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Carving out a future in Battambang

Carving out a future in Battambang

Bamboo scaffolding covers the cliff face at the foot of Boat Mountain 15 km from Battambang.

Balancing on a huge bam-boo scaffolding, dozens of young men in hardhats and harnesses

chip away at the cliff face of Sampov Mountain, 15 km from Battambang, smoothing

the stone to prepare for a 38 meter high Buddhist relief.

The ambitious project began two months ago and is expected to take seven years and

$2 million to complete, eventually providing another impressive feature to the popular

tourist spot known in English as Boat Mountain. It will stretch 112 meters across

the stone wall, depicting Buddha's birth, enlightenment and achievement of nirvana.

But what makes it more remarkable is the fact that most of the workers involved were

former drug users and now all belong to the same "family".

Just outside of Battambang town the Morodak Angkor Centre provides a home for 168

people affected by poverty, drugs and homelessness. At the center, young people and

their families are housed and fed while they go to school or receive training in

the traditional carving of rock, wood and leather artifacts.

While most of the students sleep on the first floor of the center's massive wooden

house, there isn't room for everyone so some end up sleeping and eating among the

half-finished carvings, wood shavings and displays of the ground-level workshop.

Next month will mark four years since the center was founded by Yihwa Sreng and Chim

Vichea.

"I am like the father with 168 children," says Vichea, a heavily-tattooed

philanthropist who spent 11 years running a similar program in Takaeo province before

returning to his homeland in 2000.

Sitting in his workshop Vichea says all his family now live abroad and it is only

his desire to help the underprivileged that keeps him in Cambodia. Since he was taught

carving by a foreigner at the age of 15, Vichea has dedicated his life to passing

on the skills to young students.

"The people that use their hands to carve, they forget about their drug cravings,"

he says.

Many people in Battambang province speak of a rise in drug use and the number of

"gangsters" in recent times. Kong Hua says her two sons, 22-year old Bek

Chanrith and 20-year old Bek Chanty, used to buy the meta-amphetamine yama with the

money they earned laboring.

"I was very unhappy at that time," Hua says. "I tried to advise them

to be good people, but it was very hard."

Chim Vichea has devoted his life to teaching young people traditional carving skills and now plays "father" to 168 underpriveledged people in a center near Battambang.

When her husband quit his job driving a remorque-moto to join the carving project

at Sampov Mountain, he encouraged his sons to get involved. Now, the whole family

lives at the Morodak centre and Hua travels to the foot of the mountain every day

to cook lunch for the workers. She hopes that her boys will stay away from drugs

and that she can eventually pay back money the family borrowed during hard times.

Money is also on Chim Vichea's mind. At the moment the center survives on the profits

from carvings, support from his family in America and local contributions, but Vichea

wants to buy a bigger plot of land that can better accommodate his adopted family.

"It's not just me that has a high ideal, it's all of us," he says gesturing

to other adult members, his "brothers and sisters", who sit around a heavy

carved wood table. "We want to be independent and live in a peaceful way."

Vichea laughs that he is too ignorant to know about writing funding proposals and

isn't really sure how to use the center's email address, but says he would be grateful

for any support.

"If some people, Cambodians or foreigners, want to give a small donation it's

their good deed, it's up to them," he says.

But for those that do, he promises their names will be carved into the cliff face

of Boat Mountain and inscribed into a golden book.

To find out more, visit the Morodak Angkor Centre, group 1, Anlong Vill village,

Battambang or call the center on 016851578, 012998236 or 012716811.

(Translation by Kong Jian)

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