By Gaby Orwick
Siem Reap is a special place. The famous Angkor complex is not only an UNESCO World Heritage Site but also a #1 tourist destination. It’s an absolutely remarkable place – astounding architecture, mesmerizing light and towering trees enveloping ancient ruins, out of this world! No wonder millions come to visit each year.
What was surprising to learn was that little of the tourism-generated funds fuel the local economy (appears most revenue flows back to foreign investors and the government), and Siem Reap is home to 4 slums, largely hidden from the tourists’ eyes. It’s a heart-breaking sight of poverty. Yet the kind welcome and brilliant smiles are enchanting and we were quick to fall in love with the beautiful people. The kids stole our hearts, and gave us the gift of wonderful memories.
We are deeply grateful to our homestay host James Bun “007,” who not only offered an excellent stay with his family, but also showed us around, and helped us arrange the StudioEverywhere art project at the Khmer for Khmer Organization in the neighborhood slum.
We dutifully bought supplies from a downtown paper kiosk. We expected ~25 kids to join us – the orphanage residents and some of the local kids who participate in an after-school English program. We were prepared for ~50 and had ample paper, paint and pencils to leave behind. It was thrilling and overwhelming – kids piled up along the wobbly wooden benches from every room and corner of the school yard.
We estimated about 70 in all, but who’s counting. We got help from a couple other guests and volunteers, and the kids were quite independent, going for it before we even finished introducing the project. It quickly drew dark, but that didn’t slow them down. Self-portraits and fruit and landscapes generously decorated the school-house walls. The director helped split the snacks, too, and we cherished the hugs and laughter, sending us off in the night.
Each and every time we do the project we can’t believe just how fortunate we are to share art with children around the world.