In 2009, Melissa Chungfat of Canada was one of a group of fierce pedallers that took part in an experience National Geographic Adventure considers one of the “top tours of a lifetime”: the PEPY Ride.
Travellers experience authentic cultural exchanges, invest their holiday money in locally owned and socially run businesses, and expand their minds through learning about global development from experts. Best of all, every journey funds a dynamic program of education and youth empowerment projects for rural Cambodian students.
I asked Melissa Chungfat, who has worked as an educator and had several communications roles for non-profits and private organizations in Vancouver, to remember back to her ride and share some of what touched her the most about it. Further below, I used her comments as a springboard for a brief presentation of PEPY’s programs.
An Interview with Melissa Chungfat
Amy McLoughlin: What made you decide to take part in the PEPY Ride?
Melissa Chungfat: We joined the annual three-week fundraising cycling adventure across Cambodia to support the work of PEPY (Promoting Education, emPowering Youth), PEPY Tours’ sister NGO.
I joined because not only was the ride supporting long-term empowerment and education, but it was also an opportunity for me to get a preview of international development. Never before exposed to the NGO community, I came out of the ride inspired, more knowledgeable and impressed with the impact of the organisations we visited.
AM: What is it like to experience Cambodia at cycling speed?
MC: The PEPY Ride has been my favourite trip to date because we were fully immersed in the local culture and landscape. Highlights of our adventure included downtime relaxing at small local restaurants, cycling through rice fields, meeting social entrepreneurs and having stimulating discussions about everything from global development to sustainability.
We were fortunate that our ride was led by Cambodia’s six-time country cycling champion, Lucky. He is one of many inspiring leaders we encountered. During the ride, he guided us down country roads far off the tourist trail, and along which the trees shielded us from the scorching sun and we paused for sugarcane juice at hard-to-find hammock stops. Exploring Cambodia by bicycle allowed us to soak in the beautiful landscape and interact with people.
I also loved spending nights in community-based homestays or local family-run guesthouses. I spent my evenings interacting with my hosts, soaking up families’ stories, their ambitions and their wishes for the next generation. This was done knowing all the time that my stay was benefitting those who deserved it most: the family looking after me so well.
After all, an integral part of our trip was learning from experienced NGOs and social businesses that invest in people’s health, education and skills. To date, PEPY Tours’ trips have raised in excess of US$400,000 for the PEPY NGO‘s programs for youth in rural Siem Reap.
AM: Generally speaking, how did you feel in the Kingdom of Wonder?
MC: After the first few days of the PEPY Ride, I thought I could see myself being here long term. [A few years later, Melissa did return to Cambodia and is now wrapping up a seven-month volunteer term with PEPY and PEPY Tours.]
Investing in Long Term Solutions
PEPY Tours distinguishes itself through its commitment to “adventurous living, responsible giving” and educational adventures. PEPY Tours’ trips, including the PEPY Ride, focus on teaching about Cambodian history, culture and initiatives through experience. Participants are challenged to think critically about responsible travel and encourage others to support local and social enterprises.
PEPY’s programs are located in a rural area called Kralanh in Siem Reap Province, which, despite having the benefits of the booming tourist industry around Angkor Wat, is one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. Compared to national averages of school retention rates, educator-to-student ratios and high school graduation rates, Siem Reap is one of the lowest-ranking provinces in terms of the quality of education.
Kralanh is a rural area surrounded by seemingly endless miles of rice paddies. Here, most families rely on agriculture for their income. Employment opportunities are scarce and most young people turn to short-term economic gain, some by working in Thailand illegally, rather than investing in long term personal development. At PEPY, the team works with students who are passionate about making a change in their families and making a difference to their communities.
Since 2005, PEPY has been providing supplementary school programs to enhance education, principally for children in junior high school. Dedicated to the belief that all Cambodians can be empowered to achieve their dreams, PEPY aims to increase the percentage of Kralanh graduates accessing skilled employment. This has led to an expansion of PEPY’s higher-education projects to include support for university scholarship students too.
Chim Seng, PEPY’s English Program Manager, comes from a small village called Chanleas Dai in the Kralanh district. Seng says “PEPY helps make my community change, as the children have high commitment for their studying, good behaviour and critical thinking skills to achieve their dream. The children’s parents understand the value of education and live with good environment. I am very appreciative and proud that I am a part of PEPY and work to develop the communities.”
Get into Gear, Make a Big Difference!
If you would like to take part in an adventure that makes a long lasting positive difference in the communities it touches, this year’s PEPY Ride IX spans two or three weeks, depending on your time or energy, starting on December 22, 2013. Limited spaces are available and registration is open.