As well as learning about and visiting sites which show the terrible recent history of Cambodia, when three million people were systematically murdered by the Khmer Rouge, the group's main focus was to support with donations, prayer and practical help a number of projects new and old.
The first visit was to an inner-city school run by Salvation Centre Cambodia to support the education of its very deprived inner-city community. The group then went to Banteay Prieb which was founded in 1991 to provide training and work for those with disabilities, predominantly land-mine and polio victims. The Missionaries of Charity in Phnom Penh offer a refuge for those suffering from Aids and HIV, those with mental health problems and those rejected by society and the group was welcomed to morning prayer and a gentle stroll through the project.
The group was made up of singles, couples and a family including a delightful ten year old from Southampton. His passion for football was met when the group were press-ganged into attending Fr Panus's match against the local CROAP agricultural centre, coincidentally their next visit.
The cathedral of the Prefecture of Battambang is in Battambang itself. Fr Manoj met the group and over the next few days took them around the campus kindergarten, training centre and student centre. The visitors had collected a large number of items to take to the medical centre, including drugs, bandages and unused medical equipment and everything was gratefully received.
While eating at the diocesan cafe, the group were delighted to bump into Bishop Kike, just back from Central America. He promised to meet up with them after Mass the following day when acquaintances were renewed and news exchanged.
The group enjoyed visits and meals at a range of churches and projects: the beautiful, hexagonal St Joseph's Church at Kompong Chnang with its depiction of Jesus and his disciples as Cambodians; Bishop Kike's parish and hostel, Ta Hen; the new church at Nikkum; St Theresa's Chom Nam, the site of Bishop Michael's bridge; Ta Om, where the roof was rebuilt through the generosity of East Anglian parishioners; the retreat centre at CROAP where Mr Kim does acupuncture free of charge; the student hostel of St Francis Xavier, where students and visitors dined and danced together; Kompong Thom where there is a wonderful craft shop; the Jesus Farm; Kompong Kleang, a new place for the group, where the houses and the church are built on stilts which are metres high; and, of course, Prek Taol, twinned with Ely and lovingly supported by parishioners year-round.
There is a wonderful new state-of-the-art Jesuit School at Svay Sisiphon and group members have marvelled at its progress over the last four years. It now has a spectacular outdoor arena, a sports hall and dining area in addition to the many classrooms which include dedicated music and art rooms. Once complete its complement will be 1,400 students.
St John's Siem Reap has eight satellite church centres, one of which is St Andrew's Prek Taol, served by Fr Totet Banaynal and his curate, Fr Luis. Fr Totet and his team showed the group Rice Feeding programmes at Ta Om, Old Pheasnang and Kompong Kleang. The rice soup is fortified with chicken and protein powder and is given to the children once or twice a week, transforming children with distended bellies and blank stares to naughty, bright, energetic kids, as many of the group have been delighted to witness over the years they have been visiting. This is a wonderful testament to the work being done locally, supported by donations from East Anglia.
It will be another two years before the next official parish visit, probably in January 2020. However, in the meantime relationships and friendships will be fostered and maintained through prayer, liturgy, phone calls, emails and social media.
Those who support Cambodia meet twice a year and there are two Cambodian Masses each year in April and October. The next will be at St Etheldreda's Ely on Friday, April 20 at 7pm. Everyone is welcome.
Pictured top are children at Ta Om doing the Blessings Dance for their East Anglian visitors.