When I first decided to visit Cambodia it was to fulfill a long-standing wish to experience the Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat. I imagined the wonder and bewonderment of seeing such ancient and exotic temples. I imagined the magic of the jungle setting, especially of those temples that are still half overgrown by majestic trees. I imagined a near-spiritual experience and not just a run-of-the-mill week of travel to a new destination. What I didn’t know is I hadn’t imagined the half of it.
As I was searching the internet for accommodations I came across the Shinta Mani hotel. Although I would end up not staying there, this hotel was going to give my visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat quite an unexpected focus. The hotel appeared to be a very nice boutique hotel with spa but as I continued to read I discovered that Shinta Mani was quite a bit more than that.
Shinta Mani is Sanscript for
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“The gem that provides everything one desires.” The name is more than appropriate and defines the hotel on multiple levels. On one level, it is a hotel that caters to the needs of its guests both with its lovely ambience and the hotel and spa facilities. But Shinta Mani goes further with two unique aspects: it runs a hospitality training institute for young Cambodians at risk and it encourages its guests and others to participate in charitable community based activities that benefit local villages. The hospitality institute is funded by individuals and by the hotel and the community activities are funded by individual donations.
As I read more about the community based activities I was impressed by how much could be accomplished with what is relatively small amounts of money. The hotel provides a list of options that start at $15 for a child’s school supplies and obligatory uniforms and goes up to $1200 for a modest house. In between are options such as $60 for a sewing machine, $70 for a pair of breeding pigs or $90 for a fresh water well and seeds. The hotel also provides the opportunity to visit the villages where the money is invested.
I didn’t have to think about it very long; I immediately felt this was something I wanted to do. I talked to several friends and a few colleagues and with the generosity of a small group of wonderful people we were able to put together a modest but very impactful sum of money. I began to correspond with the director of the program and made all the arrangements and picked a date for the village visit.
I had agreed to meet Cielo Perez, who turned out to be the director of both the community based activities program and Shinta Mani’s hospitality institute, at 8 AM at her hotel. Since I was staying at another hotel I wanted to have breakfast there to sample the hotel’s atmosphere. At 7 AM I was the first breakfast guest and for almost 30 minutes I had the lovely outside terrace to myself. I noticed at the reception and in the breakfast area many of the young staff were participants in the hospitality institute as they had the designation ‘student’ on their name plates. At that moment I had no idea that in another 24 hours I was going to have the privilege of meeting all the students, but that’s another story.
Although I had exchanged many emails with Cielo I did not yet know if Cielo was a man or a woman. I knew Perez was a Spanish name and one of my Puerto Rican friends in America had let me know that Cielo is also Spanish so I was pretty curious to see who this Cielo was. I also knew what our donations were earmarked for but I was still in the dark regarding how the village visit was actually going to go.
Cielo turned out to be a Philippine woman (hence the Spanish names) in her mid-thirties who has been running the hotel’s school and the community program since June. She and her husband had lived in Cambodia doing mission work for a Christian church about eight years ago and her husband had been asked to return. Although Cielo’s previous experience was in mission work it was clear that she was taking excellently to her new job as director of the school and the community programs.
She introduced me to Om Thay (Om is the Khmer word for elder), a small Cambodian man of large presence who was the liaison in the villages the program supports. Om knows the villages, the families who live there, what their needs are and what their potential is to make optimum use of the opportunities the program can provide. It was basically Om’s job to recommend which families receive what. He also keeps on eye on the families to see how they make out with what they receive. Unfortunately Om spoke no English so we couldn’t communicate directly with each other. I found that a shame because something told me he was a most interesting and caring human being; the kind of person you would love to talk to for hours.
The program’s vision is to simultaneously build out the opportunities of a number of families. For example, a family may receive a water well and at the same time or shortly thereafter school supplies for the children, a bicycle and maybe later breeding piglets or a foot-crank powered sewing machine. The idea being to develop a family’s ability to sustain itself at a level above subsistence farming and to make it possible for the children to attend school, thereby creating enhanced potential for the next generation.
The hotel driver, Sarun, and Om were still busy loading the van with the items we were donating: several school knapsacks with uniforms and supplies, two sewing machines and a few bicycles. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that although we had only finalized everything ten days before, they had also been able to dig the two water wells since there had been little rain. I was more pleasantly surprised to hear that the two sets of breeding pigs would be arriving by alternative transport.
We headed off to Samroung village in Angkor Thom district where we would meet Om’s assistant, his son-in-law Boll, and distribute the stuff. After a quarter of an hour we turned off the paved road and started down a severely pot-holed red dirt road. On either side of the road there were beautiful broad green fields of rice paddies and nestled in the trees were thatched shacks. The postcard setting belied the poverty of the people living there.
After fifteen minutes or so we saw Boll waving to us from along the road. We had also been met by a young fellow on a motor scooter with a barrel shaped bamboo carrier on the back. As I stepped out of the van and went over to check out the bamboo carrier I discovered how piglets (and other small animals) are transported here. Cielo, Om and Boll had a discussion with Om turning and pointing this way and then that way. Cielo then told me how the goods were being distributed and who we would be visiting first.
I was somewhat nervous about the whole thing as I didn’t feel totally comfortable in the role of ‘benevolent white man who comes from far.’ I did not want the families who were receiving help to feel like I was someone special or have my presence make them feel needy or ashamed. Talking to some other people earlier in the week who work for NGOs and non-profits I was told I shouldn’t worry about that. The villagers realize that without help they are going to miss many development chances for themselves and particularly for improving the lives and futures of their children. They truly appreciate and are touched by the fact that there are people who care enough to not only offer help but to actually come in person to meet them.
As we walked through the trees towards the first home we would be visiting I was nonetheless quite apprehensive, wondering how I and the families were going to react. I was introduced to the family that had received one of the fresh water wells. We all walked over to the well and the father of the family showed me how it worked. Although I have donated money many times in the past to development organizations and received the reports and pictures of how the money is spent, being there in person and seeing the people whose lives were being dramatically impacted by something so inexpensive and something that we take so for granted was very emotional.
Most of the things we were donating were being invested in the same part of the village so we were mostly able to walk from family to family. Every stop provided the chance to hear something about the family. For one of the sewing machines we hopped in the van for a short drive to another part of this village.
This village visit was not an ego inflating experience; I actually felt humbled somehow by the opportunity and the privilege of lending a helping hand to these families. It was a feeling that I have never really experienced before. I felt a real connection with these strangers. I was no different than they. I was just someone who through dumb luck had been born in another place, in other circumstances and with more chances. It was so clear that had the luck of the draw been different these families could have been there helping me.
That morning I truly felt the meaning and the power of the thoughts we had decided to place on the dedication plaques of the two water wells: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries” and even more so, “The greatest quality is seeking to serve.” I realized that the choice to help is no choice at all; in fact it is not helping, it is serving. It is an obligation, a responsibility; it is a great act of love. It was a privilege to serve the needs of these families. And as we took leave of each family it was I bowing to them with hands together in traditional Khmer style offering my thanks.
The folks at Shinta Mani are doing absolutely fantastic work. I especially want to thank my friends and colleagues in Holland whose generosity gave me the chance to be our ambassador on this mission. In a future posting I will share more about Shinta Mani as the following day I had the privilege of attending the graduation of the current students in the hotel’s hospitality institute and meeting the man who started and owns Shinta Mani.