Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Writing in Cambodia, land of tuk tuks

I once wrote an article for an online arts journal about the writer's retreats I run, and instead of using my title, Holidays That Inspire, the editor changed it to something like How Rich Writers Travel.  Horrified, I asked her to change it back, which she did, not before remarking - but it got lots of hits!

Temple Writing in Burma 2013

The inference that you had to be rich to join an international writers retreat; that it is somehow a luxury, even an indulgence to spend your time in such a pursuit, disturbed me. Nothing could be further than the truth. Some people who come do have what I call 'spare money' it's true, usually well earned super or savings, and most who come have more money than me. Although I do remember one person getting a Centrelink loan to come to Morocco which I thought was brilliant.

Part of the inference too is that - as only the rich can afford to travel, we would stay in luxury villas and view our surroundings from afar, taking what we need for our writing and leaving nothing in return. This idea is also abhorrent for as much as possible I always try find a way to not only meet local writers and artists but invite them to join our workshops and events.

Bayon Temple

In March this year Writer's Journey heads to Angkor Wat for seven days temple wandering,  writing, jotting, sketching, painting, meditating, brainstorming, photographing, filming, while learning how to tell a good story.

Open to creative artists of all modalities: painters, poets, photographers,filmsters, performers, writers, doodlers, journalers, we travel into the heart and spirit of our creativity as we explore the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and its surrounds for the purpose making a creative work — collection of poems, sketches, paintings, a creative journal, a short story, notes for a novel, exhibition of photos, short film to be presented at a showing/presentation on our final evening.

Filipino and Cambodian poets at Angkor Wat for Northern Kingdoms Festival

Already the word has gone out to expats and Cambodian nationals that there are sponsored and semi sponsored positions available if they would like to join. Last time I ran workshops in Cambodia we had a great turn out in Sihanoukville, Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Money raised from the workshops was donated to the Ponheary Ly Foundation to buy bicycles for children living in villages around Angkor Wat, who can't afford to get to school.

On that visit I invited Ponheary (I think she is in her sixties now) to our Siem Reap workshop. She said she wasn't much of a writer but she had many stories to tell.

Ponheary Ly, teacher, tour guide, social activist.

During the Khmer Rouge genocide Ponheary's father, a teacher, was killed along with thirteen family members. Those remaining suffered extreme poverty, but knowing the value of education, when Khmer Rouge were deposed, Ponheary became a teacher. She began by supporting one student  from her own earnings, then another and another. After she became a tour guide, tourists would donate to her cause until she met a woman from Austin, Texas, who was so moved by her work she set up a foundation to help. Together with the hard work of numerous volunteers they look after 2500 students. Knowing herself what it means to live only on leaves and sticks for months on end, Ponheary says she can tell just from one look, what level of poverty children are suffering: extreme, moderate, low level.

I'm hoping Ponheary will be our guide on our first day in the temples of Angkor Wat and that some of her staff will attend our workshops as they did before. There is no better way to get to know a country than through the stories of its people. You can read all the tourist books, brochures and blogs about a place, but meet one person and hear their story and your life is changed forever.

Workshop with local writers at Mata Air Festival, Salatiga.

The reverse is also true: we share the stories we are working on, our hosts also get to know us; our strengths, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities. In this exchange we have chance to reflect not only on our commonalites and our differences but what kind of future we can write together.

I wonder if this was the richness that editor had in mind.

Read more about the artists, writers and communities Writer's Journey supports.

Book now for Temple Dreaming in Angkor Wat, March 9 - 16.

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