Sitting in the aptly named Kitchen of Hope, it is hard to believe such a tranquil place was once the site of tragedy.
The enterprise, which is run by New Zealander Sue Thompson, officially opened last week to provide 100 vegetarian meals to needy children and families twice a week as well as jobs and community education in the kitchen.
“This is not just a kitchen – it is hope for a better life,” Thompson says. “By creating a community kitchen, we create jobs and hope.”
The Kitchen of Hope has changed her life as much as it’s changing those of the people she is helping.
Thompson came to Siem Reap for four days in July, and she hasn’t left since. But the kitchen is just one part of a bigger picture. It’s situated on the grounds of the Cambodia War Remnants Museum, on the way to the temples.
“This is military land and this would not happen if I did not have the support of the military,” Thompson says.
“I am honoured to be the first social enterprise that they have backed and supported with this community kitchen project.”
Set 200 metres back from the main road, the peaceful site belies the grizzly reminders of its war-torn past. Displays of land mines, guns, bullet casings and other war paraphernalia have almost all been sourced from the 1.5 hectare site – a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and a Vietnamese army base.
It is also one of many killing fields located around the country. Museum director Rattana Soun says 121 skulls were recovered from the site.
Soun set up the museum with the aim that profits would go back to those living in the villages surrounding the museum and the ancient temples. The former Khmer Rouge child soldier lost both his parents and many family members to the Khmer Rouge. In 1989, he stepped on a landmine in Pailin and lost a leg.
In the kitchen, the words to the Beatles song Imagine are written on a white board, reflecting Soun’s dreams for the future.
He is fully supportive of Thompson’s initiative and believes the kitchen builds relationships, while also providing education: teaching people about hygiene and how to look after their health.
Under his rules, children can only attend classes in the kitchen if they attend their regular schooling.
The site is a community collaboration. Volunteers have planted vegetables in a kitchen garden and more than 140 trees around the site.
It’s an atmosphere of giving and sharing, learning and support. It fits well with the museum’s mission to be a place of healing for bodies, hearts and minds.
Already, Thompson is starting to feel redundant. She says staff push her out of the way in the kitchen.
“They are taking over, and that’s what I wanted,” she says. “You want to empower [people], you don’t want to make them dependent on you, that just makes you feel good.”