Having chosen not to stand idle as the development of the country becomes increasingly reliant on foreign investment, Pot Sophal established an organisation in Tbong Khmum province that provides free education to disadvantaged children and raises awareness about waste production.
Earlier, he started a community-based tourism project to empower local people and engage them in the country’s economic development.
Founded in 2007, Organisation For Basic Training (OBT) has given free education in English, computer science and the performing arts to more than 300 underprivileged young Cambodians from nine villages in Chiror commune.
The goal is to help them attain the skills they need to join the job market or enter higher education.
“From 2009 to this year, before OBT established its own vocational training programme, we financed the education of the students at other institutions.
“Now, as a result, 46 former students have a thriving career with private companies or organisations. Some are also currently working at OBT,” says Sophal.
“Our weekly education programme includes two days of English lessons, two days of Khmer lessons, and a day of vocational training in a specific skill,” he says.
He firmly believes that providing formal or non-formal educational opportunities for children will lift them from poverty and help them support their families.
“We have a pre-vocational training course aimed at students aged 17-24. In this class, they pick up the skills demanded in the job market, and their lives notably improve,” Sophal says, adding that the project is made possible by a partnership with five Siem Reap-based organisations.
“Another pre-vocational training course is held during the weekends. Students can enrol for the Saturday or Sunday classes for free. We ask that they bring plastic waste from home or the streets,” he says.
Sophal says OBT is mostly self-sufficient and able to finance about 80 per cent of its operations. It also welcomes donations from individuals and organisations.
One of its main sources of income is ticket sales from art performances put up by students for tourists. Another revenue stream is its community-based tourism programme.
The 46-year-old says: “Through our community-based tourism project, travellers can stay at our homestays and bungalows. We work with several travel agencies to bring people from around the world to Cambodia for ‘ethical’ vacations.
“Most of our guests come from France, England, and Germany. They come here to immerse themselves in the rural lifestyle of Cambodia.”
OBT’s tourism project is located in Chiror 2 commune, near Kampong Cham province. It occupies 1ha in the village and boasts stunning views.
“Travellers who stay at OBT directly benefit the children and allow our organisation to financially support the school, which teaches more than 300 students.
“Guests love to have an authentic experience with locals, sharing meals, and playing while supporting the local economy,”
Guests can choose to stay at a guesthouse, bungalows, or take in a homestay experience with a local family. All options have received very positive reviews on platforms like TripAdvisor and Booking.com.
“Our homestays and bungalows, located in the heart of Chiror village, are a wonderful experience for travellers,” Sophal says.
Sitting on the bank of the river, where tourists can feel the breeze coming from the Mekong, the area is surrounded by bamboo trees, as well as tomato, banana and papaya farms.
While the guesthouses allow travellers to mingle with the locals, the bungalow option is more comfortable and private. Both cost $10 to $13 a night.
“We have four homestays. Each can host up to two guests at a time. There are nine bungalows – we have small ones that can accommodate 4-5 people and big ones that fit up to 10,” Sophal says.
For an even more authentic experience, travellers can choose homestays where they can experience life with a Cambodian family. Most families have children eager to speak English and hang out with travellers.
People staying in a homestay generally have their own room, separated from the rest of the house by a curtain. The room is equipped with a large mattress, a mosquito net and a fan. The bathroom is usually shared with the family. The homestay option costs $5 a night for one person or $6 for two people. Meals cost $4.
“Most of our projects – including our clean water, organic farming, and handicraft initiatives – generate income to support our organisation,” Sophal says.
Having to cover the salaries of its 14 Cambodian staff, one of the biggest challenges Sophal faces is getting enough volunteers to teach the students. Sophal believes volunteers improve the lives of the children in Chiror by expanding their worldview.
OBT welcomes short-term volunteers that want to teach English, regardless of their level of experience. People with other relevant skills are also welcome to help the organisation, the community and the children as volunteers.
Sophal’s plans for the future include projects to improve hygiene and healthcare in the community.
“Now we are working on a community health centre to ensure the wellbeing of our students and staff. However, we don’t have funds to make it happen now,” he says.
People interested in volunteering or donating can contact the organisation at [email protected].
OBT is located in Chiror Kraom 2 village, Chiror commune, Tbong Khmum district, Tbong Khmum province. The village is 7km (a 20-minute drive by tuk-tuk) from Kampong Cham town.