Part 3: Unexpected Fame and Opportunities For BYU Students

Continued From Part 2: The Band Muk

This is the third installment in a 3-part special series entitled “Talented American Mormons Help Cambodia“, with exclusive photos, video and interviews.

Muk appears Live on CTN
Muk appears Live on CTN

Trevor Wright, A. Todd Smith, Jordan Augustine and Joseph Peterson were basking in the glow of their wildly successful live Cambodian Television (CTN) appearance on July 19, 2008. The American band “Muk” was an overnight sensation! The attention this generated wherever they went, was unexpected. As Todd describes:

“The reaction has been a little bit more intense than I thought it would be. I originally thought that maybe half the country would watch the program, but I think in actuality just about [all] of the country saw us on television. We are recognized EVERYWHERE we go. Even in the deep mountain ranges of far east Cambodia people know who we are.”

As exciting as all of the attention this new fame was bringing, it was not the primary dream nor focus for these men. The band was very fun, but a sidebar to their real purpose in Cambodia. Time was ticking for them to finish filming a serious documentary about the people who subsist daily in the Phnom Pehn garbage dump called Steung Mian Chey. This was a project several years in development, with filming begun in 2007 when Trevor, Todd and Jordan were volunteers with the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). Now that the TV lights were dimming, it was time for them to dive back into this work. Their meticulous production schedule was in shambles. The team had also experienced disappointment and unexpected setbacks when new management at the chidlren’s school rejected their script. The film direction needed to be completely overhauled. But the team did not get discouraged. They said some prayers, picked up their equipment and went off to the dump to see what they could find. At this point, they were starting to realize the new motto of their Cambodian experience was to “expect the unexpected“.

Steung Mian Chey - Photo by Trevor Wright
A worker at Steung Mian Chey - Photo by Trevor Wright

The dumping ground Steung Mian Chey is filled with extreme hazards for the people who live and scavenge there. The film team also ended up facing some danger of their own. Roving gangs who steal and intimidate are one of the serious threats at the dump. The film team had been warned by many of the people there to be very careful, but at first the warning went unheeded. Trevor recalls:

“We shrugged off their advice for awhile, thinking that because we knew Khmer we could speak to the gangs and get out of it. Only a few days later, we were filming at the edge of the dump and we noticed a kid about our age looking very shady and staring at our stuff. I made a comment about it to Todd, but we kept filming. Then [a girl] came running up and told us that we needed to leave. She said that one kid rode off on his bike to get the gang to come back and steal our stuff. We listened to her, and got out of there pretty quick.”

Before returning, the team hired two body guards from the local police station to accompany them to the dump. Not surprisingly, having a couple of guns and tazers nearby made everything run smoothly from then on.

Ki and Li with their baby
Ki and Ly with their baby - Photo by Trevor Wright

Among the people chosen for their film was a young couple named Ki and Ly with two small children. Their baby was very ill. Despite medicine being administered by a humanitarian group similar to the Red Cross, the baby had not improved. The mother’s hope was to take the infant back to their home village, believing the local doctor there could cure him. However, the cost made this dream impossible. The film team decided to assist the family, and use it as a documentary opportunity.

“A major theme in the documentary has to do with the contrast between the garbage dump and the provinces. The vast majority of the families that work in the dump came there because they had no way to make enough money or food for their families in the provinces. Thus there is a complex love/hate relationship with the provinces and the dump.”

The return journey alone ended up being an adventure involving several modes of transportation including a train, taxi, buses and even a rustic boat in order to make their way to the remote village located in the jungle bordering Vietnam. Trevor describes the new surroundings they encountered:

Plowing Rice Paddy Fields
Plowing Rice Paddy Fields

“Once we got off the bus, we found ourselves on the banks of a small muddy river. On all sides of us there were rice fields, cows, water buffalo, and palm trees. We got some cool shots while we waited another two hours for a small, long, wooden boat to take us on the last leg of the journey.”

When finally reaching the village, their arrival caused quite a stir. People were stunned and amazed by the tall white Americans. Trevor continues:

“There were somewhere between 30-50 people staring at us at any given moment during those first couple of hours, mumbling to each other, and pointing. They kept saying over and over to each other things like , “I have never seen such a thing in my whole life.” “I thought they were just on TV.” “They are so tall.” “That is the whitest thing I have ever seen!” “Why do they have so much hair on their arms?” “What do they eat?” Just to freak them out even more, I turned to a couple of them and answered their questions, which resulted in more amazement and giggling.”

The American students would spend several days in this village, sleeping on bamboo, interviewing, taking “breathtaking footage” and photos and “just getting to know and love the people there“. It ended up being a “wildly successful” opportunity for their documentary project, as well as a life-changing personal experience. Trevor poignantly relates their last night in the village:

“On Monday night, we spent some time crammed into Ly’s small house, laughing, singing and enjoying each other’s company all to the light that came from a single kerosene powered lamp. Before we went to bed, we all sang “I am a child of God” and I could feel the goodness of these people. By the time we left, we felt like a huge family. They were all so sad we had to go…The more time I spend with these people, the more I realize how crucial human love and interaction is. While I am sure I will think back upon the many adventures that I had while in Prey Veng, the most dear to me will be sitting in that small hut at night staring into the faces of that precious family as their eyes were filled with such humble love illuminated by the light of a single kerosene flame.”

The love that these “band of American brothers” have for the land and people of Cambodia is deeply evident as they speak and write. Their hopes and dreams for serving and helping these people they love so much is sincere and touching. In reality, this 3-part series is just an introduction to their story, which now begins another exciting chapter. Currently, the team has returned to the United States. At this point in their story, their band Muk has experienced a significant amount of fame since their TV appearance. YouTube accounts have popped up filled with their performance clips and an outpouring of comments full of superlatives from adoring fans. The Phnom Penh Post recently ran an interview with them. The Cambodian Television Network (CTN) has proposed many different options to the team. In the immediate future there is plans for a large music concert and tour in November, if sponsors for band Muks travel and expenses come through. Other interesting offers being discussed is to have the team film and host a traveling documentary showcasing lives of Cambodians living in the United States. There has been interest in the purchase and distribution of their current documentary. Indeed, “more ideas and offers seem to come in daily“.

Here is a short current update of the band Muk / BYU Film team members:

Trevor Wright has returned to school at BYU where he faces the daunting work as director/producer overseeing editing of the Steung Mian Chey documentary. The film team received the mixed blessing of gathering a tremendous amount of impressive footage that now must be sorted through with the wisdom of Solomon. Trevor is also preparing to enter Seminary training to become a religion teacher for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A. Todd Smith has returned to his last year of Film school at BYU. He will be equally busy as Editor working closely along with Trevor to prepare their documentary for distribution. He has hope they can submit the film to independent festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, among others, and of course there are many other offers for purchase flowing in at this publication. Todd is entertaining an offer to work for a TV station in California after graduation.

Jordan Augustine is currently serving a prestigious internship with The National Geographic in Washington, DC.

Joseph Peterson has returned to BYU and is preparing to enter a pre-Med school program. He recently revealed that he is engaged to be married to a Cambodian woman whom he met this summer.

When asked to share how others can best help the people of Cambodia, Todd offers this advice:

“I believe that knowing and telling [about the struggles and poverty] is the best first step to helping a country like Cambodia. I’ve met many people who have no idea where Cambodia is, or even know anything about its history or current state. This is a big reason we chose to make a documentary. We simply want people to know about Cambodia and become more aware of the kind of situation it is in. Generally, after people learn they naturally want to know what they can do to help..[which opens up many] opportunities.”

Readers are invited to make a tax-deductible donation to either the Cambodian Children’s Fund, or directly to the Steung Mian Chey documentary project.

Todd offered some final thoughts about how these experiences have affected them most:

“I think Cambodia has affected us all personally in different ways, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that it has changed how we find and view happiness in our own lives. The Cambodian people are a very happy, inviting, and humble people despite everything they have gone through and are still going through. They find ways to be happy everyday no matter what happens. This has certainly caused me to look for happiness in different places and been a great example to me and makes me grateful for the friends, family, and other relationships I have that brings happiness to my life. “

MormonSoprano looks forward to following this talented band of brothers on their journey. It has been an honor to have been able to meet, interview and tell their story. It is impossible to tell a story like this without pondering the deeper meaning and lessons it teachers. It inspires one to “expect the unexpected”, to keep moving forward when things don’t go as planned, to never be afraid to take a chance and reach for impossible dreams, and above all to find happiness in all of our circumstances. Four dedicated men are excelling as musicians, humanitarians, US ambassadors, and dedicated members of their church. MormonSoprano congratulates them and thanks them for being willing to share their time, personal feelings and beautiful photos with this author. Good Luck, Muk!



  1. Thanks for the interview. The guys are amazingly talented. Thanks for sharing your talents with us. I appreciate what they are doing for the country of Cambodia.


  2. Todd is an amazing young man. We are fellow Ward members from Bountiful and have enjoyed our association with his family. We are very impressed with this group of young men and are proud of their unselfish efforts to help the Cambodian people. We work with many people here in the Netherlands who are not Dutch, but the only ones from Asia that we have met are from China. Keep up the good work and good luck on the singing careers. We look forward to the next 3-part series.


  3. I am very impressed my this group’s talent, and deeply touched by their compassion and courage. I am a Cambodian American professional singer, trained western classical music, and will be performing in a major Cambodian-American rock opera in Phnom Penh possibly during the time they will be there. It would thrill me beyond words to be able to extend a personal invitation for each of the guys to see the opera live (it will also be on CTN). Is there a way for me to contact them directly? I haven’t found a website for them. Thank you so much for your help.


  4. Will, Daliny, Elder & Sister Servoss & Amara – thank you so much for visiting my site, reading about Band Muk and leaving your kind comments. I will forward all of them to the band. They do not have an official website yet, however I am working to rectify that. At this writing they will return to Cambodia in December. Amara – I will contact you personally to get more details.


  5. Todd, Jordan, Trevor and Joseph – I just wanted to thank you for what you are all doing for the Cambodia and its people. You all are just amazing and so talented. I just couldn’t find a better words to say but THANK YOU!


  6. You guys are wonderful. Your mastery of the Cambodian language is unheard of, especially since you’ve only learned the language for two years. You speak better than most natives, using the slangs, inflections and tone of a Cambodian speaker. I swear, if I close my eyes, I’d thought you were Cambodians.
    Thanks for sharing the songs, I haven’t heard Champa Battambang in 35 years. I grew up listening to that song on my father’s old turntable and 45 singles of Sinn Sisamouth.
    Thanks for helping telling the stories of Cambodians and for being friends to Khmers.
    Good luck and keep singing.


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