Thatch Roof Interior – keeping it cool Bakong

Thatch Roof Interior - keeping it cool Bakong

Roofing is always a challenge in rural Cambodia. There is corrugated iron which is watertight during the wet season, but proves far too hot during the dry hot months of March through to June. Living under zinc is like living in a brutally hot oven, a point lost I feel, with a few of the Habitat for Humanity projects I have seen.

Better than the tin is roofing tiles, and architecturally these have a reference back to the red earth of Cambodia itself. Cost wise, tiles are out of reach for many rural families, and actually too heavy for many huts which are built out of bamboo.

This leaves thatch roofing which is cool, inexpensive, and comfortable – at least until the heavy rains come. In Bakong, locals earn spare money thatching palm leaves together into panels which they then take into the markets of Siem Reap.

One day Savong and I were driving back to Siem Reap from the school, and we came across two young men on their bicycles, loaded up with thatch panels about to make the long trek.  Savong wound down his window and asked if they would prefer to deliver the roofing to the SOC instead. He handed them a few dollars and next day when we came to the children’s home I saw the thatch roofing placed carefully on top of the iron roofing which stood at the time – helping the buildings to stay much cooler. I love thatch – and I love the craftsmanship that goes on to weaving this material, and attaching it so elegantly to traditional bamboo structures.

I imagine if you grew up in rural Cambodia, and then later moved to the big city one of the things you would miss would be the organic almost vanilla fragrance of those lovely thatch panels.

See also the Bamboo ladder

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Ladder in Bakong

Ladder in Bakong

Every night where I live they advertise on television the new aluminium multipurpose extenda-flex ladder – which is really 28 ladders in one! The thing is, I can almost guarantee that none of these 28 ladders would be much help if you were trying to ascend a 30 foot palm tree in order to bring down some coconuts.

Another case of bamboo and traditional artisanship to the rescue.

I took this photo virtually outside the gate of the SOC in Bakong.

For other examples of Khmer architecture and craftsmanship:

Facebook in Cambodia – huge growth

Facebook in Cambodia - huge growth

Four years ago there were an estimated 100,000 users of FB in Cambodia and by March 2012 this had risen to  491,480 and in December 2013 SocialMediaCambodia.com pegged the figure at 1,120,000 users – reporting that there has been steady straight line growth at the rate of 1,100 new users every day or one Cambodian every two minutes.

So today the number is – in my rough guesstimate – well in excess of 1.3 million.  That means more than a third of users have supported the most popular measured site in Cambodia: that of politician Sam Rainsy who has 480,000 “Likes” on his Facebook page.  The second most favorited site is the Voice of America.

According to SOCIALBAKERS.COM who measure social media globally, the age-breakdown of FB users in Cambodia is skewed heavily (I would say seismically) towards the under 25s. Users 13-24 years old make up 62% of all users.

Females are catching up also. Four years ago FB users in Cambodia tended to be very predominantly male – but now the gender balance is 59% to the boys and 41% to the girls.

Growth of Facebook in Cambodia has been accelerated through the arrival of smart phones and cheap phone data deals. SocialMediaCambodia.com estimated that just on 75% of Facebook users were subscribing via their mobile devices.

Ghosts in the Cambodian schoolyard

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Darkness falls quickly in Cambodia. A group of young men were laughing and shouting, they weren’t human; they were ghosts.

When dusk falls in Bakong, it falls mighty quickly. One minute the sky is a fiery orange and the next, everything is pretty well pitch black. On a clear night – which is not that often in the hazy tropics – you can look up and see stars bright enough that it seems you can almost reach them. On one of these evenings I had just emerged from the classroom at Savong School when I looked up and I saw a man-made satellite drifting silently, eerily, across the sky. I pointed this out to a couple of students, and soon there was a large group of us scanning the horizon for more satellites.

But in this same schoolyard there are other unseen things – eerie things – which locals acknowledge but Westerners find difficult to believe. I’m talking about ghosts, and when I first went out to Savong School several of the locals told me about the ghosts in the schoolyard. First, there is the elderly lady, a widow, who lives in the tree beside the generator shed. She is harmless and likes to be left alone. People talk respectfully of the old lady.

But back in the day when Savong lived in a thatch hut on the school grounds, I was told of another group of ghosts – young figures – who would wander into the schoolyard at night, laughing, drinking and disturbing the peace. Now where I live in Auckland New Zealand, there are plenty of these young people – we used to have a nightclub located opposite our house – so I wondered, were these really ghosts that the locals had heard, or simply young people; looking for a good time?

“No, these were definitely ghosts!” I was told. And in fact that was one reason why, at that time, the installation of the gates were seen as an important step for the school. It wasn’t just to keep out  thieves,  (see our recent story,) but to keep out the disturbing spirits.

What I like about the Cambodian ghosts, is that they seem approachable and basically decent. The same is true in Thailand, and Thai stories I have read feature the same benign spirits. How different from western literature in which ghosts are inevitably unhappy souls determined to disturb the lives of the living. Here in Cambodia the ghosts are simply part of the neighbourhood, and don’t seem to be a worry to anybody. Live and …ahem…let live.

Near the old lady’s tree Savong used to have a small Buddhist shrine at which he would burn incense and occasionally offer prayer. In Cambodia you will see these shrines at hotels, office buildings and people’s homes. Spiritual life is a very important part of the Cambodian social fabric. One evening Savong asked if I wanted to pray with him at the shrine, and I agreed.

There, in the dark we kneeled before the shrine and beside the old woman’s tree. Above us was the infinity of stars, and for a few minutes I was utterly swallowed up in the vast cosmic silence. I was conscious for those minutes of the vast gulf that lay between our two cultures, and at the same time I was conscious of our vast similarities as two mere humans: two specks in a mysterious universe. I prayed for Savong, I prayed for the school, and yes I prayed for the old woman in the tree.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

180 young Cambodian students would love your assistance

Click here for a YouTube video I put together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifRHOz-dIbo&feature=youtu.be

Savong’s School in rural Siem Reap is extending its services to include primary school teaching for Grade 1 – 6. Here’s some background in a brief 4 minute video. Have you got some energy and skill to assist the project?

You can contact me:  Duncan Stuart – duncan@kudos-dynamics.com

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Savong and the Mystical Python

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Savong and his father, 2009. A family story that needs telling.

Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.

One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.

Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei,  otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals.  In these regards he is highly esteemed.

Fortune-telling?  For Westerners this seems like a dubious title.  Honestly,  how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.

However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.

The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.

“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”

“What is it?” asked Savong.

“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”

So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”

“It was this long,”  Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”

I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?

See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard