Wrapping up our Cambodia trip

Well, our time in Cambodia is complete. My family and I will be leaving our hotel in Siem Reap and heading for the airport in just under a half hour. We're bringing Amber and Sunil — our Indian co-directors — and their wives with us to Thailand, where we'll spend time with our Thai staff and kids before heading back to the States.

I've been doing a decent job of keeping current with emails and in-person meetings, and I've kept our Instagram feed populated, but my blog posts have been few and far between. It seems that every day is packed full from stem to stern, and I usually have three or four hours of work to do after everyone else has gone to bed. Unfortunately, that means that there are a lot of pictures and stories I'd love to share that I may not get around to, at least not in this forum.

I wish I'd had more time to focus on communicating the needs at our secondary school in Battambang, Cambodia. That's something I'll be hitting on repeatedly between now and the end of the year. We urgently need to find long-term supporters for that project. It is essential to our work, but it's expensive for our little organization to keep the doors open. Please join me in prayers for that initiative. 

I do hope that if you've been reading my posts here or following on one of our other social media platforms you have gotten a sense of use what kind of ministry we are and what joining with us could mean for you. Please continue to pray for our time in Thailand. God is moving in and through Asia's Hope. 

If the admittedly marginal internet connection here will allow it, I'll post a few albums of pics from my Cambodia trip. Some of them I've posted before, some are new...

Our trip to Cambodia and arrival in Siem Reap.

Our amazing day exploring the temples of Angkor.

Family time with the kids and staff in Prek Eng.

An evening at the fights in Phnom Penh.

Wonderful times in Battambang.

John McCollumComment
Dancing in the streets

Sundays are always fun at Asia's Hope. This one had us dancing in the streets. 

The morning started at Hope Fellowship, our church in Battambang. With more than 400 attenders, this counts as something of a megachurch in Cambodia. We kicked off the service with a few congregational worship songs, and followed them with performances from three different groups of our kids. I sang one song, and then I preached a message from Romans.

I love worshipping with the Asia's Hope staff and kids, and this time was extra special, because I was joined by my family, Carol's family (Carol is the administrator for Asia's Hope's main office in Ohio), Addison (our project manager) and the co-directors of Asia's Hope India, Amber and Sunil and their wives. It's probably unwise for us all to be in the same place at the same time; if a meteor struck, Asia's Hope would be set back significantly by the loss of executive personnel.

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After the service, we stopped to take a group picture at each of our 13 homes. Even at a quick pace, it took us more than an hour. We had a delicious lunch together with Savorn at a local Indian restaurant, and returned to our hotel for a brief rest.

Late afternoon, we headed out for a dedication party at the brand new University Student Center, home to 25 young scholars who grew up at Asia's Hope in Battambang. I've known most of these kids since they were quite young, so it's a real kick to see them living more independently and thriving in their studies. We've been blessed with a beautiful — and affordable — facility for these kids, and they all seem to love it there. Next year, we're adding 10 more students to the center, and will probably have to open a second one within the next couple of years.

This center — and the one like it in Phnom Penh — are key elements of our strategy to transition our kids to independent adulthood and to raise up a new generation of educated, hardworking and responsible leaders for Asia's Hope's and Cambodia's future. We're working now to develop funding and operational strategies that I'll be talking a lot about in the coming weeks and months.

We hired caterers for the party, and enjoyed a dinner of beef (roasted whole on a spit), noodles, Cambodian sour soup, and fresh fruits. After the meal, we danced. For hours, it seems. And I know I've said this before, but I'm always so impressed with the difference between Asia's Hope dances and the ones I've attended (or chaperoned) in the States. These parties are wholesome, inclusive and joyful. It's so much fun to join our kids in cutting loose, laughing and dancing without judgment or self-consciousness.

Our day was not completely without its sorrows. Addison had to cancel his trip and leave suddenly — just a day after arriving in Cambodia — due to an unexpected and serious illness in his family. And Punam, the wife of Pastor Sunil, found out that her sister had died quite quickly after a short battle with cancer. As always, around here, tragedy and celebration are mixed together, drunk often in the same cup. So please pray for Addison's and Punam's families. Punam has decided to stay on and finish her trip. I hope that spending time with these kids and staff who have themselves lost parents, siblings and children will be deeply comforting.

John McCollumComment
Reflections after driving across a changing country
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It's Friday morning, and I'm finally feeling human after emerging from some monster cold/sinus infection/bronchitis thing that really dampened my ability to enjoy and engage much of anyone for about a week. I felt so lousy on Wednesday that I delayed my departure for Battambang by 24 hours. I stayed in bed most of the day and I think that was key to my recovery.

Yesterday morning my family checked out of our hotel in Phnom Penh, loaded into our borrowed van and made the five hour drive to Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city. When I first visited Cambodia about 18 years ago, that drive would have taken something like 20 hours. The roads were often unpassable; the adjacent rice paddies were studded landmines, which are reported to be uncomfortable for vehicles and their occupants.

So for the first few years we flew into the city on rickety, reconditioned Aeroflot prop planes that burped and shuddered before landing with objectionable thuds and clanks on a single strip airfield, delivering us to a sweltering quonset hut where we rescued our terrified luggage and fled via taxi to the barely-air-conditioned and now defunct Te.O Hotel. Ah, the Te.O, with its questionable little restaurant, favored by drunken Cambodian military officials, presumably for its large stock of Johnny Walker Red and signature dishes like "Salad Bin Laden" and "Beef Tongue On Fire."

A few years later, the government had grudgingly improved Highway 5 to the point where a trip by car was manageable within, say, 9 hours. Sure, significant stretches of the road were unpaved and could have been improved by some light carpet bombing, but for teams of more than four or five people, driving represented a significant cost — and potential life — savings over flying.

Yesterday I made the trip in just under five hours. The entire way is paved, and it is now possible to find multiple rest stops with above-ground toilets. The city of Phnom Penh seems to stretch about an hour further into the former countryside, and the outskirts of Battambang extend far beyond its famous statue, which once marked the furthest boundary between semi-urban and really-rural. We've since upgraded our hotel, and can now choose from well over a dozen really good restaurants.

This morning I'm sitting on the second-floor balcony of the Kinyei Cafe, enjoying a perfectly-made small flat white with an extra shot of espresso. Kinyei is owned by my friends Marc and Jose, who also own Phnom Penh's Feel Good cafes and roasters. It sits at the quiet end of Street 1-1/2, adjacent to a couple Colonial-era shophouses that, to the utter bafflement of my Cambodian staff, I fantasize about purchasing, rehabbing and turning into a retirement home cum AirBnB. Most locals prefer the glitzier Starbucks-style "Brown Coffee" franchise stores and new-build condos, but I'm a sucker for the wood shutters, faded stucco and exposeable brick of the century-old buildings that probably indicate some latent Orientalist exotification bias. For that, I'm profoundly sorry-not-sorry. You can take the boy out of America, but...

Anyway, after checking into our hotel, we took a short rest and then headed out to visit our Battambang campus. It too has changed over the past few years. A lot. I remember when we first purchased the original parcel of land. It was out in the middle of the country, flanked by nothing but farmland. Even after adding our first few homes, arriving at Asia's Hope was something like discovering the Others' settlement in the TV series Lost — a tiny community thriving surprisingly in the middle of nowhere.

It's now on its way to being in something like the center of Battambang proper. We've since bought up all the available abutting plots, and have filled them with 13 homes, a church, a vocational training center, a middle and high school and one of the best soccer fields in the city. The surrounding land has all been purchased by developers, and is slated for condos, shops and God-knows-whatelse. Our campus remains, however, an oasis of joy and even tranquility in an otherwise chaotic hurly-burly of rapid economic and demographic expansion. There, kids whose parents died, abandoned them or simply turned up missing have found new life, new hope and new families. They tend gardens, play sports, learn musical instruments, attend schools and enjoy delicious meals cooked for them by dedicated parents who know their names, and tend to their emotional and spiritual traumas with a patience born of their own healing and deliverance from childhoods marred by genocide, civil war and life in refugee camps.

One thing that hasn't been radically transformed in Battambang over the last couple of years seems to be my ability to get a decent internet connection, so my posts may be a bit sparse. But I'll try to make up for that by uploading some big galleries when we get to Thailand next week.

 

John McCollumComment