A foundation is being set up in honour of Belgian expat Geert Vanbaelen, who tragically died on November 2 from injuries following a moto accident in Phnom Penh. The foundation will provide scholarships to help young Khmers go through hospitality training.
Vanbaelen, who worked as operations manager for Warehouse and Fine Star Ltd and had relocated to Phnom Penh earlier this year, was seen as a pillar of Siem Reap’s expat community, highly respected for his fundraising work to help two young brothers, Hu Sok Vatha and Vuthy, who were injured in the night market fire in December 2012.
Along with Selantra restaurant owner Chan Saryroth, Vanbaelen managed to raise $10, 000 which paid for half of Vuthy’s medical bills and saw him on the road to recovery.
The local community was rocked by news of the road accident, which happened in the early hours of October 26. Vanbaelen was medevaced to Bangkok but sadly doctors were unable to save him.
Last Sunday around 90 members of Siem Reap’s local and expat community gathered to pay their respects to the man dubbed “the amazing guy” for his generous spirit and positive nature. The memorial service at Banteay Srei was organised by Casa Angkor Hotel operations manager Richard Tan, and held at the farmhouse of Bruce and Kethana Dunnet, owners of Sugar Palm restaurant and informally known by Vanbaelen as ‘mum and dad.’
“Geert helped so many people and inspired other friends with his passions,” says Tan. “He was very selfless. He loved to cook and even wanted to open his own restaurant in the next couple of years. Geert also gave Kethana the idea for her new restaurant and to relocate the kitchen and lounge area. Kethana named this area Geert’s Lounge and Geert’s Kitchen. I guess now that is a tribute to him.
“I really hope that I can continue his passion and dreams of opening up a restaurant and by dedicating to him the foundation which his friends and I will set up in his honor, the Geert Vanbaelen Foundation.”
The foundation will assist those who want to pursue a career in the hospitality industry by giving them a scholarship.
“It will be something like the Shinta Mani Foundation but on a larger scale,” says Tan. “This foundation will be set up by a group of us, whoever wants to be part of it, all because we want his name to be carried on, to be remembered for all the things that he has done for Cambodia and for the Cambodian people.”
Other friends described Vanbaelen, 31, as a kind and compassionate man. His older brother Wouter said that even as a boy he had a thoughtful nature.
"Geert had a wonderful childhood filled with love,” he said. “Even then he always had a special attention for others. Geert always gave everything without asking anything in return. He was cheerful and his friends could always count on him."
Tony Munro, owner of Station Wine Bar and a close friend of Vanbaelens said, “Trying to find the right words for Geert is so hard – just about any adjective describing a good, loving, kind, caring, thoughtful person is not enough.
“In my words I would say to know him was to love him and he touched everyone in a positive way.”
Porleng Van, president of the Cambodia Restaurant Association, of which Vanbaelen was a board member added, “We all loved Geert very much. He was a young and vibrant man full of positivity and generosity. Within the Cambodia Restaurant Association, he has always been very active, innovative and so generous.
“Through his four year term volunteering as a board member and advisory board member, we really saw Geert as a very honorable person.”
As well as the foundation, Vanbaelen’s legacy lives on in Sok Vuthy, who has now made a full recovery and is going to school. Tan says Vuthy and his aunt rushed to Vanbaelen’s side in Phnom Penh when they heard about the accident.
As Shinta Mani general manager Christian de Boer puts it, “Geert was a person who wanted to create a better world. He wanted to be a person who led by example and who gave respect to those fantastic Khmers that truly deserved it. His pro-active approach to daily life in Cambodia, its issues and the potential solutions will be missed.”