one day after all this covid crap.

  2. David says:

    Yes getting home is extremely difficult. I am trying at the moment as there is a flight planned to leave Laos soon and it is likely to the last one for a long time. Looking forward to seeing mum especially and everyone else too.

  3. Socrates says:

    What a wonderful story David. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. You have achieved quite a bit over there. One day I hope to visit. In the meantime, looking forward to catching up with you in Australia sometime soon. Take care

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