– UN-SEEN – How it all began

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This country has touched me at my very core. As a human being, mother, sociologist, coach, and photographer.

My first experience of Cambodia takes place in 2011-2012, at the end of our grand tour of Southeast Asia.

As we travel through Laos and the north and south of Vietnam, there is no escaping the Vietnam War – known over there as the American War – which took place between 1965 and 1975. Laos is dreadfully poor, having been left with a broken infrastructure to this day. Per capita, it is the most heavily bombed country in the world. In Vietnam, a lot of hard work has been put in. Still, plenty of reminders of that devastating war remain. The country’s recovery is still ongoing.

We sail across the Mekong, from Vietnam over into Cambodia. The country’s recent history is heart-wrenching. We mainly recall the Khmer Rouge, who used brute force in their attempt to set Cambodia back to Year Zero by transforming it into an Agrarian state. The Killing Fields are etched in our memory.

Thanks to Angkor Wat’s unique temples, it is still clearly visible just how grand this country was, more than a thousand years ago. And today? Today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a fast-growing population. It currently stands at around 16 million, 50% of whom are under the age of 21. Evidence of the country’s French colonial history can be seen in the city of Phnom Penh and on the coast. Cambodia is largely dominated by agriculture.

In Phnom Penh we are confronted with the genocide museum and the Killing Fields, along with the palace and the national museum. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Wikipedia offers a good introduction to Cambodia:

Meeting Vann

It all starts when I first encounter Vann, in January 2012. He is our tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh. He speaks good English, and offers to give us a tour of the city. It is hot and humid, and I am more than happy to be chauffeured around. After the tour, we invite him to join us for a beer.

This is followed by a visit to the impressive Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former school where 2,000 people were tortured before subsequently being murdered in the Killing Fields. These atrocities were committed by the Khmer Rouge. I am somewhat aware of what took place, but the confrontation is more intense than I had expected.

Another beer is shared.

That’s when Vann tells us about the bombing raid that struck his family and their village. I look up – a bombing raid? When?

It is January 1970 and, at ten days old, Vann has only just entered the world. A US bomber drops napalm bombs onto his family’s farm, killing five of his brothers and sisters. They burn before managing to reach the shelter. Their home, their belongings – everything is destroyed.

It is only when he is about eight years old that he finds out, for the first time, that he had had five more brothers and sisters. He also speaks of how it is something he has never understood. Why? He even wrote a letter to the American embassy. He is still awaiting their reply.

We fly homewards. Vann’s story continues to haunt me. It would be another seven years before we eventually decide, together, to capture his story in images.

We stay in touch and, in 2012, enter into the shared adventure that is Cambodia Personal Assistant – a network of tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers.

Cambodia Personal Assistant

During that initial encounter, Vann also tells us about his life in Phnom Penh. About how he labors away to put his three children through school.

I’m impressed by his knowledge of the city and the country, and by the extent of the introduction he offers us as guests, a real glimpse behind the scenes. Always attentive and willing to help.

In everyday life I am primarily a sociologist, working as an executive and business coach. Could I perhaps help him and his colleagues to lift their tuk-tuk business to the next level? To make them less reliant on third parties, who claim a percentage of every client’s payment? To myself provide access to the Western market? I do some research into the possibilities in Cambodia, and email Vann with a proposition.

I return to Phnom Penh in May. What follows is three weeks of talking, brainstorming, choosing a logo, having tuk-tuks made, arranging laptops, drawing up contracts, and granting loans. Vann and I rent a car, and pass through one beautiful location after the other.

Together, Vann, Da and I establish Cambodia Personal Assistant. Vann and Da are co-founders. They have built up a network of colleagues, working together throughout the whole country. I meet most of them. What we have is a strong concept, and we are keen to get to work.

Our expectations vary widely. They are left thinking: where are our clients, we’re ready for them! My thoughts, on the other hand: come on, lads, go out and do something!

We fail to settle our differences.

Setting eyes on Bosthlan Village

In May 2012, Vann, his family, and I drive from Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh. A six-hour journey, along 200 miles of rough roads.

Vann is keen to show me his village, which our route will take us past. He hopes that his mother is home. We turn off the only major road in the area, and follow the dirt road that leads to Bosthlan Village. He gives his sister a call and alas, they aren’t at home. We drive on, all the same.

We arrive at a handsome house, with a large, enclosed yard. The gate is open. Before I know it, Vann is giving me a tour of the grounds.

Home of the Nget family

The humming of a generator can be heard, as there is no electricity in the village. There is a well, in the absence of running water. We pass through a gate at the rear of the house.

Vann leads the way, pointing out the spots where the bombs had fallen. The craters are hard to miss. They are at least six feet deep, covered with banana trees, bushes and grass. It’s a bizarre sight.

The yard is empty, apart from a few spots where some sort of waste has been burned. Vann sits down on a tree stump: Look, this is roughly where the entrance to the shelter would have been.

Some of Vann’s relatives are busy picking bunches of bananas, mangos, and the stinky fruit durian. I notice that these family members do greet each other, but without approaching one another. Vann mentions his brother-in-law and tells me about their transport company. He seems surprised at the sight of two parked trucks. He points towards the houses of yet more relatives, still not knocking on any doors.

We resume our long drive to Phnom Penh, arriving there late at night.

Meeting Vann’s mother, Khun Ann

Christmas holidays, 2012. We are traveling around Cambodia again, having brought our family along this time. Under Vann’s guidance, we pay a visit to Bosthlan Village. We drive there from Phnom Penh, making a few stops along the way. We stop over in Oudong, the country’s former capital, not far from Phnom Penh. We wander through the market in Skuon, where wolf spiders and other insects are fried and sold as food. We shudder at the thought.

Tired and hungry, we arrive in Bosthlan Village. We are given a warm welcome by Vann’s sister Oun and her daughter. They have prepared an elaborate meal for us. Some dishes we recognize, others not so much.

Vann takes us on a tour of the yard. There they are, the craters. Just look how deep they are! The fruit trees, the ripe bananas. The yard is still empty, with a burned spot here and there. We are introduced to his sister Ry and her husband. They joke around with each other and with us.

Back at Oun’s house, where Khun Ann now also arrives – an old, fragile lady in her eighties. She approaches us and we are introduced. As is customary in Cambodia, we make a slight bow to her. She sits with us, slightly awkwardly, and begins to rearrange the food that’s still on the table. We get out our iPad and show her the pictures of her family in Ratanakiri. Other relatives come in from the yard to take a look as well. Vann enthusiastically tells them about the trip to Ratanakiri and their cousins’ cashew plantation. We take pictures of both of our families.

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