Back to school. 2019.

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We clattered over the footbridge that was scarcely wide enough to take the tuk tuk. I was two minutes away from seeing the school we built in 2005.

The last time I was in Cambodia was October 2015 and it said a lot about the place that it inspired blogs from me well into 2016.  At night I continue to dream about the countryside especially, with the warm fragrance of tropical plants, red dusty roads and delicious wok-cooked food, sizzling on beds of burning charcoal.

My main ambition for this journey in December/January was to go out and visit the school I helped Savong build in 2005  and to do some teaching and to consider how the school may have benefited the children of Bakong.  The photo above is my tuk tuk driver Sothy Leru navigating a pedestrian bridge near the Bakong village on the way to the school. Alas, we couldn’t take the usual road to the school, the one that goes past Bakong temple – the ruins of which are older than Angkor Wat. These days the area comes under the control of the APSARA authority, the managers of the greater Angkor Wat region: the people who quite fairly charge tourists for a1 Day, 2 Day or 5 Day pass.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share the story and review what the current state of play is with the school.  Right now I can say I really enjoyed teaching there and, yet again, I felt as if Cambodia is my second home.

So welcome back to my blog.  Join me as I revisit the school, help release a prisoner from jail, visit another prisoner and play detective as I catch up with old friends.

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Rain returns to Siem Reap

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A ‘heavy downpour’ in Bakong.

After months of sustained drought conditions, rain has returned – at least at hopeful levels – for now. In fact Savong said the storm that brought the big downpour was strong enough to rip the roofing off at the SOC in Bakong.  Urgent repairs have been carried out this week.  Cambodian weather never goes anything by halves – unlike in my homeland of New Zealand where mad outbreaks of drizzle, or wild streaks of cloudiness break the usual sunshine.

Buildings in the countryside of Cambodia face a precarious architectural problem: being well ventilated for the heat versus being fully enclosed and typhoon proof.  In the city more and more homes and buildings are enclosed and – power outages aside – enjoy air conditioning via heat pumps.

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The fix. New iron, tougher nails.

But in the countryside the architecture is lighter and more susceptible to extreme weather.

I think, long-term, climate change is going to be the dominant concern for rural Cambodia. Economically and architecturally the people are going to be at extreme risk of ruin. Risk has always been a part of rural life – but that marks the difference between advantaged versus disadvantaged nations: the degree of resilience in the face of risks.  In this respect Cambodia has a long way to go.

By the way, my name is Duncan Stuart, and I’ve been involved with Cambodia since 2004. I’m slowly getting to know the country and have been eagerly watching the ups and downs of its development. My blogs are usually about Cambodia in general, though my perspective is through the lens of supporting Savongs School in rural Siem Reap. 

 

 

Samach’s story.

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His ID Photo is the classic Cambodian ID.  A serious young man in a small passport-sized photo that looks badly developed and almost hand-retouched. He wears a formal jacket and tie (this is an official ID) despite the heat on the day the photo was taken. The young man’s name is Chuon Samach. Chuon is his family’s name.

Samach is 22, and he is a Year 3 student at Angkor University as well as a part time teacher at Savong’s School in Bakong, 12kms east of Siem Reap.  By day he studies until noon and then he gets a tuktuik ride back to Bakong in order to teach until sunset which is almost always at 6:00pm, here near the equator. The days are long for Samach, the commute to and from University adds an hour to his commitments and at night he must prepare lessons and complete his assignments. He’s not complaining – but from an outsider’s point of view his life is hard.

Yet in some respects he is lucky also.

Samach is the seventh of nine children and while four siblings have got married and moved away, Samach and four others are supported by their parents, farmers who are typical of Bakong farmers: very poor because land plots are small, and the area is prone to devastating floods – or droughts. The father is 63 and the mother is 55 (both old enough to have lived through the worst of the Pol Pot years and the famine that followed. “Every day they try so hard to sustain the family,” says Samach. “I feel sorry for them.”

Samach studied well as a child, doing well at Prasat Bakong Primary School and then studying to Grade 12 at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School – the large area state school in the district. He was also in touch with Savong’s School from where he was awarded a university scholarship because of his excellent grades and in respect of his family’s low income.  “It has been great support,” he says. “With the aid of Savong School I am capable of continuing to study at university. I can’t believe I’ve had this opportunity.”

He studies for a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism, and is planning to gain a Masters degree as well – a rare achievement in rural Cambodia.

He’s determined. “Travelling is difficult and sometimes there are family problems, but I still don’t pack my study in.”

The scholarship has made a big difference – the difference between being able to study at University or not – and in the medium term it will help Samach pursue a well-paid career and enable him to fulfil his own dream of supporting his family. “My family will rely on me, down the road,” he says.

The University scholarship covers annual enrolment fees, a very basic salary, and daily transport into town as well as a laptop: an essential item for University.

As with the other scholarship winners, Samach gives back – by teaching younger children at the school – and inspiring other students to set high goals. “I would like to show my deep appreciation for your support,” he told Salas, who took the notes for this story. “To Savong Organisation Cambodia and supporters I wish you longevity, nobility, health and strength.”

 

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

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:

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!