Siem Reap is littered with trash and local young people have had enough. Once a month since March, monks and youth volunteers from NGOs, businesses and public schools have joined together to clean up their neighbourhood and promote awareness of how rubbish affects people’s lives.
But the streets are not the only thing that volunteers want to tidy.
This month for the first time, the gathering kicked off with a meditation session for participants, to clean out their cluttered minds before turning to the environment outside.
More than 300 young people attended the event on Sunday morning, agreeing to sit cross-legged on the floor, close their eyes and focus their attention inwards to the instructions of a meditation teacher.
The turnout for the latest event at Wat Damnak pagoda came as a shock, even to the event’s organisers.
“I was surprised that three hundred people came, because our previous events were attended by about two hundred people,” said Moeun Lyhorng, from the Cambodian Mentoring Association.
“It shows that if we join together, we can make something beautiful happen. We started this event because we realised that environmental issues are a major concern and we had the ability to mobilise students, friends, family members and fellow NGOs,” he said.
“We are focussing on youth because it is harder to change people in their 40s and above, but young people want to make a difference.”
The meditation teacher instructed participants to relax every part of their body, let go of all thoughts, and breathe slowly and deeply.
They were told to keep following the cycle of their breath; from the inhalation through the nose, down to the centre of the body, about two fingers’ width above the navel, and back again.
“The meditation was supposed to make the participants relaxed and calm. It is also training to make their minds clean, so that afterwards they can go and clean up outside as well,” Mr Lyhorng said.
Siem Reap province is home to hundreds of ancient temples and attracts more than two million international tourists each year. But the area has been dogged by problems with rubbish and inefficient waste disposal.
“The concept is that a clean environment starts within each individual. We believe it is important to tell the public about how rubbish effects people and we want them to get involved to make things better. We also want to encourage people to eat more responsibly and dispose of their food waste properly,” Mr Lyhorng added.
Seng Porchhay, a co-organiser of the event and meditation trainer with the Thailand-based World Peace Initiative, said the links between people’s internal and external environments cannot be underestimated.
“The mind is always wandering and thinking non-stop. Meditation is a practice to clean up the wandering thoughts and train our mind to become still at one point, so that we can feel calm, peaceful and focussed, or in short, inner peace,” he said.
“We are linking it with our litter picking initiative because we want young people to clean their minds first before they clean the environment.”
The group refers to the principle as “clean in and clean out”.
“Our mind and the outside world are very interconnected. Our mind is like a super camera that captures and absorbs everything that comes in to contact with our five senses. So if our surrounding environment is clean, we will absorb the cleanliness into our minds too,” Mr Porchhay explained.
“That’s why we feel good when we are in a clean and organised place and stressed when we are in a dirty and messy place. Vice versa, when our mind is clean, we feel like we want to live in a clean environment and we can’t tolerate or ignore the rubbish around us.”
He added that meditation requires consistent practice, but even the first attempt can yield good results.
“You will be able to feel the relaxation and calmness, or at the very least you will notice and be aware that you have a monkey mind,” he said.
Thoeun Rom, 17, is a grade 10 student at Hun Sen Wat Svay High School.
“I have attended this event twice already,” he said. “Picking up rubbish makes the environment clean so that we don’t feel ashamed when tourists come. We want our city to be clean. The meditation helps clean our mind inside, and the rubbish picking cleans up outside.”
Pov Prin, 17, is studying at Angelina House, which provides free English and computer lessons, plus extra-curricular subjects.
“I managed to sit for the whole meditation and I felt better afterwards,” he said.
“I believe it is good to help pick up rubbish. If foreigners come and collect rubbish around our houses, we feel embarrassed. When the environment is clean, it makes us feel good, so it isn’t a waste of time.”
Newly-elected commune chief Chen Sokngeng, 26, who is the youngest commune leader in the country, also attended the event.
“Our environment is key to our lives, so if we make the environment clean, it makes our lives beautiful,” he said.
He added that clearing up rubbish was top of his agenda for developing his commune, Sala Kamreuk.
“I want to support work to protect the environment. Young people who contribute to keeping the environment clean are very much welcome in Sala Kamreuk commune,” he said.
Aki Ra, executive director of Cambodian Self Help Demining, who won a CNN hero award in 2010, hailed the event as a success.
“The future depends on young people understanding the importance of environmental issues,” he said.