Mission Accomplished! The two words that came to my mind the second we’ve finished our 3rd Chapter. Fann & I went back to Siem Reap, conquering hundreds of crazy potholes and long distance bumpy terrains in order to set new milestones for our little volunteer project that we started in 2015. Our focus of the year was to cover as many villagers as we could, entering villages we’ve never been to in rural Cambodia. We carried out our operations in October 2019 and to my surprise, Cambodia was hit with a dry spell. It only rained for a couple of days when we were there. The usual floods were nowhere to be seen. It was rather unusual but on the bright side, this allowed us to manoeuvre much more easily into the rural villages without waddling through deep puddles of muddy waters and unstable make-shift bridges.
For those who are unfamiliar with the project, My First Selfie is a self-initiative volunteer project by my wife Fann and I. It’s main goal is to provide FREE portrait photos to the people from poverty-stricken villages who can’t afford this simple luxury. You can read about the background of the project and how the idea came about in my older post by clicking here or visit our Facebook page for more recent updates.
In Chapter 3, we were in Siem Reap for 6 days, with plans to accomplish as much as we could. We were extremely lucky that our good friend, Kimleng Sang has provided us with the best hospitality Cambodia has to offer. He built a small and cozy place for guests to stay just beside his lovely home in Siem Reap. Not only did he allowed us to crash at his place, his wife even cooked us breakfast and dinner while we were there. You can rent his space through AirBnb here. He also does photography tours and if you’re interested, just let me know and I can hook you guys up.
We strive to do as much as we could by setting new goals and making sure we meet them. A lot of coordination and planning was required but all these efforts did not go to waste. In Chapter 3 alone, we:
- Gave out 622 framed photos for the elderly and children
- Gave out 350 water filters to families in 6 villages
- Built 10 water pumps across a few different villages
- Sponsored a family with food supplies and stationery for the children
- Sponsored the expansion of a training farm that provides FREE agricultural education to the women in the villages
Below I’ve prepared a chart that shows the break down of what we’ve achieved over 3 Chapters. You can see the big spike in numbers especially the frames and water filters.
Our Biggest Milestones
To put everything into perspective, we’ve hit big milestones that I never thought we would achieve in only 3 chapters. Here’s how it looks like:
- More than 1500 framed portrait photos were given to villagers of Siem Reap for FREE.
- 600 water filters were distributed to 600 families who will be able to consume clean drinkable water.
- We’ve built up to 16 water pumps that would benefit lots of families in various villages.
Overview of Chapter 3
In Chapter 3, we had a little more help of a few friends from Siem Reap. Kimleng Sang, a good friend of mine of more than 6 years. Thor, who drove us around in his van and did most of the heavy lifting. Venerable Monk Hun, who helped to organise and identify which villages require our help the most.
Due to the fact that we had a larger number of water filters that took up more space, we had to mobilise 2 vans and 1 tuk-tuk. Even with this amount of vehicles, we couldn’t carry all 350 filters in one go, we had to do a few rounds in order to get them to their destinations where some were extremely far away from town. Fortunately, our friends in Siem Reap have already helped a lot prior to our arrival by communicating to the village chiefs and villagers. We had name lists and how much we needed for the villages we were going to. This way, we knew how many filters to carry at once without wasting the time to return to town and vice versa. This also allowed us to fairly distribute the water filters and make sure each of the families get them.
With improved communication and organisation, we were able to gather the villagers in one spot within their village at a promised time. Upon arrival, we were able to unload the water filters and everyone could get their water filters in a more coordinated and less chaotic way. By gathering everyone, we were also able to do a small training on how to properly use the water filters and how to clean the filters. This would guarantee the durability of the water filters.
One great benefit from this was that we could then do our portrait shooting in one place without having to hike through each house like how we did previously. This saved us so much time and the best thing was that we would not miss out anyone who was there. Not only will they be able to dress up nicely but also, we could have more control over the lighting situation and maintain consistent backgrounds for the photos. It’s a win-win for everybody.
We were able to enter up to 6 villages in throughout our entire trip despite having an increased numbers of filters and photos now and have half a day to spare to rest. Productivity level was at an optimal stage provided that the weather was good to us.
We also built 10 water pumps around the villages of Siem Reap this chapter. The pumps had to be built prior to our arrival because it takes time and research. Not everywhere in the villages were capable of building a pump. There were a few things we had to consider before deciding on where to build it. This includes the depth of the water source, the quality and hardness of the soil to ensure that the pump is stable, or if there are rocks that would affect the drilling and water source. It wasn’t an easy task, but it was all for a good cause. Alas, we were able to identify where to build them and for the people who require them the most thanks to our friends in Siem Reap who made it happen.
Interestingly, we found out that a few of the villagers were being creative with their pumps. Some hanged black nets around the pumps so that they could have some privacy when they shower. One went a little further by building a shack over the pump. They also installed a little table so that they could easily access their brushes, toothpastes, etc. I was pretty amazed and happy to see that.
One portion of our Chapter 3 money also went to the funding of a training farm project by Monk Hun’s FACCH School. This training farm will consist of 4 types of farms. A frog farm, a catfish farm, a chicken farm and a vegetable farm. These farms will be used to provide agricultural education to the women in the villages for free. The lessons will be conducted by students of Hun who are graduating from agricultural studies in a university in December. We believe that this project greatly benefits the women by empowering them through education. This will allow them to be less dependant on their husbands and have the ability to earn some extra cash for the family. We also think that the knowledge they gain from this can be passed on to their neighbours and friends. Creating a cycle of sustainable knowledge and improvements.
Each of these courses would last 3 months, this includes practical training and offering a starter kit to each of the students. For example, if they are students of frog farming, not only will they get help for setting up their own farm but receive frog babies as a starter kit.
Initially, we wanted to help raise money to fund the construction of the entire training farm project and the seedings of the animals. However, a generous donor named Sue Thompson who runs the Kitchen of Hope in Siem Reap has personally funded it. Regardless, we have already raised enough money to help the training farm for other expenses like their future expansions and to cater for even more students. That means the love can still be extended even further.
Currently, the progress of the training farm construction is going really well. 3000 frogs, a pool of catfish and chickens have already been purchased. Now, it’s in the midst of laying the concrete needed for the frog and fish farms. If you’d like to know more about the training farms and how you can help, just drop me a message. I’d be glad to share more with you.
Not everything was sunshine and rainbows throughout the entire chapter. Challenges new and old are bound to arise regardless of how much preparation you make.
Raising funds for the 3rd chapter was surprisingly difficult. We had both new and old donors, they were splendid, offering help in an instant. However, the number of donors actually fell dramatically. I tried my best to talk to as many people as I could and to get more support but still it wasn’t enough. If anyone has some good advise for me on how to improve on this and would like to offer some help, do drop me a message. I’ve also tried social media and started a new Instagram account as advised by some friends, but it didn’t garner as much attention as I hoped for. Maybe for those who has some good tips on how I can fully utilise its potential without advertisements is greatly appreciated.
Trust from villagers was one small issue we faced. The majority of villagers were extremely excited when we took their photos but there were a small number of them who seemed reluctant of the idea. After understanding more, we found out that they were afraid we would charge them money for the photos. Even after convincing them that it was all free and they had nothing to worry about, they still refused. The next day when we returned to the village and started distributing the framed photos to the rest, the group of people who refused now believed us and wanted their photos taken. Here lies the dilemma of whether or not to shoot, because some villages were extremely far from town. I had to put many things into consideration especially because this would waste more of our time to come back and distribute the photos in the same villages again. By standing firm with the principle that no one should be left behind, we of course took their photos and went back to give the frames to them. The smiles when they received their photos were priceless and it was all worth the journey.
Lastly, political drama. One village we went to was sort of strange. The chief was a little hostile and reluctant with providing assistance. When we went to distribute the frames, there was no one in sight at the promised location. We then drove to the chief’s luxury home and he told us to leave the frames with him. Fann & I were told to stay in our vehicle. After Venerable Monk Hun talked to him and tried to persuade him to gather the villagers, he still refused and we had no choice but to comply and leave the frames to avoid further confrontations. As we left the village, I learnt that the chief was suspicious of us of having political agendas and being part of the opposition party. I also found out that while we were there, there was talk that the opposition party leaders in exile were planning for a return to Cambodia. Therefore, many villagers around the country were told by their chiefs to be wary of them. We were caught in the middle of this political drama which we had nothing to do with. We were blocked from offering genuine help and doing good for the villagers as they worry about some political reasons.
After accomplishing 3 chapters of My First Selfie, I have learnt a lot. Not only did we figured out ways to optimize our time and be more efficient, we learnt the power of teamwork. Asking for help is nothing to be shy about because there are always help wherever you go. Besides the core helpers of the project, we also got assistance from the villages chiefs, the students from Hun’s school, a friend of Thor’s who drove another van, villagers who helped to gather their neighbours and friends, etc. All these people deserve a mention and appreciation as much as the donors and supporters of our project.
I also learnt that 2 of the elderly that we took photos of in Chapter 2 has passed away. It was tough for me when I heard about it, but knowing that the family now owning a photo of the deceased as a lasting memory is the most valuable thing we have done for them. Never to this extend have I put in the thought of how impactful our simple little service is to these families and how meaningful it is to them. This serves as a great reminder to us and what motivates us to keep on going.
As the Winnie the Pooh saying goes, “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts”