Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong:

A place where dreams come true



As you come into land at Siem Reap airport, Cambodia tourists on the left hand side of the plane hold their faces to their windows, peering out at the scenery below. There! Can you see it? The distinctive square that maps out Angkor Wat! And below us, a large rectangular lake.  We’re coming in now…you brace your feet and….bump…we touch down.

That lake, that rectangular man made lake is 1,000 years old. It is called West Baray and it was constructed to provide year round water for fishing and agriculture for the Angkor Kingdom. It was built as part of a system that enabled, through irrigation, three rice harvests per annum, not two. It reflected the knowledge and engineering skills of a civilisation that earned undreamed of wealth and power. This lake helped support a city of more than one million people – the largest city in the world.

Today the lake is a destination for locals seeking a place to swim and picnic. Skinny boats with their diesel engines take visitors out to a small island where there is an Angkor shrine, and a small wooden pagoda. Children often come here, some selling fruit to visitors. Over in the shade there’s a group of musicians, blind, who play the complex, enchanting Khmer music.

It is here that Savong and his friend Sopin took me in October 2004 and we sat in the warmth, listening to the music. Sopin sat on a small jetty catching puffer fish the size of spiky little golf balls. It was here that Savong discussed his dreams of opening a school in the countryside, the school that now bears his name.

More recently Savong has invested more time in West Baray, and with generous funding from a Hong Kong based sponsor has started a small school – an extension of Savong School to give local children precisely the same hope that he gives elsewhere: the hope of education.

Today Savong posted on his Facebook page a couple of photos (one of them is the girl above)  and he reflected on the fact that this is where he first shared his dream to build a school.  Now here is a second school, a modest open-air classroom, that serves more than 100 children. 

The photo above is a fresh reminder of the willingness that local children show for education. Today 8  years after his own dream came true, the dreams of these children are now being realised as well.