One of Siem Reap’s many squatters’ villages is a short walk from the Journeys Within B&B. JWOC built its first wells there and I went to check it out with Brandon and some volunteer students from Loyola Marymount University. Brandon wants to get a business started that the JWOC scholarship students can run themselves, so we went into the village to research business ideas and assess the need for different services.
There are places blocked off where potential roads will go if they’re ever built, but for now the village is connected by a sequence of dusty tan trails. Some structures are built with corrugated metal or wood and seem relatively sound, while others are thatched with palm leaves or draped with tarps.
Because of the nonprofit projects most of the villagers have seen Westerners, but it’s still a treat for them when we arrive. They all know how to say “hello” and as soon as they spot you a harmony of hellos hits you from all angles. Groups of kids rush over wanting to show you things, while the shy ones gather to watch from a distance. I was just another giant white lady with a camera, but with this kind of welcome you would’ve thought I was Brangelina.
The kids love to get their picture taken and they’ll follow you around in hopes of getting their chance. Their favorite part is seeing themselves on the photo playback screen and they run away giggling as soon as they see their faces on the monitor.
As we walked back to the B&B—a short distance from poverty to luxury—I tried to imagine living without a toilet or electricity and what it must be like to put what little money you have into a “house” that could be destroyed any day.
What really resonated with me was the overall mood of the village. For all their hardship, the people were in great spirits. Everyone was smiling, the kids were running around and playing in the rain, the adults were chatting and playing cards. I expected it to be a bit more somber, but it was actually pretty upbeat.
Maybe they’re making lemonade, or maybe it’s just a Cambodian thing. I don’t think I’ve witnessed a happier, friendlier group of people anywhere. Each country has a different draw: gorgeous beaches, great food, beautiful sights, and although Cambodia has all of those things, the real draw is the people. Their smiles and good hearts are the reason you want to return.