One of the most common pieces of advice to those visiting Cambodia is to “not give money or buy from street children” since it can do them more harm than good. So how can tourists help the underprivileged children? For one, you simply have to go to a peaceful country retreat, pay a small fee and enjoy a whole day of solitude. Taing Rinith recommends Seametrey Leisure Centre, a lakeside resort where you can have a great time with your children while also helping the children of Cambodia.
Kandal is the nearest province to Phnom Penh. But unlike the capital, a big part of it remains untouched by urbanisation and development. It is home to many manmade resorts where the stressful, busy city residents come to enjoy during the weekends and holidays. Many of those, like Kien Svay, are popular and easy to find while some are much less renowned and considered isolated. Seametrey Leisure Centre is one of the latter, but it is almost guaranteed that those who have visited it will eventually come back for more.
In order to reach the hideaway bordering Tonle Bati Lake in Kandal Stueng district, you have to, from the heart of Phnom Penh, travel about 30 kilometres into the south. One hour’s drive or three hours’ bike ride may sound long and tiring, but for a true adventurer, it offers the chance to observe the way the local people live – not to mention an enjoyable trip on a road lined with paddy fields, huge trees and ponds.
On National Highway 2, when you see a sign advertising the retreat place, turn to a dirt path on the right and go on for about five minutes before reaching Seametrey Leisure Centre’s entrance, where a young female officer is selling entrance tickets, USD2.5for Cambodians and USD5 for foreigners.
On the retreat which covers an area of about four hectares, the first thing that catches your eye is the beautiful equation that combines the natural elements such as the lake and various tropical trees and flower with manmade modern but unique architectural structures. It has eco-friendly features such natural lighting and ventilation, geared towards reducing the use of electricity to the minimum.
The complex was designed by the late You Khin, a Cambodian legendary architect and artist, and it includes Seametrey Children’s Village, an education-promoting non-profit organisation founded in 2003 by Muoy You, Khin’s wife and a Cambodian woman who have spent most of her life living in France.
Seametrey Children Village was set up to provide quality education, which includes primary schooling, English as Foreign Language (EFL), computer courses, sports and music to Khmer children in the area. The facilities were built with proceeds raised through indiegogo.com and donations from philanthropists. However, the challenge is on how to sustain it.
According to Lestari Jansen Van Vuuren, the Indonesian Manager and English teacher of Seametrey Children Village, the students’ parents pay according to their income while three-quarters of more than 200 students do not pay.
“We do not have regular funding from sponsors,” Lestari says. “We need alternative ways to generate regular income to pay for the running cost. Seametrey Leisure Centre, which was opened about three years ago, is one of the ways.”
“The money from ticket sales would go to the education of the kids in the area, but we also have people from all around the world volunteering with us.”
Seametrey Leisure Centre provides visitors with serpentine cycle trails with trees at regular intervals or plantation or fields along the way along which they can cycle in slow lance while embracing the cool, fresh breeze of the countryside. However, its main attraction are the gigantic swimming pools and a huge slide than sends you into one of them, everyone’s favourite on a hot day.
“It is also where we teach our students to swim and we hope to send them to represent us in swimming competitions,” Lestari adds.
The retreat also boasts itself as a sports centre, with a mini football pitch, a volleyball court, two tennis/badminton courts and ping pong tables. It also provides kayaks for rent so that people can calmingly canoe on the natural lake while some visitors play bar games such as darts, chess and pétanque. Target archery, according to the manager, will be added soon.
There are playgrounds with recreational equipment such as swings, slides and a skate park, where you can introduce your children to the vintage outdoor fun from the time when smartphones were still inexistent, or simply indulge in your nostalgic childhood activities.
If you are an art enthusiast, it is a good chance to visit the You Khin Art Gallery in the middle of the centre’s compound, where his paintings, sculptures and architectural models are on display. After that, you can go on to the Children Art and Craft Centre to appreciate the artworks of the students, some of whom might one day become well-known artists.
With such a wide range of activities you can do, everyone is bound to find something of his or her interest in every corner of the centre. Of course, you can find a space to relax, stretch your legs on a bamboo chair, read books, fish or have a picnic in one of the huts built on stilts over the lake.
Getting food, however, is a challenge there since the food vendors only come to the leisure centre during the weekends and on a national holiday, except for an old lady who sells freshwater goods, soft drinks and cup noodles. If you are coming on a non-holiday weekday, you should bring food from home or buy some along the way. The most convenient way is to buy some bread or sandwiches from one of many bakeries on National Highway 2.
Visiting Seametrey Leisure on Monday and Friday allows to you to see the students practicing bokator, a Khmer martial art, which is an extracurricular activity aimed at preserving the legacy and providing them with a way to protect themselves. On a lucky day, you may witness an official football match or a tournament.
“Please come to visit our retreat and help us continue our study,” says Doung Thavary, an 11-year-old student at Seametrey Children’s Village. “You will also help my parents earn extra money because they are selling food here.”