In 2015, after 17 years at my previous company, I decided to take a year off work; my aim was to write a children's book. That all changed when my friend Adrian, who was volunteering in Pursat, Cambodia, convinced me to join him there for a couple of months.
I initially went to help with project management for the not-for-profit Sustainable Cambodia, but I ended up teaching classes, building things and helping wherever I could - there was so much to do and so many families who would benefit from help. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 25% of the Cambodian population. A little time, money, education or fun goes a long way in Cambodia.
In our down time, we would go for ‘nights on the town’. Since there are no bars in Pursat, this means sitting on plastic chairs on the main highway, eating fried crickets and frogs, washed down with 25c cans of beer out of the ubiquitous orange Eskie! We found that beer often helped with our creative resolution of problems. So one night as we had a good attempt at finishing the street vendors' supply of Angkor beer, we were watching the vehicles and people on the road, and the idea of the Tuk Tuk Theatre was borne.
During the previous week we had trialled showing movies at one of the isolated schools - it was a huge success! However, there had been a few challenges. The school itself had no power so we had to borrow a connection from the neighbour 50m away. The projector we used was fantastic on the side of a rundown building but we had to wait until after dark to use it, which meant the kids could really only stay for 30 minutes. Then half way through the movie, a cow decided to trip over the cord.
We decided that night, sitting at the side of the road; a pimped up tuktuk with a flat-screen, battery, generator and DVD player would get around all these challenges. And just like that, our plan was born.
The next day 4 of us put together a budget and agreed to contribute seed money. The first task was to buy a tuktuk. By the weekend, Adrian and I were in Phnom Penh tuktuk shopping. We had no idea how easy or hard it would be, but surprisingly everywhere we asked, someone had a “friend” who wanted to sell us one. The tuktuk driver out the front of the hotel, the waitress at the bar; buying a tuktuk was going to be a breeze.
Having made our choice the next day we agreed on a price and signed the papers. This was kind of like signing in blood, as you needed to include your thumbprints in red ink. We should have taken this for an omen. We paid the deposit, agreed on a time to pick up the tuktuk the next day and went out for a celebratory drink. It was so easy! A few hours later Adrian got a call from our main contact at the NGO asking if we had received the ownership papers for the tuktuk. Because he spoke better Khmer than us, he called the owner to find out where they were. Apparently, not many people keep the ownership papers in Cambodia, so he called off the deal. We were back to the drawing board.
Early the next day Adrian flew back to Australia. I was still at the hotel when I received a WhatsApp message from him. “You might get hassled when you head outside. The tuktuk seller is not happy and is waiting outside with friends. He only let me go to the airport because it wasn’t me who signed the papers - Good luck!” Of course, I had signed the papers, and Cambodia is not really the place where you want to piss off anybody, so I was dreading the confrontation. There was a knock on my room door and thinking the worst, I opened it cautiously, but it was only the hotel manager. He confirmed Adrian’s message and organised mediations with the group waiting outside. Apparently, upon selling the tuktuk to us, the seller had immediately put a deposit on a new tuktuk and would now be out of pocket. We worked out that US$50 would get us both out of trouble. I paid the seller, quickly checked out and found a new hotel in another area.
It was time for me to return to Australia but the plan was in place, so before I left Cambodia I visited a tuktuk “factory” (really a shed) to work out what it would cost to buy a custom-built new tuktuk. Eventually, including all our unusual specifications, the tuktuk was built, meaning Adrian (and any volunteers that he has supporting) can now drive into any remote village, position the tuktuk and press play. An instant movie theatre!
Adrian and his wife Mayu live in Pursat, and for over 18 months now, they have been running the Tuk Tuk Theatre. They go out to pre-schools 4-5 times a week; and it’s not just movies they show, they’re also using the Tuk Tuk Theatre to teach children about hygiene; they play games with the children and even provide meals. The idea has also expanded to include using the Tuk Tuk Theatre as a mobile library delivering Khmer books so the kids can learn to read.
Funding in Cambodia is generally concentrated on education and health, but often lacks when it comes to fun and games. Many Cambodian children have to work for their family from a young age and miss-out on experiencing the fun and games we associate with our own childhoods. We developed the Tuk Tuk Theatre (TTT) purely to spread smiles and engage the imagination of Cambodian children living in rural villages.
Last year we started the process to register as a charity in Australia - this will allow us to fundraise here and apply for government grants. It took about six months but I am now, proudly, one of the Directors of "Tuk Tuk for Children Ltd".
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We get volunteers from around the world to come and help with all of the activities we do. If you are after an adventurous, rewarding holiday and would be interested in volunteering, please come and see me or take a look at our website www.tuktuk4children.org. You could combine your volunteering with a trip to Angkor Wat or some of the tropical islands off the south of Cambodia. Getting around in Cambodia is not simple, but for the adventurous, I can guarantee that the trip would be rewarding. If you are more inclined to live vicariously through others, I’m happy to say that donations are never rejected :)