Educational projects in Cambodia give travelers a way to do more than just see the sites

Biking for a month across a country that hardly has roads seems like enough of an adventure. But for the leaders of The PEPY Ride – PEPY stands for Protect the Earth Protect Yourself – this is a small part of their challenge in Cambodia.

In January, ride co-founders Greta Arnquist and Daniela Papi will take a team of six riders on a month-long ride through Cambodia, stopping at schools along the way to teach children about health and the environment.

In planning for the ride, however, they got so much support from friends and fellow travelers that they upped the ante: They’re also on the road to raising over $40,000 to build a rural school near Siem Reap that will be equipped with a solar-powered computer and a vegetable garden.

The PEPY Ride is just the sort of volunteer adventure I wish had existed when I visited Cambodia in August 2004 with Greta, a longtime friend. Greta and I were teaching English together in Japan when we decided to volunteer for a week at the Future Light Orphanage (FLO) outside of Phnom Penh.

Maryann Bylander at the Future Light Orphanage, Cambodia, 2004.

FLO is one of the largest orphanages in Cambodia, and many of the school’s 280 children will live there until they turn 18. The children of FLO are required to attend both public school and additional classes in English and computer literacy.

Because of this opportunity, these kids dream of being translators, teachers, doctors and tour guides, while many Cambodian children can’t even finish primary school.

Greta and I had a great experience, but we felt we really hadn’t done enough. Before leaving, we talked about our dream of motivating travelers to see more than Angkor Wat when they visited the country and to give something back to the people while there.

When we left Cambodia, Greta and I parted ways. I returned to Austin, immersed myself in graduate school and put the idea of helping on the backburner.

Greta went back to Japan, where our ideas got a push from Greta’s action-oriented roommate, Daniela Papi, who had just returned from a bike ride through Japan teaching environmental awareness. Daniela had also spent time in Cambodia and shared a passion for helping the Khmer people.

“It all happened pretty fast,” Greta says. “Dani and I returned from our respective adventures and started to talk about our shared desire to return to Cambodia, this time on bikes.”

The positive response amazed them and spurred them to do more. So they decided to begin a campaign to raise $16,000 to build a rural school through American Assistance for Cambodia, a Japan-based NGO.

The incredible support continued, and PEPY surpassed the original $16,000 goal. What else could they do but raise the target to $35,000 – enough to add a salaried computer teacher from FLO, a satellite dish for Internet access, and a vegetable garden and cook to provide free lunches for students. The project has now raised over $40,000.

The school building, which is scheduled to be finished in December, will also get a boost from PEPY volunteers. On Dec. 24, volunteers will arrive to paint murals, work in the garden and play with the kids. Then in January, the bike riders will begin their trek through the country, dropping off educational materials at schools along the way.

All this is only the beginning of what Greta and Daniela want to accomplish. They hope to organize future PEPY Rides and arrange more trips to The PEPY School in Cambodia for volunteers.

“There are so many people out there who want to give back through travel; they just don’t know how,” Daniela says. “We just want to make it a little easier.”