February, 8, 2015. Arrived, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The first thing to hit our senses was the sweet smell of incense. It permeated the warm air, and had a mellowing effect on our very tired bodies. Cambodia is rich in beauty - lotus flowers, colorful lights at night, delicious Khmer food - even the sunsets were beautifully different than the ones we are familiar with here.
We were quickly immersed in visits to historical sites combined with stops at a wide variety of development projects with Ratanak International involvement. We experienced two contrasting sides of Cambodia; the darkness and the beauty, the tragedy and the hope, the trauma and the healing. One of these contrasts was the tension between chaos and renewal.
CONTRAST BETWEEN CHAOS AND RENEWAL
Coming from a country where standards and systems are the foundation and fabric of everyday living, Cambodia is very different. There are no systems or controls. In this void, corruption thrives. We witnessed the most intense expression of this chaos during our visit to Toul Slang Museum, the preserved interrogation prison used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and kill thousands between 1975 - 79. Brian McConaghy, Founder of Ratanak Int'l, was our host. He first came here 25 years ago in 1990 with the C&MA and his anecdotes and information added so much colour to the trip. As we entered he prepared us: "don't try to make sense of this…" It was unimaginable - a brutal reign of violence and evil, carefully cataloged in photos, records and even art commissioned by the Khmer Rouge.
At another point in our trip, we visited an organization called the Chab Dai Coalition - Chab Dai literally means, 'joining hands'. The head of Chab Dai was a dynamic ex-pat named Helen Sworn. Upon arriving in Cambodia 16 years ago, she observed many NGO's doing great work, but with no coordination. She pointed out: to fight a highly sophisticated network of evil, it must be met with an equally or more sophisticated network for good. Chab Dai was founded to unite NGOs fighting human trafficking and collaborate on best practices, and strategy.
9 years ago, their trafficking prevention program was launched. The program is run by national Khmer leaders. One of the simple yet successful parts of the program is a business card they distribute with a "Kids Help Phone" number to call in the event of being trafficked. They receive hundreds of calls annually from all over Asia, and even as far as South Africa. Last year's Buy Art Not Kids Art Auction 2014 fully funded this amazing program. Our hearts were brimming with excitement hearing about this program, actively combatting the chaos and renewing Cambodia.