Friends of Koh Rong
Koh Rong: a paradisiacal island in Cambodia. It’s still not a major feature in the Lonely Planet or other guides, and remains a word-of-mouth kind of place. But it’s getting busier every year. In the midst of my five-month solo trip across South East Asia, I jumped on a ferry to this small, developing island for a month. A friend back in Melbourne recommended I visit, suggesting I help out at a tiny school called Friends of Koh Rong (FOKR). I wondered how this school, FOKR, run by four foreign girls came about. Since they have just marked 18 months of operation, I, the new eager volunteer, asked them to explain it all.
In early 2013, the four girls landed separately on Koh Rong for a holiday. They were strangers: Kelly from Toronto, who had been teaching in South Korea; Fran and Jacki from Melbourne, who each had some teaching experience in Cambodia; and Eliza, another teacher from one of Melbourne’s best swimming schools. The girls became friends through a mutual interest in helping people and addressing the environmental challenges they observed.
A tourist boom was rumbling on the island, and the girls wanted to help the locals prepare for it. Few locals of Koh Rong could speak English at the time. The girls experienced a unique, uphill journey in order to establish the great things FOKR do with the Koh Tui village today.
I’m sitting upstairs in my guesthouse in the village with the young Khmer director of FOKR, Bun Te. He described this place two years ago as “all jungle with a few little shacks”. Fran described it back then as “100% a village, but instead of rice fields, there was a beach with coconut trees”. A small, closer community existed with more open space. They tell me everything was more of an adventure through the jungle.
The village has thrived on tourism, offering local food and accommodation. The industry is developing and expanding fast, but it has been a struggle to keep up with the tourist demand. This motivated the girls to establish some English classes for the locals to communicate with the boatloads of tourists appearing at the dock.
The house the girls now live in is on the community built pier with houses and guesthouses built into the bay. The only way to the island is a ferry from Sihanoukville, a popular beach-side town. The other pier, built in 2011, is where the first English classes were taught by Kelly and Jacs with nothing more than a few pencils and some eager children of all ages. The classes then moved to the house where the girls live.
After a few months, FOKR invited the village to have a meeting – using a local translator to explain the importance of education – and asked for their support as a whole community. Eventually, after two months of crowd funding, they managed to refurbish the existing school in the jungle. The meeting and refurbishment were significant milestones for the organisation – seeing everybody working together for the same mission was rewarding, Fran says. This was just over a year ago today. Now there are talks of constructing a soccer pitch.
FUN AND MUSIC
FOKR is not your average school, especially for South East Asia. Aside from the seven classes they run per day, the children are given the opportunity to participate in dance, music, computer and art classes at their own leisure. On Saturdays, the teachers round up the kids and run a “beach clean” across the main beach, stepping between tourists sunbathing. Then, as a reward, the teachers take them swimming. This weekly ritual drums into the kids that cleaning up rubbish together can be fun and useful, as they also collect recyclables for future art projects. A highlight for the organisation was when a village elder, Om Sot, participated in a beach clean. Eliza, who works with the kindergarten age group, was so proud when her students one day started singing “Somram ot laor, somram ot sead” (Rubbish no good, rubbish no beautiful).
The four girls became friends fast, and then became family, living and working together in basic accommodation on the beach. The name Friends of Koh Rong came about for fundraising purposes overseas, naming those who contributed as “friends”. It is also simple for local Khmer people with limited English to understand. The name fits because of their overall presence in this village. Jake, a local business owner, describes their house as “the heart of the village” – and it is. Fran talks about kids using their house as a getaway, coming in to draw a picture or just hang out with their teachers who can be depended on.
Bun Te is very proud of the work FOKR has achieved with the locals. He believes there has been a reduction of violence and drinking culture among the families who are involved with the school. The FOKR house is an inviting space for whoever needs solace; however, there was initially hesitance and a cultural barrier. As the girls earned their respect and trust and stayed and followed through with their commitment to the people of the village, the barrier eventually disappeared.
This naturally took a long time. Eliza spoke of a “battle and constant resistance” from businesses and locals on the island, but the girls’ determination proved fruitful, and they are now highly regarded by the local community. In just one year, the teachers and volunteers have become role models for so many adoring children, says Eliza. The school currently has 80 students. The founders all agree that children taking ownership of their learning and encouraging younger siblings to study has been an important milestone for the last year.
The girls help these people out of pure love. After working in many NGOs back in Melbourne, I have never seen so much support and passion to work with the community. Their approach to fulfilling the educational and environmental needs of the island (which has limited resources) is commendable. I have seen them teaching in the classroom and the amount of work they put into their organisation’s projects has been incredible to witness.
Now the organisation is focusing on employing more Khmer staff and training students to be teachers. This is for sustainability and supporting locals who, one day, can take over the roles. Volux, a recent Khmer recruit says, “It is not a big organisation, but a good organisation”. Expanding to other villages in the islands of Koh Rong (and spreading the FOKR message further) is what the outlook is for these big-hearted founding females.
My time on the island flew by. If you’re in Sihanoukville or surrounds, visit the island and volunteer or just say hey to the teachers – they love talking about what they do! For more information visit their site.