Fifty years of civil war have left Cambodia a desperately poor and damaged nation with about a third of its 15 million people below the poverty line and a per capita gross domestic product of $739 a year.
When Brandon and Andrea Ross started Journeys Within, a tour company and B&B just outside Siem Reap, in 2003, they also were struck by the living conditions, especially in the countryside where people lack clean water, healthcare and all but rudimentary education.
Living here made Brandon, an American who grew up in Park City, Utah, appreciate his good fortune. At the same time, it changed him fundamentally. "I can't go back to seeing things the way I did before," he said.
The Ross travel enterprise, which offers special trips in Southeast Asia, such as a 30-day descent of the Mekong River from Yunnan Province in China to the delta in Vietnam, morphed into a charitable institution when the couple noticed how little money it takes to do big things in Cambodia. As Brandon explained, during a drought one year he saw women carrying water long distances and wondered about the cost of digging a well: $350.
Contributions from guests allowed the couple to develop Journeys Within Our Community into a U.S.-registered nonprofit organization that, along with digging village wells, provides university scholarships, free language classes and micro-loans for small businesses in Cambodia. Journeys Within travelers who contribute can take part in the programs by meeting students and visiting villages with new JWOC wells.
The organization has an annual budget of $180,000 and is kept small and locally rooted, with the Rosses, who now are the parents of two little girls, as its eyes and ears.
The couple became fascinated by the period from 1975 to 1979 when millions of Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge or succumbed to famine and disease. In trying to understand the tragedy, Brandon and Andrea talked to survivors and visited places where the infamous history of the Khmer Rouge unfolded — stopping points on the itinerary they designed for me in October.
I took the Khmer Rouge tour to learn how the unimaginable happened in the little Southeast Asian nation, but along the way I found out something more pressing: how much is needed to right the wrongs and give the Cambodian people the same bright future everyone deserves.
Journeys Within Tour Co., bed and breakfast and charitable organization can be reached at (877) 454-3672 in the U.S., 011-855-123-7801 in Cambodia or at http://www.journeys-within.com