Part 1: Talented American Mormons Help Cambodia

This is the first installment in a special 3-part series exclusive!

A new rock band called “Muk” is capturing the hearts of Cambodians everywhere, and experiencing unexpected fame. What makes this unique, is that each member of the musical group are four average, white Mormon boys from Utah and New Jersey. It is the story “behind the band”, however, which is most unexpected, rewarding and inspiring.

MormonSoprano recently caught up with one of those band members, Brigham Young University film student A. Todd Smith, who agreed to an exclusive interview, along with graciously sharing personal photos.
"Muk" - From left; Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine, Joseph Peterson

"Muk" - From left; Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine, Joseph Peterson

Between 2003-2004 the lives of nineteen-year-old Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine and Joseph Peterson would be changed forever when each received a letter from headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints signed by then-president Gordon B. Hinckley extending a call to voluntary service at their own expense for two years in the growing Cambodia, Phnom Penh Latter-day Saint Mission, organized in 1994. None of them knew each other yet, nor what their futures held.

Cambodian Flag

Each man accepted this call to serve with excitement and a bit of trepidation. They would be leaving their family, friends and schooling behind and traveling to the other side of the globe to help a developing nation of over 14 million people. Their destination would be a country which has suffered great hardship, brutal conflict, and devastating poverty.

One of many Cambodian Killing Fields

One of many Cambodian Killing Fields

For many, Cambodia still invokes images of the Khmer Rouge holocaust which happened between 1975-79, vividly depicted in the movie The Killing Fields. At least 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives directly or indirectly at the hands of this genocidal regime. Many were taken out of their villages and murdered in fields or forests, sometimes after being made to dig their own graves. Even today, human remains are being unearthed in the fields of Cambodia.


But for a younger and rising generation, thirty years places these horrors in a distant past, and Cambodia extends a beautiful, exotic invitation to the world, filled with adventure and bright opportunities. These young men would first undergo an intensive 12 week “crash course” in the Khmer language and culture at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Then they would travel thousands of miles away, to an unfamiliar land, with foreign food, customs and culture.
Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Perhaps they were a bit overwhelmed with the task, but eager to befriend, serve, and help. Motivated by their deep religious belief and Christian values, the missionaries would perform humanitarian serviceand share their message of hope and peace. After two years of service, each of these young men were fluent in the Khmer language, and made a tremendous difference in the lives of the Cambodian people. They also found that Cambodia had made an equally tremendous difference in their own lives.

“After living in Cambodia from 2004-2006 we came to learn about, understand, and love the people there”

For most young Latter-day Saints, after completing a term of missionary service they return to their homes and respective countries and resume ‘life as usual’. Pursuit of education, employment, marriage and family life are par for the course. Their mission experiences become treasured yet distant memories. And although some may return to visit their areas of service, for most that chapter of their life story remains closed.

Wright, Peterson, Smith and Augustine with Monks

Wright, Peterson, Smith and Augustine with Monks

However, for Smith, Wright, Augustine and Peterson, this would only be the beginning of their Cambodian experience and service. It would not be long before their paths would lead them back together. All men returned to the USA and began their formal college education. Smith, Wright and Augustine each excel in the art of photography and film, and within two years were accepted to Brigham Young University’s Media Arts program. Peterson was already at BYU pursuing a degree in Anthropology.

BYU in Provo, Utah

BYU in Provo, Utah

Reunited, these young men enjoyed their camaraderie, shared interests and second language. They talked often about returning to their mission field, and in 2007 they went as humanitarian volunteers with the CCF (Cambodian Children’s Fund).

Cambodian Children Play

Cambodian Children At Play

It was during this experience that they met the vibrant children who had been rescued from terrible poverty, and they witnessed first hand the waste pickers who lived in the largest garbage dump outside Phnom Penh.

Steung Mean Chey photo by Trevor Wright

Steung Mean Chey photo by Trevor Wright

With no other skills to help them make a living in the city, hundreds of families live in and around a dump outside of Cambodia’s capital city, called “Steung Mian Chey” (which ironically means “River of Victory”).

“Many (including an estimated 1,600 children) pick through the garbage all day and when the sun sets, many pull out headlamps and pick all night.”

In summer of 2007 the team also met former head of Sony International, Scott Neeson.

Scott Neeson of CCF

Scott Neeson of CCF

A truly remarkable man, Mr. Neeson forsook his extremely wealthy and comfortable Western lifestyle after touring Southern Asia, and used his own resources to establish the CCF to begin making a difference one child at a time. It did not take long before Todd, Trevor, and Jordan were inspired to team together and form the Steung Mian Chey Documentary project.

“We spent our days teaching the children at the organization and surveying and documenting the families at the dump. Despite our initial preconceptions, the people were not as harsh as their surroundings, but rather warm, funny, and inviting. Their resilience changed our entire outlook on life and as a result, we wanted to share them with the world”.


During the 2007-08 school year the team not only had to work hard on their demanding schoolwork, but also were diligently seeking monetary backing in order to return to Cambodia for the summer of 2008 to complete the filming for the documentary. Despite many setbacks, they finally succeeded in securing enough funds to return in June of this year. Preparations began in earnest, and Director/Producer Trevor Wright carefully mapped out each moment of their filming schedule in advance, to ensure success. However, there is an old truism which says “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Go Oft Astray…” The adventure was just getting started for this ambitious troupe!…

READ NEXT: Part 2: The Band Muk; Talented American Mormons Helping Cambodia
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NEW: Join BAND MUK Facebook!

23 thoughts on “Part 1: Talented American Mormons Help Cambodia

  1. Thank you for sharing your incredible writing abilities and your talent for telling a story about a story! The story of Trevor, Todd, Jordan and Joe and their incredible adventures in Cambodia is one that needs to be shared. I am so grateful that you chose to be that voice. Thank you so much. The people and families of Steung Mian Chey are remarkable as are these four “brothers” who by divine providence were brought together to share an amazing story of happiness and hope against the very brutal background of “the dump” of Cambodia. I will look forward to part 2!!

  2. Pingback: Part 2: The Band Muk - Talented American Mormons Helping Cambodia « MORMON SOPRANO

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  4. Pingback: Part 3: Unexpected Fame and Opportunities For BYU Students « MORMON SOPRANO

  5. Dear: American Band Muk
    My name is Thida Sy, I am khmer christen live in USA at Kentucky State. I have seen your band group on CTN show, your band is amazing singing in khmer song. I just want to say congratulation to your band and thank you so much for helping khmer people. You guy is very talented in our language of khmer. I can’t hardly believe you guy to learn khmer language only 2 year to speak khmer that very well. I would like to get to know your group. Please reply back your information email address if you don’t mind. God Bless your Muk Band group. Bye-bye … Thida Sy

  6. Wow you guys are incredible to speak fluent khmer for just only two years. Keep up the good job. Thank you so much for helping khmer people. Khmer people needs lot of help from people who are educated like you guys.

    Trevor Wright, Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine and Joseph Peterson, you guys make me proud because you speak Khmer better than I do.

    I live in Canada for 13 years now, and yet i have never get a chance to visit my families in Cambodia
    I would like to know more a bout khmer if you guys get any news…..please reply me at my email address

  7. WOW, I guess like everyone else, I am amazed by your level of khmer. I, Cambodian-American, after finishing my undergraduate degree, left for a 1 year journey to Cambodia. I came back this past July 2008. Now, I’m hoping to pursue a Masters Degree in Sustainable Development. I have a great passion for developing Cambodia. I would love to hear more about your objectives and your goals for your career and your mission in life.

    best wishes,
    Sarong Vit-Kory

  8. Wow! This word is an understatement to describe my immediate response to the youtube video I saw on your band (MUK) and the ever so exciting group interview on CTN. I have never been so impressed and intrigued by anyone or anything. I’m a Khmer-American myself. I speak the language fluently but was not fortunate enough to excel in writing. I will learn to very soon. I was born in Thailand in a refugee camp towards the very end segment of the infamous war. Our family came to the U.S. when I was 6….so….I can say that I’m pretty “Americanized/Westernized” :) , which leads me to my next topic of amazement. I was floored when I saw the four guys speaking and communicating in my native language at a more intellectual level than myself. Granted, I never had formal education in Thailand, but it’s still very very unreal to witness!!! Thank you guys so much for your great deeds and reaching out to the Cambodian community and who ever else you may have touched. It touched me! That’s for sure. It has impacted me in such an great way. I feel like now, you’ve triggered a “want & need” for me to make my contribution to my own people and community. I have plenty of ideas in doing so but need to think it through a little more :)

    Thanks again for sharing your talents and gift with me and the rest of the world!

    Hugs & Kisses!

    Hao Hou

      • My Name is LORN LYNA ,I LVE IN Phom Penh Capital ,Cambodia. as membership 7Th branch of LDS in Phnom Penh.
        I think that missonary of LDS it is very important for all the people in the world.
        good new , charity,

        I want to find elder Ottos and elder Morton, How they are live? they are elder in My babtism since 2003.
        Thank you.
        May god bless.

  9. Hi Trevor, Todd, Jordan and Joe! You guys are amazing! I’m so proud and fascinating of your performance and assisting Khmer peoples. Well keep it up whatever you’re doing. I will support you guys all the way. I’m your number 1 fan. I love you all. I can’t keep thinking about you guys day or nite. I love the song “right here waiting” the lyrics are meaningful. Keep it up because you’re amazing. You are gods! Love you!

  10. Hi guys from MUK, l would just like to say that you guys are very impressive the way you speak khmer so well. l’m trying to speak my wife’s languages which are hokkien chinese and malay,but i’m nowhere near your standard.well done and good luc k in your mission. declan o’gorman

  11. Dear amazing people,
    i served in D.C and served cambodian people too. it was great experience and wonderfull mision. i would like to thank to those are helping my own people. God bless !!!!!
    from long beach cambodian park ward.

    boone

  12. Pingback: Muk Band Member Wins Best Director Emmy « MORMON SOPRANO

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