My Siem Reap Immersion — Part I

The Soap

I spent close to a month in beautiful Siem Reap, Cambodia. Most will make the trip to see the temples, others to volunteer or move there to either work with one of the many NGOs or enter hospitality businesses. I was spending the year traveling across the region and had rather flexible goals. The first week, my family flew in and we spent a week absorbing the history, beauty and architecture of the Angkor temples and cities, exploring the tiny center of Siem Reap, and shopping. Probably our first family vacation ever, and we chose wisely — manageable enough to do everything and enough time to relax.

I spent a large chunk of my time with Build Your Future Today (BFT), a nonprofit organization started by a former Khmer Rouge prisoner, Sedtha Long, a kind and passionate leader. BFT uplifts the communities around the Angkor temples. While there I helped build a fundraising and communications plan. I also ventured to the field and learned about their program, and immersed — something I felt was missing in my former nonprofit development roles.

During a visit to a remote BFT village, a large number of kids had developed skin infections. A volunteer nurse, Katrina, pulled out her supplies and started treating them right away. At the end of that week, Katrina came into the BFT office distraught. Those kids and about half of those in other BFT village schools had developed impetigo, a highly contagious skin infection. The weather was unbearably hot and they sat huddled together on school benches, there was a risk of it rapidly spreading to all the kids. “I need soap,” she announced. Well, how much? A LOT. At least a bar for each kid in all of the BFT villages, as a prevention and cure. We were looking at about 200 kids in a dozen schools, so 2,500 bars of soap to start and then a monthly refill for… forever. The aim was to inculcate the habit of using soap to prevent this from happening again. Since they came from poor families, washing with soap was an added expense, a luxury.

The villages were a few hours outside Siem Reap, mostly along dirt roads — oh how I remember the bumpy rides out there. They were also 25 miles from the nearest health center, which meant in case it got worse, getting care was going to be a long and difficult process. While BFT actively provided health education, especially about hygiene and germs with their related diseases, it was going to take time for the message to turn into action. Being from the ‘international development field’, I always read and spoke about hygiene challenges in the developing world, and the efforts and grants available to mitigate them, but I never imagined myself faced with this problem first hand. Who was going to give us a grant, and quickly?

Kids learning about hygiene in a BFT school

I dropped everything and forced myself to find soap. A few other volunteers at the time were working on projects that could be temporarily abandoned. I had a plan: We could put together a list of local members in the hospitality industry and start approaching them for either in-kind soap donations or funds. Siem Reap was a small town with many tourists, surely we would be able to get some soap. In the meantime, I would start reaching out to organizations that made donations toward preventing and curing health issues. We got started on this, but to no avail. The organizations I found were based overseas and willing to help but the shipping costs would amount to more than that of the soap. Other organizations simply did not respond. The volunteers that had gone to the hotels had little to no response. It was off-peak season, so they did not even have discarded soaps, and there were hardly any tourists to appeal to through the hotel/villas, or otherwise. Meanwhile, Katrina was figuring out remedies while we waited.

I spent a Saturday volunteering with Touch a Life Foundation, a one-person and many volunteers operation run from the founder, Mavis Ching’s home. She prepared, packaged and delivered meals to the poorest of the poor living around the temples. After we finished the days tasks, I mentioned our impetigo problem and Mavis was quick to pull out a lot of soap from her home, as she offered to contact others. Eventually she would end up collecting more soap for us by rounding up her friends in Siem Reap. This was our first soap donation and a generous one that would help us get started with those that were most affected.

At one of the talks I attended at a cool event space in Siem Reap called The 1961, I met a kind woman from an educational organization and mentioned the impetigo problem that we were all dealing with at BFT, since at this point I was obsessed with it. She immediately offered to connect me to an organization called Eco Soap Bank, the vision of talented young folks aimed at serving organizations and situations like ours. What’s more, they were based IN Siem Reap, which meant the soap was also IN Siem Reap. How I hadn’t come across them on my own during my multiple online searches, is a question for the SEO Gods. Within three days we had been connected, developed deep admiration for each others’ organizations and MUCH soap was being packaged and ready for us to pick up. We filled a tuk-tuk and the soap was eventually transported to the schools. After I left Siem Reap, John, one of the volunteers, wrote to me about the several next batches that had been picked up and transported. Slowly, together we were eradicating this terrible disease… with a potentially bottomless supply of soap. Yes, someone was going to give us a grant, quickly!

Our soap collection at the Eco Soap Bank offices in Siem Reap
A tuk-tuk full of soap, only to make a few more trips in the next week!
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