APAC Planet Water Trip, 4th to 5th December 2017, Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia

With Cambodia having one of the highest number of charities per capita in the world, we were lucky to have found a partner in Planet Water, an organisation that focuses on addressing clean water issues across the globe, with a focus on South and Southeast Asia.

Our partnership with Planet Water is part of our commitment to Clean Water and Sanitation, and our drive towards helping communities across Asia have access to clean water and reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases and mortality.

As part of the partnership, 10 Expedians from across APAC were chosen (from an application pool of around 100) to venture to two Planet Water sites to help build a water tower and provide fundamental water education to remote and underprivileged schools and communities.

So, on 4th and 5th December 2017, the Expedians from across the region (Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore) and across business units (Hotel Management, Hotel Acquisition, Hotel Operations, Brand E-Commerce, Brand Creative, Technology, and CSR) converged in Siem Reap to help create good and make a difference to two communities in the rural Cambodia outskirts of Preah Vihear Province.

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Most of the Expedians had never met each other before let alone worked with each other, giving additional flavour to the two day journey we would all shortly depart on. We enjoyed a pleasant pre-project team dinner at a local restaurant, and the bonding began – not too difficult a task as all Expedians dedicated time from their hectic schedules to give back to society, something that draws like-minded people together with ease.

Journeying to Cambodia’s outskirts

We set off the next morning on our three-hour drive from the flashing lights and dense traffic of Siem Reap to the deep countryside of Cambodia, where the open iron-filled dusty red roads showed little sign of disturbance. When they did, the hue of dust that kicked up from passing vehicles filled the surrounding environment, somewhat mimicking the one-metre visibility that drivers often experience, which caused our driver to slow down in consideration for our safety.

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As we stared outside the windows of our robust yet rickety minibus, we had a small peak into the lives of the our Southeast Asian neighbours, who lived in homemade wooden structures, probably made from trees they had timbered themselves, and often with just one large room that constituted bedroom, living room and kitchen.

These homes, fundamental but beautiful in their own right, were raised on wooden stilts, presumably to protect their worldly possessions in the event of flooding, or avoid the pesky mosquitoes and other bugs that lurked in the surrounding grasslands beneath. One man squatted down beside the running stream that lay adjacent to his home, cupping his hands and filling them with brown silty water, raising them gently to prevent any spillage and maximise water intake, then rinsing his mouth and expelling the water back into the stream.

This image reminded us of the purpose of our trip, and how lucky we were to have clean running water, as well as concrete homes filled with multiple rooms, the luxury of furniture and appliances, and often unnecessary and an oversupply of possessions.

After a long ride, a warm welcome ensued

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We arrived at our first school, recognised through the signboard and tall open wooden gateway that guided the path into the school premises, as well as the hundreds of school children all dressed in white shirts and black skirts or pants. The children were all lined up and applauded our arrival, as if we were celebrities at an award ceremony. Although it’s likely they didn’t know why they were clapping, it was a nice moment bringing them all together and reiterating why Cambodians are so warm and welcoming as they had been taught this from a very young age.

The children were of varying ages, some looking as young as four, others being up to 10. Upon closer observation, their seemingly black and white uniforms were in fact not uniform in nature at all. Each student had an unique style and even shade of clothing. Some had branding above their left breast pockets that looked like they were local automotive mechanics, whilst one little boy who couldn’t have been more than five years old, adorned an air of sophistication with his tweed blazer and pocket handkerchief, accompanied by his ragged white shorts and battered black shoes.

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Amazingly, we later learnt that the students only attend school for four hours a day and on a morning-afternoon monthly rotation basis. Due to the limited resources of teaching staff and government funding, more substantial teaching was just not possible.

After the warm welcome, we were briefed on the project by our Planet Water supervisor, including some information on the 250 or so primary school children and 1,500 strong surrounding community that the new water tower would serve, as well as a health and safety briefing to ensure we handle the tools and metallic structures appropriately and safely.

Now equipped with some basic knowledge, and under the supervision of the site engineers, we broke into two groups to start our construction efforts – one to build the physical tower, one to assemble the sinks and accessories for the children to access the water.

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The teams worked efficiently and together as one, quickly learning how each piece of the puzzle fit with the next. The almost Ikea-esque approach was seemingly purposely designed as such to make manufacture scalable and assembly on the ground straightforward and rapid. In record time, we had completed the respective tasks, and everything had neatly come together.

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Hard helmets on and calling upon our collective might, we raised the tower together, feeling a sense of pride, but more so feeling a sense of joy that this community would soon have clean water. The real engineers then did their double checks and stabilised the tower to become a fixture that would sustain life in the community for years to come.

Meanwhile, a subset of Expedians were hard at work helping to educate the children on water safety and hygiene issues, utilising games involving water-borne viruses chasing the other children across the playground, and a nostalgic Sesame Street mat with various icons depicting what may be hazardous and what is safe in terms of water. After these fun and interactive sessions, the children were all led to the tower and formed one large multi-layered circle around the structure, staring at it, possibly in awe and bemusement, and possibly due to the novelty.

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A monk (who was patiently waiting on the sidelines) was then called upon to bless the new addition, walking counter-clockwise around the tower whilst splashing small amounts of blessed water on the tower. The children started to surround the raised platform that grounded the tower, all whilst chanting a blessing to ensure longevity and purpose.

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A small handover ceremony was conducted, with the Expedia team handing over a certificate to the local community leader, a stout middle aged man dressed in his best shirt and gleaming smile. In return, the school had prepared a traditional straw mat – that is used in local communities as a mattress – quaintly decorated with the painted handprints of the children and communist members, and a colourful thank you note to Expedia, a lovingly crafted piece much appreciated by the team.

Amidst a round of applause and photographs with the children, a small display of firecrackers and confetti marked the monumental moment for us all. After packing up our equipment and saying our fond farewells and thanks, we departed for our residence for that evening. After an hour or so, we arrived in a remote town, which seemed like one extensively long road flanked by a scattering of family owned shops and restaurants, a large bank building painted garishly blue, and our hotel, a surprisingly substantial establishment with five floors and approaching a hundred rooms, despite the evidently low foot traffic in the town.

We settled in and explored a little down the road finding a local open restaurant with beautiful long wooden tables made from a single tree and stumps of trunks for stools. The food was fresh and sumptuous, culinary delights specific to the province we were in. We then returned to the hotel, and as the sky bar had yet to be inaugurated, we created our own sky bar on the terrace, buying some local beverages from the local bottle shop at less than a dollar each, and reflected upon the day, discussed Cambodian politics, future plans for giving  back to society, amongst some other amusing stories under the light of the stars and our iPhones!

The journey continues

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The next day, we rose early for a 7am departure to the next community. This community was larger and seemed relatively more sophisticated, but still very much in need. The school also seemed to act as a communal place of gathering, with the mothers and elders of the community hanging out nearby the water tower site, with some of their basic housing a few metres away, and their colourful clothing similarly hanging out on their makeshift clothes lines.

Now that we were veritable “experts” (!), we quickly got to work. We rotated our groups and repeated the construction and education program, with the construction being doubly as efficient, the team managing to erect the tower in record fashion. This time, we were blessed to be blessed by not one, not even two, but three monks, who walked in their anti-clockwise, water splashing circles once again. This handover ceremony involved a prepared speech from the community head all in Khmer, of which the team didn’t understand a word, and only catching “Expedia” on a couple of occasions, but it was well received by our local Planet Water engineers as well as the adults of the community.

Giving time, humility, and compassion

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The day and projects had ended with each tower now providing 1,000 litres of water, serving the 500 school children and few thousand community members. Again the team felt a sense of achievement and giving back, but more importantly had obtained some insight and understanding into the issues and plight that are faced by so many people in developing countries every second of every day. They had learnt and gained further humility and compassionate, and will be taking these stories and feelings back with them to their own countries and offices to share with friends and colleagues, to raise awareness and create our own sense of community, appreciation, tolerance and, if people so choose, empowerment for others to also contribute, in whatever way they are able and happy to.

Overwhelmingly, a wonderful and heartfelt experience, with meaning, purpose and discovery, with also bonding and joviality amongst like minded people. From Korean-looking Cambodian babies and seat stealing or family teamwork cats, to pre-dinner water conservation and lack of showering, to impromptu sky bars and milk night caps, to plentiful photos, an amazing spiritual and humanity exploration journey was had by all.

#ExpediaAPAC #ExpediaCares

By Jason Chuei