Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Category: Community Development

Malaysia: What I hope others knew

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the…

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the rural life in Kota Marudu and Kudat, that’s the tip of Borneo if you were wondering. My family and I travel two to three hours to get to these places, bunk in a hostel with bare basic amenities (fan, cold shower and toilets that don’t flush properly) and spend a few days there building relationships and mentoring youth and children.

FullSizeRender_1

Kota Marudu, the second ‘rice bowl’ of Sabah after Kota Belud. Paddy fields aplenty!

As a West Malaysian, I spent most of my life living in urban Petaling Jaya where houses are neatly lined, where cars rule the road and where shopping malls sprout like fresh shoots. I was driven to school by my parents and I barely had to use any public transport until I started working. I enjoyed eating out and trying new food joints and never had to worry about my next meal. As a child I enjoyed family holidays abroad, as a teenager I had the opportunity to study overseas and as a young adult, I had enough savings to feed my wanderlust occasionally.

beach kudat

One of the many hidden beaches near Kudat

While I grew up in this environment, I was never sheltered from the world beyond mine. I was actively participating in community work in remote areas, going to places where the need is undeniable and where basic necessities are not commonly met. These short trips gave me a glimpse into the rural life – the life where many urbanites don’t even know of or have experienced. And because urbanites have not seen or experienced it, it’s hard to empathise or even tell others about it.

As I travel to the village every week with my husband, my almost-three-year-old son and a baby in my belly, I’m reminded of how great a privilege we have to see and experience Malaysia as a whole and not just Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya or the big cities. It helps me to appreciate our country for what she has to offer, not just the polished side and to connect with the very people that makes this nation a multi-cultural wonder. Did you know that Sabah has over 20 ethnic groups and Sarawak over 40 ethnic groups? What incredible diversity this country has!

IMG_5387

Pure joy! Playing with kampung children despite the sweltering evening heat.

So as we travel weekly into the interiors and sometimes off the beaten path to explore Sabah’s hidden treasures, I hope to pass these lessons on to my children:

  • That we are birthed in a country for a reason. We are Malaysians for a purpose, find out what it is and stop looking outward for a better life, a fatter paycheck or an easy way out.
  • There will be people that have it better than us, but there are a lot more people that have it worst of – learn to appreciate what is given to us and never complain until you have tried hard enough to find a solution.
  • There is beauty in the simple life. The greatest things in life are not things.
IMG_2908

Beauty in the interiors – you don’t have to look hard.

As embarrassing as it sounds, I feel that I know very little about East Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak) – her different indigenous cultures, way of life, language and hidden paths. This has challenged my adventurous spirit to get on it and to see more. As an avid traveler, I hope to pass these thoughts on to other travelers:

  • Explore your own country at some point in life because the journey can be a real reflection of you as a citizen.
  • Where possible, travel independently – go off the beaten track into narrow alleys and dust roads. There you will see the places for what it is; exposed, as is and authentic.
  • If you’re only used to only traveling in luxury or five-star comforts, take up the challenge of going for a more rugged option. It will change your perspective on life and allow you a glimpse outside your bubble.
  • If you are traveling with children, it is your responsibility to give them the opportunity to peer into the lens of a bigger world out there. Take them on a volunteering trip or a community development program.
Playing gasing_ardent traveler

Kampung children playing traditional gasing (tops)

3 Comments on Malaysia: What I hope others knew

Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

Cambodia countryside

Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

Heritage Suites

The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

Heritage Suites 3

The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

Heritage Suites 1 Heritage Suites 2

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

Heritage Suites

Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

Kim Hiv Heritage Suites

After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

No Comments on Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

A Closer Look: Yea Or Nay To Elephant Rides

It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along…

Elephant Mondulkiri_8

It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along sure footed as ever over the wide open plateau, passing through endless forest covered hills and down incredibly steep slopes. The hilly landscape of Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s eastern province is beautiful yet unforgiving.

Elephant_Mondulkiri 1

I dodged the occasional menacing branch that came head on as the elephant continued along the path where sounds of the rushing river roared. It was about 45 minutes into the ride and my bottom was starting to get sore from the bumpy ride. My knuckles were a certain white from the mighty grip I kept along the exhilarating journey. The adventure was just beginning, for the elephant, that is. Poun, my elephant was taken into the rushing river for a bath. It looked fun as he splashed around and enjoyed the free scrub by his mahout. All of this sounded rather picture perfect for a wildlife experience. But as curiosity warrants, I gathered some answers to some probing questions that make the Case of The Elephant Ride.

Elephant_Mondulkiri 2

You see having been involved in the business of sustainability, I have been trained to ask questions. Questions that most tourists would not ask. These questions helped me make informed decisions on whether tourism has leave a positive or negative impact for communities and the environment.

The Elephant and His People

Elephant_Mondulkiri 7

Poun belongs to Mr. Hong, a native Bunong (Pnong) man. The Bunong tribe are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri. They are animistic in their beliefs and therefore have incredible respect for animals, trees and all living creation. Mr. Hong bought Poun from a shaman when the elephant was 10 years old. There was no money exchanged, instead it was a barter trade – 30 bulls for 1 male elephant. Mr. Hong had to bring together livestock from a few families to ‘purchase’ Poun.

Mr Hong tells me that the shaman is the only person capable of luring the elephant from the deep forest. Poun was a baby elephant when he was taken out. He was intentionally separated from his mother and left to wonder. The shaman conducted some spiritual rituals and was successful in leading the baby elephant out of the forest into the village. Poun then spent many years with the shaman where more spiritual rituals were conducted and the elephant was finally tame enough for a human master. It was then that Mr. Hong ‘bought’ Poun.

Elephants are a big part of the Bunong culture and lifestyle. Mr. Hong considers him more than just an animal, in many ways, Poun is part of the village community.

The Elephant and His Work

Elephant_Mondulkiri

Since the age of 10, Poun has been used as a ‘transporter’ for Mr. Hong and his family. Poun would take them on his back into the deep jungles to forage for food, cross rivers and carry bamboo and logs. Poun did a marvellous job, according to Mr. Hong. The elephant brought them to places where otherwise would take days to get to. Undoubtedly, it was also hard work for the elephant – steep terrains and heavy loads.

Today, Poun is used as a ‘transporter’ for tourists. He works up to 3-4 hours a day with meal breaks in between. The labour is probably not as intense as before but he still gets growled at by the mahout. During my elephant ride, I was quite disturbed at how the elephant was coerced to walk and move. My mahout, a young lad held a hard whip made of bamboo with a hard rubber ball hanging at the end. He was constantly threatening to whip the elephant if the animal did not respond immediately to his loud grunts and growls. There were moments where I thought it absolutely unnecessary for the mahout to be as demanding as he was. I watched carefully to see if the whip did end up on the elephant. Thankfully, I witnessed no whipping, but the rude commands were unsettling. I am no veterinarian to comment on the state of the elephant, but I personally did not see any wounds or bruises.

Poun’s working environment has been such for the last 20 odd years. He is 33 years old now.

The Elephant, Money and Well-being

Elephant_Mondulkiri 3

Poun helps provide for the family. With every tourist that come and participate in an elephant ride, the family gets about $25. There are now 4 elephants shared among a few families and the money is divided amongst them. Mr. Hong said, “Since I started this ecotourism activity, my children can now go to school and I have motorbike to go around Mondulkiri and we can now buy more meat from the market instead of eating vegetables and rice only.”

It seems like a win-win situation for all. The elephant works and is allowed a fair amount of free time to wander, his master gets fed, his master’s family is happy and tourists are happy. But as I pondered on the situation, I can’t help but realize that all of this is misfitting for the magnificent mammal.

Elephants are made for the wild with the freedom to road, chew on any bamboo branch until his heart’s content. Elephants that are taken from the wild have little chance of reproducing, stunting the elephant population. Elephants are great not just for its size and mighty ears, but its tusks. Tamed elephants have their tusks broken or sawed off to avoid fatal accidents.

In this case, it’s a win-lose situation and the loser is quite apparent.


Elephant_Mondulkiri 5

After the rugged trip into the jungle sitting on the mighty beast, I have come to an unresolved conclusion. A definite yes or no is unfair and difficult as there are so many factors to consider. It is easy for me as an ‘outsider’ to judge, critique and assess the way Mr. Hong lives and how the mahouts treat the elephants, yet it is more complex to fully understand the heritage, tradition and culture of the Bunong people (or any tribe for that matter). In this case, the elephant is an important part of their livelihood and who are we to criticise when in other cultures horses are trained to show jump, bulls are put to fight and dolphins are trained to jump through hoops.

I was not completely comfortable with the grunts and growls offered by my mahout to Poun, but I also witnessed how these mahouts genuinely cared for the elephants. I cannot fault that the elephants are really part of the village community and I choose to respect the Bunong people’s culture and acknowledge that this (in fact) their way of earning moolah. Would I ride on the elephant again? Perhaps not. But I did enjoy the experience and chance to be so close to such a magnificent mammal.

** Whether you are planning to ride on an elephant in Thailand, Cambodia or India, I would strongly advise tourists to look up the tour operator or organization you are engaging with and read up before making an informed decision to ride or not.  Each elephant case is specific, individual and closely linked to a certain destination and its community.

6 Comments on A Closer Look: Yea Or Nay To Elephant Rides

Mission Trip 2010: The Real Cambodia

A history of genocide, wars and devastation, it’s a wonder Cambodia and her people are still very much alive today. Still the stains of such history are seeing its ripple…

A history of genocide, wars and devastation, it’s a wonder Cambodia and her people are still very much alive today. Still the stains of such history are seeing its ripple effects in today’s generation. Statistics have shown that 51% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 18. And of this 51% not even half get a proper education. Many of them are forced to help their parents on the field, some of them are make it through only to primary school and there are those that are urged to beg and even sell their bodies for a meager dollar or two.

On our second night in Battambang, we had our dinner at a road side stall. Our tables were filled with food, drinks and more food to go around. We ate with much comfort relishing the delicious Cambodian meal and fruit shakes. After we satisfied our hunger, we stood up to leave. Within seconds of leaving our seats, a man in tattered clothing comes rushing to the table with an empty plastic bag pouring our leftovers into it. He scrapped the plates clean. Oblivious of our presence, his only focus was to get whatever food that was left before the stall owner comes shooing him away. I stopped at my tracks unable to comprehend the severity of hunger this man was facing. He retreated to a corner stuffing his face with a jumble leftover.

Regardless of how much I’ve travelled, seen different cultures, traditions, people and places and regardless of how many mission trips I’ve been too, my prayer is that I will never be immune to scenes of poverty, desperation and scarcity. Because compassion starts in the heart and compassion can move mountains.

Our Sunday in Cambodia was spent traveling to four different churches ministering to adults and children. Two teams travelled on motorbikes for over 50 kilometers on a dusty gravelly road. The other two teams travelled by van to the other two churches. These churches were simple, some just under a tree, one church under a wooden shack and one in a make-shift church. Simplicity and sincerity was very apparent. There was no sound system, LCD screens, big pulpits, ushers, leaflets or anything of that sort. It was merely the gathering of His people in a place sharing fellowship and feeding from God’s word. Isn’t that what church is about?!

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (1)

I sincerely believe that there is hope for Cambodia. This generation of 51% under the age of 18 is a God given generation with God given destinies and futures. They have talent and skills just like you and I – the only thing lacking are opportunities. But opportunities are not far-fetched, it’s coming to Cambodia and I hope to see the fruits of it one day.

No Comments on Mission Trip 2010: The Real Cambodia

Mission Trip 2010: Reaching Out & Giving Aid

The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories….

The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories. Touching down in Siem Reap, we travelled four hours on a local bus to Battambang. Packed with over 40kgs of old clothes, medical supplies and a vague sense of what to expect, our team of a doctor and four medical students, 10 professionals and a little girl (Vanora) and set out to make medical aid possible for the rural village folk.

We met up with Pastor Sam of Legacy of Hope, an English language institute that offers quality education to children and youth. He brings us around the school, a few simple blocks of tiny classrooms with ceilings low enough to make you feel claustrophobic. Students stare at us intently offering welcoming smiles and respectful bows as we peeked in.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (5)

Prior to our arrival, Pastor Sam had organized the purchase of medicines and prepared a group of local translators to help us with the medical camp. We spent the rest of the day sorting, counting, packing and labelling medicines into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, many questions still hung in the air as we travelled another hour into interiors of the country side– ‘How many people will come?’, ‘How will the response be?’, ‘What will we encounter?’, ‘Will we be able to cope with the numbers?’… To add to the sea of questions, it was the first time a medical team has visited this particular village.

A multitude of people were found waiting at the entrance of the school, the temporary ‘hospital’ for the next 2 days. Along the way as our van approached, groups of people were seen walking towards the school, some pulling wooden carts to ferry their children, others dragging their little ones by the finger in hope to get some medicines for their ailing bodies.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (2)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (16)

Children walked around with torn clothes, some half-naked and most of them without any shoes or slippers. Their hair streaked with a light tinge of blonde not from hair dye but as a result of severe malnutrition. Old women and men offer a smile to welcome us and I’m overcome by the sight of decaying and charcoal black teeth. I returned a smile with my best effort trying to hide the feelings that overcome me – feelings of empathy and despair.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (6)

In a place like Cambodia, cleanliness and hygiene is a concept hard to grasp or even understand. These people have so little to survive much less spare a few dollars to buy toothpaste or soap for bathing. They live on bare minimum, a shade above their head and enough to fill their stomachs. Finger nails packed with dirt are trimmed manually by biting on it. Water is a precious natural resource since it rains for 6 months and not even a drop for the next half of the year. And in those dry seasons, water is used for cooking rather than washing or cleaning.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (21)

Yet despite the poverty stricken conditions, nothing comes free. Parents still need to pay for their children’s education and medical aid is not covered by insurance or even subsidized by the government. In order to put food on the table, one has to work hard plowing and tilling their land in harsh weather conditions. Meat is a complete luxury for these rural folk since it costs USD12 for 1kg of chicken!

On the first day of the medical camp, we saw over 350 patients. Setting up stations to test their blood pressure, glucose level and finally meeting a doctor – we dispensed thousands of tablets, cleaned wounds, gave out vitamins and extended our hearts to these people. Children walked into the ‘hospital’ without parents, farmers miss a day of work just to get a basic medical health check, families streamed in and the hall was filled. The doctors didn’t have a minute to rest and the pharmacy buzzed with activity.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (18)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (7)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (10)

No Comments on Mission Trip 2010: Reaching Out & Giving Aid

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search