Fifteen-year-old Pisey liked Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue’s songs being blasted out through large speakers over the Phnom Penh Water Park on Jan 28.
She also enjoyed the company of her Australian friends, volunteers at The Sunshine House, the orphanage where she lives in Kompong Speu province. To show her appreciation, she had an Australian flag painted on one cheek, with a corresponding Cambodian flag on the other.
But the face paint might have had to be reapplied later on, because there was another thing Pisey also enjoyed: the water slide.
“It’s exciting,” she said.
Pisey was one of 800 disadvantaged children and young adults from across Cambodia invited to the “Big Day Out” at Phnom Penh’s Water Park, organized by the Australian Business Association of Cambodia to celebrate Australia Day.
Pisey, who does not have a second name, said she knew very little about Australia’s national day. But the dozens of Western participants did, and many brought Australian flags, picnic baskets and sausages to put on that very Australian past time, the barbecue.
Kelly Hutchinson, president of the Australian Business Association of Cambodia, said the event offered the orphans a rare opportunity to visit the park.
“Most of these children would never have the chance to come here if it was not for this event,” Hutchinson said.
“We provide Australian food, music and Australian atmosphere. It is a big day for the children,” she said.
Local businesses, the Australian Embassy and the attending NGOs, which included Maryknoll, Sunrise Children’s Village and New Hope for Children, paid for the children’s tickets at $2 each, rather than the normal cost of $4. The difference was subsidized by ABAC, which paid to hire out the facility and then donated its profits to charity.
Volunteers, including 42 Cambodians in blue ANZ Royal t-shirts, supervised the children as they splashed and played.
“We sent out an e-mail looking for 10 volunteers and then 42 turned up here today with their families,” said Australian Dean Cleland, ANZ Royal’s CEO. In addition to providing staff, ANZ Royal also bought the tickets for some 200 orphans.
“It’s a great event, you can go get a beer, you can sit by the pool…. It just does not get more Australian than this,” Cleland said.
The $3,500 made from the event will go to the Children’s Surgical Center, an NGO in Russei Keo district providing free operations for children.
“All our programs expand by around 10 percent a year, so the money will be spent on employing more nurses,” said Penny Tynan, a fundraiser for the center.
But such details seemed of limited importance to the VIPs of the day, such as Chumran Kith, an 18-year-old from The House of Progress orphanage in Kompong Speu, who shivered, his short black hair dripping with water.
“I like to swim. Behind my house, where I lived before my mom and dad died, we had a pond and my sister and I used to swim there,” he said.
Chumran Kith lost both of his parents to AIDS when he was 11, but this hasn’t stopped him from attending school in the province. If all goes well, he would like to be an architect some day, he said, adding that swimming at the park was far preferable to the lakes of Kompong Speu.
“The water park is better than the lakes. I can have my eyes open in the water and there is no mud,” he said.