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Scratching a 7 year itch – finally returning to Cambodia in 2017

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A photo-essay of my recent visit to Tipeng Village in Kep Province, Cambodia, where we built the Sophia Saly School in 2015.

I recently had the privilege of returning to Cambodia to visit one of the villages we’re actively supporting, with the school building, the English classes and now the solar project.

There’s alot I want to say with this post, to reflect on the journey I’ve been on with BabyTree Projects since 2010, the people and projects we’ve worked on, and the reasons I stay involved.

I keep stalling, though, when it comes to getting it all down on paper, so for now I’ll just summarise the main reasons for this trip, and share some of the highlights through the pictures and videos I captured.

First a bit of background. I started volunteering for BTP back in 2010 when I realised this guy Koky who I knew through World Vision, and who seemed like just a constantly laughing and joking big kid, was actually serious about his mission to make the world a better place. By giving some of the poorest children in one of the poorest countries a chance at a better future through quality education.

By the time I got involved BabyTree had already built 3 schools in rural Cambodia, and was gearing up for the 4th, a secondary school in Sambour village, Cloud district.

I started helping out with the fundraisers, and I soon found myself more and more involved, to the point where I decided to go all in and spend the summer of 2011 living in Sambour and helping to build the school.

Sambour Village Secondary School 2012.

To call the experience life-changing is probably selling it short. Seeing the conditions these kids and their families lived in was pretty heart-wrenching, knowing how much material excess we take for granted back home. And how little it would take if we all just focused a bit harder to improve the quality of life in so much of the developing world.

So when I got back to life in Oz, I kept on helping out the charity, and by late 2012 I was invited to join the Governance Committee – the small group of volunteers who continue the work.

In 2014 we raised enough to go back and build one more school, which was dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Sophia, Koky’s sister and partner in crime, who helped found the charity, and was tragically taken by cancer in 2012.


The Sophia Saly School has been the focus of most of our recent work, including an English Program which we’ve fully funded for the next 5 years with the support of Beekeper Parade, and a pilot Solar Project which we launched in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

We’ve installed 15 systems into homes in Tipeng Village, where the school is located, and hope to build this out to other homes in the area too. Unfortunately, EWB aren’t able to continue their presence with the project, so we need to work out what our options are moving forward.

Claire, our Treasurer, has been the active liaison with EWB and the Solar Project, but since she was preparing to have her first child, I offered to step up and take this on. Koky happened to be visiting Cambodia for 2 weeks in August, at the same time as Brendan our contact from EWB was finishing, so I jumped at the chance to finally get back over there, do the handover with Brendan, and reconnect to the work and the people we’re supporting.

I’ll come back and fill in a bit more detail around some of these points, but for now here’s the key bits of the trip.

The English Program

The highlight of my trip was getting to sit in on a couple of the English classes. These kids are primary aged, and they’re already well on their way to speaking, reading and writing English!


Singing seemed to be a good way to connect the kids to their lessons

And games, of course, are always popular

I was really impressed to see that even the younger class had really solid writing skills

And the older kids were advanced enough to even take turns getting up and leading the class!


The Solar Project

Day 2 in the village, we visited about half a dozen families who’s homes we’ve installed the solar kits into. There’s a range of challenges we need to overcome if we’re going to continue to build on the program without EWB, but we’re confident that we’re off to a good start. The initial installations have helped to demonstrate the value of electricity to the wider community, and we’ve upskilled our local contact Groo Mao with the ability to install and help maintain the systems. He can build on this foundation to share this knowledge with others in his village, and potentially maintain and grow the project without us one day.


Beautiful Kep

Kep Province is a magical place. We stayed at Spring Valley Resort, which was built on the side of lush green mountain, about a 50 minute moto ride from the village each day.



Back in the capital Phnom Penh

The rest of the trip was spent meeting with Brendan from Engineers Without Borders to do the handover work for the Solar Project, and also to meet our local staff member Sopheak who’s going to support Groo Mao to deliver the English classes and maintain the solar installs.

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Beekeeper Parade featured by Humans in Melbourne!

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Part of the BabyTree Projects and Beekeeper Parade story was shared by the wildly popular Facebook page Humans In Melbourne and went a little bit crazy…

Koky Saly featured by Humans In Melbourne

BabyTree & BeeKeeper foudner, Koky Saly, featured on the hugely popular Humans In Melbourne Facebook page.

Humans In Melbourne: This is one of my favourite stories ever and it is definitely one that will be in the book later in the year!

Koky: “I was born in a prison during the Cambodian civil war. Over 3 million people died during that war. My mum was pregnant when it broke out and she was imprisoned. The first 3 years of my life were spent behind bars with my mum, where she was beaten and tortured and starved…

When the war ended there was a lot of turmoil. We escaped prison and we found my father and other siblings. We walked for 3 days and 3 nights to the border of Thailand and got smuggled across.

People often say when I tell them this story “Oh, you were so lucky to survive.” As I’ve grown older and thought about it, it seems to me luck had nothing to do with it. People’s kindness and courage is what allowed us to survive. There were the doctors and nurses that helped us when we got to Thailand. The prison guard who would always bring my mum some extra food to help her… There was a French doctor who helped us by calling all of these embassies around the world trying to find one that would take us. The first country that said yes was Australia.

We moved to Melbourne and we settled into the community. I learnt English and had a great education. When I got older I decided to travel back to Cambodia to try and help rebuild it. I was thinking I could help in education somehow. Something I had benefited from that was so rare in Cambodia. My dad organised the trip for me and told me he’d found a village that was willing to give me some land, under the proviso I built them a school. I was amazed!

Koky with BeeKeeper backpacks

Koky proudly displays BeeKeeper Parade backpacks!

I told my sister Sophia and my friends all about it, we are a bunch of dreamers and romantics, and in 12 months we raised over $50,000. We all went to Cambodia and lived in this village for about 2 and a half months and we built the school.

One day an elder of the village came to me and asked “Koky, did you know that I hid you from the soldiers when you were making your escape?”

“No, I didn’t,” I replied. He then asked me a question that would shock me:

“Did you know that where you were born is just around the corner?”

My parents had sent me back to where I was born without telling me. It was so overwhelming and I felt like I had made a difference to a place that meant a lot to my history.

So that was that. I had completed my mission. That was until I got contacted by other villages asking me to build schools for them.

“We don’t have a school either, we have land for you, can you come and build a school for us as well?”

So in 2007 I set up a proper charity, Baby Tree Projects, and set about raising finds to build these schools. That charity still operates now. We have built 5 schools so far and hope to build more.

While all of this was going on, myself and my sister Sophia thought “There are so many profitable businesses out there, why can’t we have one that also helps put kids through school?”

We started to develop the idea for a new business which we named “Boy and Bee”. The idea behind it was that there is this 10 year old kid who wanted to change the world, he went out and tried, but he failed. He then realises that if he wants to change the world he has to work with others, especially his best friend,The Bee. Sophia was my Bee… My best friend.

Koky with a person sized backpack

Koky has always dreamed BIG.

While we were trying to build the business Sophia was diagnosed with cancer… She fought very bravely for a year and a half but then she had to let go…

In her will she left me her car with instructions to sell the car and to use the money to make sure Boy and Bee happens, to inspire change in the world.

I struggled to deal with Sophia’s death. I was suicidal and I wanted to leave this world too. I think that everyone that has suffered severe depression understands what I mean when I say that you go to this edge, for me the edge was looking into this abyss… this black darkness, but it was a peaceful and mesmerising place. I remember wanting to just slip into that next world, to just find peace there.

But I decided not to. I had made my sister a promise, a single promise that I had to keep. I thought “I’m going to keep this promise first before I earn the right to join her.”

I spent the next 3 and a half years trying to make this happen. People often ask me how I built this business. The truth is I used my heart and soul. That may sound vague but it was those 2 things that made me never give up when I had zero money left. When I was in Cambodia eating 2 minute noodles, struggling with no idea how I would pay the rent… It was my heart and soul and this promise I had to keep to my sister that kept me going.

I developed a new business, I named it Beekeeper Parade. I wanted to make backpacks but backpacks that do good for the world. Something not a lot of people know is that in Cambodia we get a lot of the third world’s rubbish. Especially a lot of used clothes. The average Australian only uses 20% of their wardrobe. The other 80% is only used once or twice and then never again until they are either thrown out or donated. A lot of the clothes that get donated actually end up in landfill or in shipping containers in Cambodia. So I thought that I could re-purpose this clothing to make the backpacks.

Koky and his sister Sophia

Sophia Saly has and always will inspire Koky to leave the world a better place.

That’s where the idea came from…
We started with T-Shirts and we made one of a kind bags out of them. They looked great and the response we got when people saw them was amazing. Then I realised that factories were throwing out new stuff as well! Off cuts, end of roll fabrics, remnant fabrics, so I designed another bag to make use of that as well. It’s win-win because the more we make the more kids we help and we are keeping the clothes out of landfill as well.

For every bag sold we send a Cambodian child to English class for one whole year. So far we have sent close to 1000 kids to school.

My sister’s dream is still very much alive.

BeeKeeper backpacks

BeeKeeper backpacks change the world for kids, through BabyTree Projects.

Doing all this has healed me. A friend recently asked me how I was… “I am happy again. For the first time since Sophia left I am really happy.”


BabyTree Projects is supported by BeeKeeper Parade.

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2016 Great Tuk Tuk Rally – what a finish!

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Koky 'doing his best' in the Rally!

BeeKeeper Parade’s The Great Tuk Tuk Rally January 2016 recently wrapped up and it was a BIG success! Teams raced across Cambodia in motorised tuk tuks and competed for the ultimate glory of winning – all to raise funds for Peter Mac Cancer Research and the BabyTree Projects Solar Project at the Sophia Saly School community in Kep.

Without further ado, we would like to announce that the winners of The Great Tuk Tuk Rally 2016 is: Team Rickeisha, whose name will be forever immortalised on the trophy! Huge congratulations to Alicia Guild and Rick Powley for their massive effort.

Team Rickeisha driving their tuk tuk

They also took out the major middle leg challenge: The Blind Solar Tuk Tuk Challenge in a current world record of 7mins 55sec, meaning they got to ring the prestigious Sophia Saly Cow Bells.

Team Rickeisha ring the Sophia Saly Cow Bell!

In all this fun, we also officially fundraised $5,820AUD. Not bad given the guys had only a month to raise money. These funds will be divided to support Peter Mac Cancer Research and the BabyTree Projects Solar Project at the Sophia Saly School community.

Koky with the school kids

But the excitement of what’s next is already building up. Such as your chance to test your mettle in the next Great Tuk Tuk Rally! Do you think you can do it faster and hold the world record?

Details to be launched soon…


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You’re invited! Public lecture at RMIT

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BabyTree Projects founder Koky Saly is visiting Melbourne from Cambodia to hold a public lecture at RMIT City Campus about his new social business BeeKeeper. Come and hear how the story has grown so far. Tickets are free but registration is required. It’s going to be a full house, so make sure you book here! Wednesday August 12, 2015. 6pm at room 80.07.01

Koky with Beekeeper backpack - RMIT lecture details

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We are hiring…

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BabyTree Projects is on the hunt for an incredible human being to join our team. The title is Project Coordinator but the role is much more.

We are looking for someone that believes in freedom, a sense of humour, finding beauty in the smallest things and happiness. Oh and that changing the world is possible. The full job description can be downloaded here: BTP – Staff member – position description.

Closing date for applications is 5pm, 15th July 2014.

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The Sophia Saly School Built…

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In exactly 6 days (April 20th 2014) when the Cambodian school year begins, the SOPHIA SALY SCHOOL will officially open. We think think the building is beautiful but it is nothing compared to the kids that will walk through her doors.  Flowers, plants and trees still need to be planted. Signs still need to be made and go up. But we will be ready.

Thank you to every single person that helped make this dream come true. To the volunteers that came, I hope you never forget the wonder in your eyes and in your heart during the project. It was our best one yet. To people who wish to support us by fundraising or volunteering please email us at info@babytreeprojects.org to find out how you can help and what our next projects will be. Like everything we do it will be from the heart and will be one of the craziest things you will probably do. Here are some hints: A 1,000km Tuk Tuk Rally across the breadth and soul of a nation, a thrill seeking adventure type live game, film making and cooking classes, the birth of a photography school on a beach (where else), a music festival complete with drones, and the creation of a business that will rock your world. Just to name a few.

Watch our official project video by clicking here.

Read us in The Age by clicking here.

To view some more photos of the project click here and here.


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The Sophia Saly Walkathon a huge success…

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Dear Walkathon walkers and sponsors,

I would like to take the time to say thank you for your support during BTP’s Sophia Saly Walkathon 2013.

The final amount raised from this walkathon was an incredible and unbelievable $54,156! Soon, we will embark on the school build project and we will surely let you know how it goes.

This project and this journey has grown beyond anything I imagined possible. Learning to love someone from afar is not an easy task. Thank you for letting us share Sophia’s story and embracing it with such love. There’s nothing more a person can say in such an embrace, except, thank you.

If you would like to read more about our story, we were featured on pages 2-3 of The Age:http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/cambodia-school-plan-to-honour-lost-sister-20131114-2xjpw.html

Here’s a little video I made of a ‘Once in a Lifetime Kind of Girl’. She reminds me everyday, even in the saddest of times, there is always room for smiles.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzA1ViQCoNs

On behalf of BabyTree and the Saly Family,
Koky Saly


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BabyTree founder Koky Saly in The Age.

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If you are unable to read this picture you may read the article by clicking here.



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The Sophia Saly Walkathon is on… 24th Nov 2013

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Dear Friends,

Today we launch BabyTree Projects’ Sophia Saly Walkathon 2013. Please join us in this walk dedicated to the life and memory of Sophia, a truly beautiful soul, who continues to inspire us to be better than we are. We miss that girl! It will be held on Sunday 24th November at Princess Park, Carlton North. Like last year, except this time all money raised will go towards the construction of the Sophia Saly School at a beach. Yes, we found a village with a secret beach in Kep Province, Cambodia that will allow this to happen! But, we need your help to make this dream come true. Get your friends and family involved, make it a special day…Please share, spread the word and give us wings…

Details and to register here: http://goo.gl/sOrV3y

To see our current leader board and donate to a walker click here: http://goo.gl/4w6F5a

Can’t make but want to donate? Click here: http://goo.gl/zxfqZR


Our beloved Sophia on her first day of school. We miss you little star.

Our beloved Sophia on her first day of school. We miss you little star.

#changetheworld #beachschool #giveuswings

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The Sophia Saly School Building Project

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Over the last few months you may have seen flashes and glimpses of our next project. But nothing really to hold on to. Scouting for our next location became a beach hunt that turned out to be so indescribably, inspiringly incredible that it truly was too good to be true. Too good, in fact, that we couldn’t reveal any details until we were sure that things were confirmed. Well, the long wait is over. It’s confirmed.

Interested volunteers pour your eyes over this, and if you think you’ve got what it takes to contribute positively to this project then read to the end. Because the answer you are looking for will be waiting for you there.

Operation: Sophia Saly Beach School

Mission: To build a school on a beach

When: The project will commence January 3rd 2014. We have decided to push it back after Christmas because airfares are a lot cheaper then and gives us a bit more time to fundraise.

Duration: Building a school can take up to 2mths. Volunteers may join our project anywhere between 2wks and more. We recommend 4weeks at least.

Fact File

Village name: It’s a secret. It’s Cambodia’s secret beach and we want to keep it that way. Volunteers joining us, count yourselves lucky 😉

Location: Kep province, Cambodia.

Student population: 180, with quite a bit more wanting to enter kinder next year. The school services 2-3 surrounding villages.

Teachers: 9

Toilets: Broken, disused.

Water well: Broken, disused.

Construction: We will build an additional school building, repair the existing building, build new toilets and a new water well.

Estimated project cost: $70,000

Notes: The school is near the coast and is surrounded by salt farms. Fresh water is scarce and expensive. Currently rainwater is captured in tanks, but frequently runs out during the dry season. Most of the villagers are fisherfolk, or work on the salt farms. Villagers expressed a strong interest to study English. They are very nice and love to cut down coconuts and share with us.

Brief history and surrounding area (as written in some traveling websites):

The beach is located 45min to the east of the Vietnamese border (7km away). It was once the swimming beach for the Cambodian Elite in the 1960s. The trip there might be long, but it is worth every minute. The beach, around 2km long, is clean with white sand and totally deserted except for some fishermen. Now there are 6 deck chairs and parasols and a small shop selling cold drinks for the few tourists going there. The water is shallow but clean.

Nearby island is a 20 minute boat trip from the secret beach (around US$8-10 return if part of a tour; alternatively, get a boat from the pier before 09:00 and share a $20 boat ride with others). Bungalows on the island are quaint and cheap (from US$5 a night). The island is generally pretty quiet and is a gem of coastal Cambodia. Development is slow, though there is now a massage shack directly on the beach.

Interested volunteers:

1)   MUST email info@babytreeprojects.org to express you interest.

2)   MUST include ‘SOPHIA SALY’ in the subject line.

3)   A very brief description of why you would like to participate.

4)   Include any background experience you think is relevant.

5)   Feel free to include any questions you may have too 😉

6)   MUST include a contact phone number.

7)   If you have already emailed us your interested we will be in touch soon. But just in case we have misplaced your file please email again if you don’t hear from us within a week.

After receiving your email we will be in touch and advise you of a volunteer information night in Melbourne. If you live elsewhere in the world we will email you the full details or we may call. Please note that we are completely volunteer based and even-though we don’t charge a fee for volunteers to join us we do require our volunteers to fundraise a minimum of $2,000 USD. 100% of which will go towards the school project.

To view these details in pictures you might want to go here.

To download the Sophia Saly Project Volunteer info kit click BTP-VolunteerInfoKit-SophiaSalySchool-2014.