From left, Touch Nimith, community development, Prum Siyem, health organiser, Leb Sim, educational assistant, Jef Moons, CEO, Cok Chanthorn, livelihood and tourism, and Ly Rattana, agriculture and livelihood. Photo by Stuart Alan Becker
The key to engaging villagers is an open heart ... it strengthens the community and promotes harmony.
A woman makes cloth at the Eco-Weave Centre
Widow and mother of five Chet Chov, 49, deeply appreciates the support the team has given.
All staff members receive good salaries, free food, free housing and training by high-end managers.
HIGH-END resort Knai Bang Chatt in the southern resort city of Kep is taking 3 percent and more of its gross revenue to fund a wide-ranging series of NGO projects in Chamcar Bei village, 17 kilometres beyond the hills.
The objective is self-sustainability and private ownership for the villagers. The area was one of the last holdouts of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as the country was liberated by Hun Sen and the Vietnamese army.
It all started when Jef Moons and fellow Belgian, art dealer Boris Vervoordt, took a holiday in Siem Reap in 2003 to look at Cambodian art. At the top of Angkor Wat they saw a rainbow around the sun and learned the Khmer language term for it was Thngay Baing Chhat or for them better to pronounce, “Knai Bang Chatt” – and took it as a positive sign.
With an additional three days remaining of their holiday, they took a taxi on a whim to Kep and ended up buying a collection of beachside burned-out buildings that had been ravaged by the war, including a former governor’s residence.
They went back home telling their parents that they bought real estate in Cambodia. After nearly eight years in Cambodia, Moons has received Khmer citizenship, has an adopted son and proudly displays his Cambodian ID card.
“You cannot enjoy Cambodia without sharing with the people here in this country,” Moons said.
As they were developing the beachside resort, Moons met David Pred of the NGO Bridges Across Borders and asked for help in developing a workable plan of how to make a difference in the lives of the villagers of Chamcar Bei.
The cooperation between Knai Bang Chatt Resort and Bridges Across Borders to support the Chamcar Bei villagers began in 2006 with 550 families and 2,500 people.
Today the project involves 600 families and 3,000 people. In 2011 they will start taking on a second village bordering Chamcar Bei.
“Here in Cambodia I can share how I want to be and this is how I found happiness in Cambodia,” Moons said. “The joy that I receive from the Cambodians rejuvenates me in full.
“I was extremely lucky that I found the right operational partner and we now share the project.”
“We run our five-year sustainable-development program as if it were a company and 100 percent of any donations go straight to the Khmer people. The whole program is community based with a bottom-to-top approach. We work in a holistic fashion and are mindful to work within the capacities of the villagers.”
Education was identified as the most important element in a three-pillar strategy along with income generation and health.
“The ultimate aim is that all the kids in our village are educated,” Moons said. “We’re about half way there and I feel we’ve been very successful. Every day we make differences in people’s lives.”
On a trip to Chamcar Bei on January 11, five full-time, educated, English-speaking Khmer project leaders joined in a discussion of the programs underway at the vocational training center, a cluster of buildings surrounded by farmland and gardens.
This area boasts a weaving center called Eco Weave and a retail outlet for locally handcrafted goods, some of it called “funky junk”. These items are also sold at the beach resort in Kep and other shops in Phnom Penh.
Program manager for community development Touch Nimith, from Rattankiri, said the key to engaging the villagers was an open heart – not only with the NGO workers, but with the villagers as well.
“When they open their hearts to express themselves, it not only builds their livelihoods, but also strengthens the community,” Touch Nimith said.
“I’ve seen behavior and attitudes change here, through community based organisation.”
While some of the families are receptive to support, some are not.
“Some families don’t want to change,” Touch Nimith said.
After seven months in Chamcar Bei, project coordinator Prum Siyen, from Preahviear province, enjoys working with the villagers in community health for the Family Dream program.
“Some of the people here are former Khmer Rouge and some of them are disabled,” he said.
“They have changed their hygiene – now they use latrines which they made by themselves. In the past, the poor families we helped were scared – but now they are not scared.”
In the Family Dream program there are 46 families and the focus is on helping them find ways of getting what they desire to have a better life.
“In my mind, it is important to change the ‘aid mindset’ and it is very hard to cause change. We always make friends with them, stay close, talk and spend time. Slowly, one family influences the other,” Prum Siyen said.
Education assistant Leb Sim from Kompot supports the Chamcar Bei School, known as Our School, that has a computer lab, library and kindergarten. “I’ve seen a few changes already so far,” Leb Sim said. “Many students dropped out before – but now many students have continued their studies.”
One thing that helps is the fact that learning materials are provided and teachers are more easily retained now because they get an extra salary and follow our stricter guidelines.
Three schools and a vocational training center are supported by the program, with Our School as the English School and two other nearby government schools where the level of education has improved considerably.
Now the children can go to school as their mothers can work in the program and earn money. Agriculture and livelihood project coordinator Ly Rattana, from Kampot, who has been working in Cham Car Bei for more than a year, sees a lot of lives being transformed by farming.
With a natural green thumb, Ly Rattana is one of the most important figures to the villagers because he improves people’s knowledge of animal raising, agricultural matters and provides seeds for corn, pumpkins, squash, long beans, watermelons and other vegetables.
Ly Rattana also conducts monthly meetings. “Before, no one was interested … now we have 16 families,” he said. Three of the villagers involved in growing vegetables are disabled.
Livelihood and tourism coordinator Sok Chanthorn, from Srayrieng province, helps the villagers make combined earnings from US$500 to $600 per month in sales of hats, scarves, bags, coconut jewellery and woven containers made of discarded plastic, or “funky junk”.
The items are also sold via the internet and at hotels in Kep.
One special woman who has benefited from all the NGO support around Chamcar Bei is Chet Chov, 49, a widow with one son and four daughters. Since her husband died three years ago of a heart attack, life has been a struggle taking care of her children alone.
The Chamcar Bei team helped her rebuild her house, install a latrine and a well. Even though growing vegetables, making and selling brooms and taking care of her daughters is not easy, she’s happy about the help she’s had. Her home is an oasis in the fields and though her face is careworn, it is easy to she her commitment to the success of her children.
She makes brooms to sell and raise money for her family. There are banana trees and chickens all around her small house. She said she’s ‘tired all the time’ but otherwise happy.
Following a 20-minute drive over the hills of lush green vegetation, beyond roadside homes and farms and down to the sea, Moons’ resort at Knai Bang Chatt and Sailing Club comes into view. “We promote ourselves as being a humanitarian resort,” Moons said.
Rooms at Knai Bang Chatt cost $101 and $268 per night for residents of Cambodia or up to $350 for the best room for international clients.
“We built this as a private holiday house – a private home for those who want to have the best. We don’t sell rooms but private experiences,” Moons said.
With 45 staff, 11 rooms and a sailing club, Moons wants guests to return home with a good memory of Cambodia. “I want people to say they’ve had the best private time ever.” Moons is consistent about giving 3 percent of the turnover to Chamcar Bei. The guests know they are staying in a humanitarian resort and it helps business.
The context is different from the standard paradigm of a moneymaking resort owned by a corporation – all the guests know that part of their money is going to support people who live nearby. As far as showing how you can develop a business in Cambodia that has a built-in way of caring for poor villagers all around, Moons says you must have respect for people and you need to grow slowly.
“Move like a little raindrop in a river and slowly grow stronger with all the water around you,” he said.
“All our employees have good salary, free food, free housing and insurance, as well as professional training by high-end managers. If somebody works here for six months, they can work anywhere in Cambodia.“Also at the resort we have people trained from our village and after six months’ training we send them to university if they like.”
The people who stay at Knai Bang Chatt are about 50 percent from Phnom Penh and 50 percent from overseas. Our internet bookings are growing but we mostly like to work with all the professional travel agencies here in Cambodia.
Moons and ream have organised a fourth Annual Kep Trio Marathon with bicycles, walking and running, on February 19 and 20, together with Hand in Hand Cambodia as a way to raise money and connect visitors with the project. Registration for the event may be done online at: http://babcambodia.org/keptrio/