Dan Vercruysse travels to Cambodia

Author: Dan Vercruysse

Given annually by Lea and Jeff Scherer (MSR emeritus principal), the Scherer Travel Scholarship is awarded to an MSR employee, based on a proposal that demonstrates how a proposed travel experience will benefit the office and society, as well as enriching the individual. In this first blog post (in a series of five), scholarship recipient Dan Vercruysse shares about his volunteering experience in Cambodia.

A major focus of my travel plan was learning about culture through service work dedicated to the development of rural areas. Because of Cambodia’s ongoing recovery from the Khmer Rouge occupation in the 1970s, there a number of NGO’s that provide many opportunities for this kind of volunteer experience.



A note on volunteering–my experience suggests that a fair bit of research on the organization you are thinking about working with is in order. It is worthwhile to explore their available materials and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do they publish external audits of their work and finances?
  2. Do their programs use foreign (from the organization’s home country) staff, or do they employ local people to lead and operate the programs?
  3. Does the organization provide packaged “experiences” with fees and costs related to overhead, housing, and meals, or will you be setting this up on your own, possibly to the financial benefit of the locals?

All of these are considerations that I discovered along the way are important facts related to ethical volunteering. These observations are not intended to question the benefits provided by different volunteer opportunities, but rather a suggestion that you gather the best information to make the right choice for you.

My search arrived at the Trailblazer Foundation as the organization I wanted to work with. I liked that their efforts were varied, with a focus on providing clean water to rural villages (a very real need); activities were carried out and lead by local people (I would just be assisting them); there were no fees that would go back to an organizational structure in a different country, allowing me to make a donation directly to Trailblazer Foundation where it would be more impactful.

If anyone out there is interested in learning more about Trailblazer Foundation, I encourage you to contact me directly or visit their website: https://www.thetrailblazerfoundation.org/


Well drilling

One of the Trailblazer Foundation’s (TF) primary activities is drilling wells in rural communities that lack consistent access to nearby safe water sources. The process begins with TF’s three-person crew and a volunteer or two loading their well truck with supplies and driving out to the recipient village. Upon arrival, we set up the drilling rig, which consists of a three-pole frame with a mount for an auger motor. The motor is set in place and metal cutting pipes are attached to it–the frame also has a centering yolk at its base to ensure the pipes remain straight as they cut the shaft into the ground. The auger motor has an inlet valve that is connected to a nearby water source–this allows the cutting pipes to have water pushed through them to both assist in cutting the new shaft, as well as flush the shaft of any debris (soil and gravel).

The motor is repeatedly lowered and raised via a hand cranked pulley system, with extension poles added each time, driving the cutting head deeper and deeper. Once the cutting head has reached a depth with a consistent water supply, a PVC tube with an end cap and inlet slots cut into the sides of it is lowered, section by section, into the newly cut shaft until to reaches the bottom. Gravel is then dropped into the shaft to set the PVC well column position and create a place for the ground water to collect. The remainder of the PVC column is packed in place with a sandy soil mix until the shaft is full. The water that was pumped into the motor/cutting pipes is then redirected into the PVC column, pushing water through the PVC column/well shaft to flush the entire system of gravel and sand debris. This takes a bit of time, allowing for the crew to rest (and if you’re lucky, enjoy a lunch prepared by the villagers!).

On another day, the drilling team comes back to the new well site to construct a concrete pumping base and PVC well head/pumping assembly. The team decides on the best location for the well pump and begins to layout the concrete base. Once outlined the base receives a layer of course gravel with a site mixed concrete perimeter to start the setting of a structural clay tile border curb (think light-weight bricks). This curb wraps the perimeter of the base. Then a small splash guard wall is constructed to help manage water and make sure the well head location is not eroded over time. Additional concrete is mixed and the entire assembly receives a parget coat, with remaining concrete being used for the base slab. While this is happening another crew member cuts and assembles PVC sections that make the well head assembly. The well head supports the manually operated pump, which consists of a smaller diameter PVC pipe section (handle) that fits within the main horizontal outflow pipe–this pumping rod has a small disc attached to its end with holes drilled into it and a “custom” (recycled rubber) washer that act as the pump’s seal and gate by which the water is allowed to flow out when the pump is in operation. Once the well head/pump is installed, the concrete base assembly is painted, and numbered for long term identification. This final touch completes the well drilling process.

Keep in mind the well alone does not provide a safe (for consumption) water source, its function is to provide a consistent, easily accessible water source for household use after filtering.


Biosand water filters

The Trailblazer Foundation’s (TF) shop in the town of Siem Reap is the home base of their programs. This is where the fabrication and materials preparation for their biosand filters takes place, in addition to test gardens and offices. Most mornings, upon arrival the staff and volunteers begin by taking apart the steel molds used to cast the concrete biosand filter housings. This is achieved by unbolting the two halves of the mold and using a manual crank press to pull the interior part of the mold (which makes the void of the concrete housing) out of the newly cast filter body. Once all of the mold components are removed, the concrete filter housing is moved to an area where they continue to cure before being ready for painting and installation. The steel molds are then cleaned of any residue from the previous cast, oiled, and then reassembled/bolted back together in preparation of a new casting. The TF crew prepares the thin copper tubing that will be cast into the filter housing’s wall, which is the means in which water makes its way from the bottom of the filter to the pour spout on its side. This piece of the process requires detailed experience to ensure once completed the filter will function properly.

The casting process is kicked off by the loading of their on-site concrete mixer with cement, sand, and gravel. This gets mixed until a good consistency is obtained and ready to pour. The concrete is transferred to the molds manually, bucket by bucket until the mold is full. Then, the mix inside the mold must be rodded to ensure consistency throughout the mold. Once completed, the next step is to take a heavy rubber mallet and beat the sides of the molds starting at the bottom and working towards the top. This process helps to work any air bubbles within the mix to the surface, thereby reducing the potential for any open voids in the final concrete housing and protecting the integrity of the filter walls. All of these steps can be somewhat physical. (If you’re not used to Cambodia’s high temperatures, this is likely where you will want to take a little water break.)

The other main activity that happens in the shop is the preparation of the filtration materials that go inside the completed water filter. The materials are simple, but do require some effort to ensure they are clean and fit for use in the filter. There are two sizes of gravel used in the filters, each has to be sifted and washed and rinsed a number of times make sure there is no remaining dust or contaminates on them. They each then get pre-packaged into smaller bags, each sized for one filter. Another main component of the filer is sand. Preparing the sand requires multiple steps, starting with two grades of sieves (wire mesh filters). Sand is shoveled onto the large void sieve and manually shaken through to remove any larger debris that exists within the sand pile. Then it is shoveled onto another fine grain sieve and manually shaken through–this takes some patience and muscle and can make for sweaty work! Once completed, the sand is then transferred to a washing area where each five-gallon bucket receives five to seven rinses to both wash away any remaining dust and/or organic materials, such as dead leaves, grass, dirt, as well as let very fine grains float away so any chance of clogging the filter is minimized. Each filter requires six buckets of washed sand (about three full five-gallon buckets). It is also pre-packaged in recycled fish food bags, one for each water filter.

On delivery day, the crew and volunteers load the delivery truck with the housings and materials to deliver and install seven complete biosand filters to rural villages. The loading/unloading process requires a bit of muscle, with each concrete housing and sand bag requiring at least two people to get them in and out of the truck. Once ready the entire group gets the luxury of experiencing the beautiful Cambodian countryside from the back of a truck–the all-time best way to see Cambodia! When you arrive at the recipient village, the truck and crew goes from location to location and unloads the materials to assemble the filters in-place. The order of operations is:

  1. Locate long-term filter location–they’re heavy (150 kg, or 300 pounds, when filtration media is installed), so this first step matters.
  2. Rinse out the concrete filter housing to remove any dust.
  3. Set and level housing.
  4. Fill the filter half-full of water, so when the larger gravel is placed in the bottom this prevent pockets of air from being trapped in the sand.
  5. Place larger gravel at bottom of housing.
  6. Place smaller gravel layer over larger gravel layer.
  7. Place sand layer over gravel layers.
  8. Fill the filter with water and let it run until the water stops pouring out of the tube, this equalizes the water level.
  9. Set plastic diffuser plate over filter media layers.
  10. Set galvanized lid on top.

This assembly process is then followed up with instructional directions to the villagers who will be using the filters. This is important, because even though you can run water through the filter immediately, it is still not safe to use for drinking. The sand filter requires a period of conditioning–time to allow the proper biological agents to become established. This includes things like good bacteria that will help to kill bad bacteria, as well as establish an anaerobic layer within the sand that will not support harmful organisms that require oxygen to survive. This process requires that each filter have approximately five buckets (20 gallons) of water run through them each day for two weeks before it can be used for consumption. This process is very location specific. If you were to relocate the filter in the future, you would have to undertake this process again to ensure that the good biology within the filter had been recalibrated to the new collection of harmful organisms.

This process is repeated house after house until you have an empty truck, a good work out, and great memories. Throughout the entire day while making deliveries, volunteers get a firsthand chance to see Cambodian village life in action and ask questions. This is a truly fulfilling process for everyone.

Cambodian lifestyle

In the United States, roughly 20% of the population lives in rural settings, while in Cambodia, it is just the opposite, with 80% of Cambodians living in rural villages. Therefore the following observations about village living depict the lifestyle for the vast majority of Cambodians. It is worth noting that much of Cambodian lifestyle (in cities or villages) is grounded in the country’s lack of material resources and struggling economy. The effects of the Khmer Rouge occupation 40 years ago are still present and continue to shape lifestyle today.

The traditional village house is constructed on columns, so the sleeping and indoor living space is elevated to the second level. This allows for the house itself to act as a cover for the ground beneath it, which serves as most families’ outdoor kitchen, living, and storage spaces–this results in Cambodians being very connected to their environment. The house itself is generally constructed of wood members, with either wood siding or thatched walls, and a metal or thatched roof. The structures are built in ways that support natural ventilation and allows for relative ease of repair. Wood can be a scare commodity, so it is not uncommon to see other non-traditional materials used instead. Cambodians are extremely resourceful and inventive when it comes to the reuse of materials.

Village living is a pretty social affair, with neighbors and friends stopping by often to catch up on the latest news. Much of this interaction happens on the lower outdoor level, which is commonly outfitted with a variety of seats and tables for meeting. Meals are taken there as well, with outdoor wood-fired cooking tables and raised platforms where families sit to eat.

Kids are abundant, and the old adage, “it takes a village…” is in full effect. Kids enjoy a level of freedom rarely seen in western culture. At an early age they are allowed to explore and investigate their surroundings as they wish. Before long they also become contributors, helping to secure food for the family by hunting and gathering anything edible they can find.

Many village families raise some sort of livestock (cows and pigs), however it was explicitly stated to me that these animals are an important source of income and thus too valuable for the families to consume. This has resulted in villagers having a very diverse and inclusive diet–living off the land and rivers, considering anything edible as fair game. An average day’s meals might consist of fried rice noodles for breakfast, a lunch of dried or spiced ground fish over rice with some herbs and garden vegetables, with a dinner of grilled frog (note: Cambodians love to eat frog), indigenous papaya, and fried red ants or grasshoppers.

Agriculture is at the heart of village life. The cultivation of rice is the mainstay of the village economy, with an emerging focus on village families growing an array of fruits and vegetables to support the developing tourism industry in many parts of the country. I was lucky to be in Cambodia just as the rice crop was transitioning from beautiful lush green fields into a warm golden color that signifies their fully ripe condition ready for harvest. The harvest is a village wide task, with families helping each other to bring in the crop from their fields. Larger and wealthier communities might be able to afford the cost of renting gas-powered harvesting equipment, but the majority of farmers do it the old fashioned way, by hand with a sickle. Once cut, the rice plants (stems and fruit) and collected into bundles to dry in the field. When ready, the bundles are gathered up and the fruit is removed from the stem. The individual grains are then laid out on tarps or mats to dry in the sun until they are ready for sale. During this time, country roads are lined with these blue tarps and grains everywhere you look.

For greater access to foods and goods, villagers will go to their local market. They can be found from large to small with an incredible range of offerings. In many ways markets act as the center of a community where people connect with others, discuss current events, and establish their local economy through buying and selling. I was completely fascinated by the energy and activity of the markets I visited and made it a point to go to as many as I could. Markets are often organized by what is being sold, with the following sections being represented in some way: clothing, jewelry, electronics, household goods/hardware, repair services (i.e., metals, motors, etc.), prepared meals (think, noodle diner), butcher meats, sea foods, fruits, and vegetables. Building upon my comments about the Cambodian diet, I sought out the most unique foods (to western tastes) I could find–these are my favorite photos from the entire trip!

Rural families have limited access to services, businesses are generally found in or around urban centers. One benefit of being in Siem Reap (a medium-sized city) for three weeks was the ability to see a variety of shops. Cambodians often observe less defined boundaries between different portions of their lives. The work day, family time, and socializing are often interwoven into the day. It is not uncommon for someone to work hard at a task and then take an impromptu break to chat when a neighbor stops by, or shift from stocking shelves to a parenting task because their child is with them while they work. Many shops are tied to the owner’s living spaces facilitating this erosion of boundaries. Prosperity is scarce, resulting in a culture that works hard and openly embraces the mixing of priorities allowing them to fulfill multiple rolls at one time.


Sustainable choices

In past posts I have described a few ways in which Cambodian lifestyle incorporates a number of sustainable practices, living lightly off the land and sea. I do not want to mischaracterize the reasons why their culture lives this way–these practices are most often adhered to out of necessity. The wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure as a result of both American bombing campaigns to weaken Vietnamese forces, as well as the Khmer Rouge occupation in the 1970s, is still taking its toll on the population today. Since that time, Cambodia has experienced a higher than average amount of political unrest and governmental instability. Additionally, the effects of globalization, in which First World countries benefit from the resources and production of goods in Third World countries, has disrupted local economies and made it difficult for Cambodians to gain in prosperity. All of these factors have contributed to a society where making the most of what you have is paramount.

For this post, I wanted to write about what lies ahead for this country that is the recipient of many international aid programs, but still struggles with economic instability. Cambodia is now poised to make important decisions about their natural resources, which could either uphold their sustainable lifestyle or relent to strong economic factors that could provide much-needed income. In recent years there has been a significant increase by corporate interests in the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources. These include: increased wood harvesting from its deep jungle regions, the expansion of mining activity throughout the northeast provinces (home to some of its rarest indigenous plant and animal species), as well as the rapid rise of uncontrolled development in fragile beach and jungle environments, related to the growing tourism industry. In a country with such widespread poverty, decisions about how best to manage their resources are likely considered with an emphasis on addressing immediate needs rather than long term benefits. Like environmental questions in many parts of the world, the prospect of making money now versus biological wealth in the future is very complicated. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are some great organizations and community development programs that are working hard to educate the population on the downfalls of unregulated growth and lobby against the selling of their natural resources.

While planning our trip, I came across Chi Phat, a somewhat remote village in the Cardamom Mountains that is working to change their economy from one that has been supported by illegal logging and poaching (due to a lack of other viable options), to one that is built upon ecotourism programs showcasing their environment while preserving its beauty. They offer an array of tours and programs that allow visitors to enjoy both environmental and cultural aspects of Cambodian life. This nascent ecotourism approach has proven popular with visitors and is appears to be bolstering the village economy. The entire operation is led by locals who organize the activities, provide fresh cooked meals, act as guides, and coordinate a variety of lodging options. This shift in practice, from an economy built upon environmentally depleting activities to one based in protecting their natural resources is an excellent example of how making responsible choices, in the face of difficult financial challenges, can result in mutually beneficial outcomes.

To reach the village we had to tell our bus driver that we needed to be let off on the side of a highway at a certain river crossing–not an actual bus stop. From there we embarked on a two-hour boat ride upriver into the mountains, giving us a chance to take in the river villages and see some of the landscape we would be touring.

Upon arrival we checked into the Chi Phat village community center where we confirmed our lodging for the night and received instructions for our departure the following morning. We stayed in a traditional village house with a wooden room, mosquito-netted bed, and a traditional splash tub/shower. We had access to electricity for specific windows of time, allowing for fans until 9pm . . . after that it was sweaty time! That evening we walked around the village, followed by a communal dinner at the village center with other tourists who were signed up for a series of activities in the coming days. Meals consisted of simple rice dishes and fresh fruit.

The next morning after breakfast, we headed out on our tour with a diverse group of fellow hikers (Swiss, French, and German travelers). Our guide, a young Cambodian man who grew up in the village, wasted no time hitting the trail. Despite wearing only thin flip flops, he walked at a pace that was hard to keep up with! That morning we traversed both grassy plains as well as dense jungle. Midday, our guide quickly prepared a fresh meal right on the trail–a stir fry of fresh vegetables, fried egg, and rice. We then continued on for more jungle hiking, which was great because it provided much-needed shade from the high temperatures. That afternoon, we arrived at their jungle base camp, which consisted of a few open-air sheds with simple corrugated roofs. These provided: a kitchen, dining table, restroom, and sleeping platform. Our group set up hammocks with bug nets, before settling in for a great meal with our fellow travelers. We spent the evening (which happened to be Thanksgiving night!) comparing and contrasting our different cultures and practices. We discussed politics, universal healthcare, paternal family leave, gun control, etc.–no major issue was left untouched. It really was a delightful and educational evening in the Cambodian jungle.

The next morning, after a typical fried noodle breakfast, we commenced hiking again until we came to a large swampy grassland clearing in the jungle. Our guide told us how at night this area acted as a watering hole for elephants that live in the area. While we were not able to see anything as majestic as elephants in the wild, the scenery was breathtaking. Our next destination was a picturesque jungle waterfall where we stopped to relax and swim at the waterfall’s base. Some of our group climbed part of the way up before jumping in, while the more daring guides ran to the edge and jumped from the top! It was a refreshing break from the high temperatures. After another on-the-fly lunch, the group continued on back to Chi Phat where we ate a great dinner at a village restaurant and prepared for the journey out of the mountains the following day. The village arranged for an adventurous motorbike ride by a local villager to take us back out of the mountains where we could catch a bus onto our next destination.

This brief excursion into the interior of one of Cambodia’s remote mountain ranges allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the diverse mountain landscapes and appreciate the value of good stewardship of these fragile environments. This brand of ecotourism is becoming more popular with tourists, who are interested in experiencing native habitats within Cambodia while putting their tourism dollars towards programs that help preserve these environments and support local economies.


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