Every year, I come to visit Siem Reap at least once. Not only is it a fun and funky small city in northern Cambodia, but its home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious site on earth and on the list for consideration as a Wonder of the World. In fact, I used to live in Phnom Penh – the capital city of Cambodia – for most of two years, and Siem Reap was still my favorite long weekend getaway.
But it’s not just trekking within the massive and ancient temple complexes among Cambodia’s natural countryside, or walking around the city’s vibrant Pub Street food carts and bars that brings me back to Siem Reap again and again. There’s a different, more important reason I keep coming back to Siem Reap: to visit my 36 little friends at the Children’s Improvement Organization orphanage there.
I’ve actually known about this orphanage and helped them out for years now. Back in 2014 or 15, I went on a day trip with local medical students to help two little sisters in Phnom Penh. Without their parents and living under a tree and fending for themselves by eating scraps out of the trash, we eventually were able to get them placed with an orphanage off in Siem Reap – CIO.
I’m a little dubious about orphanages and other charities here in Cambodia, as there are as many scams and subpar operations as there are legit ones. Too often, an orphanage or charity will do a great job of marketing themselves among tourists, foreign companies, and other non-profits. But once the money starts flowing in, the paperwork is shoddy, the accounting fuzzy, the offices get an upgrade and the center’s staff or workers start living well, but the children only see a negligible benefit.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some AMAZING charities doing great work in Cambodia, but you just have to be prudent before throwing donations around.
So, when I was able to go visit the CIO orphanage shortly after the two sisters were placed there, I was thrilled to find that it was a first-rate operation. Run more like a big family than a cold, calculated business, CIO actually grew out of just that – a husband and wife who start taking in kids long ago. In the aftermath of Cambodia’s genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime, the country was (and is) subject to desperate poverty with millions of broken and displaced families – and orphans.
But CIO offers a wonderful home for these kids, making sure they are clean and well-fed, that they go to school (which is never free here and not always an easy endeavor), and that the kids grow up with their souls nurtured as well as their bodies and minds. Their track record is impeccable and the highly-educated gentleman who runs CIO adheres to every international mandate on child protection. As he gives visitors a tour of the CIO facilities, which include a garden and learning centers, his wife prepares delicious local Khmer meals for everyone. And then, there are the 36 children, ranging from 13 months to 19 years old now. IN fact, once the older kids “graduate” from the orphanage, they are helped with job placement and further education, and always return to see their family.
So it’s no wonder why CIO has won the hearts of so many tourists and visitors who keep coming back to share the joy of these children, leaving with full hearts. I know that I’m one of them!