I once read:
Over a decade ago, a transformative trip to Cambodia ignited a flame within me, setting me on an unexpected path of discovery. It was a journey that forever altered my perspective and led me to the enchanting country of Laos. here I reflect on the profound impact of my travels, the loss of a dear friend, and the deep connection I have developed with Laos.
Awakening to Contrasts: Cambodia and New Zealand
In 2008, I embarked on a life-changing adventure with my dear friend Phillip, having explored 12 countries together already. Our visit to Cambodia in 2010 introduced me to a new part of the world, unveiling the striking contrasts between the lives of Cambodians and the comforts of New Zealand. Witnessing the struggles and hardships faced by the Cambodian people deeply impacted me, particularly the devastating effects of poverty and the remnants of a tragic history, especially with UXO. The haunting visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields evoked profound emotions and awakened a deep desire to make a difference.
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. 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.
The Search for Meaningful Engagement
I had a long history of volunteering (Red Cross, Lifeline and Kidsline) but it had been some years since I had been active. So driven by a passion for volunteerism, I felt a calling to help those in need. However, I was acutely aware of the dangers of inappropriate volunteering and “voluntourism.” Determined to find sustainable, transparent projects that focused on long-term impact, I spent 18 months researching and discussing ideas with Phillip and others, who shared my aspirations. Recognising the transformative power of education, I directed my search toward community-related projects and discovered a charity school in Laos that aligned perfectly with my vision.
A Shocking Loss and a Renewed Purpose
Tragedy struck when Phillip was randomly attacked and lost his life shortly after my return from Laos in 2011. The sudden and devastating loss reinforced the fragility of life for me and served as a poignant reminder to seize every opportunity while we still can. Phillip understood the profound impact Asia had on me and his absence heightened my dedication to making a positive impact and embracing the delicate balance between work and personal fulfillment.
I once read:
“Coming together is the beginning, staying together is the progress and working together is the success”.
Laos: A Serendipitous Destination
Although Cambodia was my initial destination of choice, a visit to an NGO school in Laos captured my heart and redirected my path. Witnessing the passion and dedication of the Lao teachers, I realised the importance of transferring skills and empowering local communities. Ten years on, I continue to support the school, cherishing the profound connection I have formed with Laos. The shared struggles, such as poverty, unexploded bombs, and infrastructure challenges, deepened my appreciation for this remarkable country.
There are similarities between Laos and my intended original destination – poverty, processes, rules, unexploded bombs, bad roads, and infrastructure, 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 today.
Inspiring Others and Fostering Success
Through my journey, I have discovered the power of coming together, staying committed, and working collaboratively. I strive to inspire and empower others to pursue their dreams while recognising the value of supportive friendships.
As my journey unfolds, I have learned valuable lessons about effective ways to help and the importance of follow-through in making a lasting impact. Laos has become a profound part of my life, teaching me about balance, resilience, and the beauty of humanity. I invite you to join me in supporting Laos, whether by visiting or other means, and to experience the unforgettable allure and resilience of this extraordinary nation. Together, we can create a better future and leave an enduring legacy of compassion and empowerment.