You really have to see it to believe how beautiful rural Cambodia is. Sparsely populated villages made up of a small cluster of wooden houses on stilts, next to a water canal that snakes through the lush green landscape. Ancient temples pop-up out of nowhere to surprise you and big curious smiles greet you everywhere.
Even though the village homes were very basic they were immaculately tidy and housed large families that all live together.
I was hunting for Savong’s School with my Tuk-Tuk driver from Siem Reip, getting blissfully lost in the narrow lanes of the village when I saw a group of young girls on bicycles. They were peddling furiously and I could tell they were late for something. School maybe? We just followed them and they brought us straight to Savong’s School!
The School has three tiny classrooms, one library and a computer room and a small office. The lovely girl who’s supposed to be the receptionist was sitting (almost) out in the open behind a wooden desk.
The three classrooms were packed and there were dozens of kids waiting their turn outside. And even though it’s happened to me before, I still get dumbfounded when I’m put in front of a room full of kids and told ‘tell us about yourself’! The kids were not shy and they surprised me with their skills in English and pointed questions about India, my work and my travels. I learnt a lot about Cambodian life, history and culture from the hour I spent with the students in this classroom.
I met Savong an hour and a half after arriving at his school. He’s such a young guy. Barely twenty-nine, but looks more like nineteen! I listened to him keenly as he told me about his inspiration to start the school. As a boy, Savong’s family could barely afford to educate him. He recalled being given some money for food but it was barely enough to buy some candy. Savong grew up in Cambodia as it struggled to recover from the Pol Pot Regime. He had to drop out of school after the 6th grade because his parents could no longer support him. He said, “I asked my parents to send me away to the Pagoda. There I would get three meals a day and I would also be able to study.”
He lived there for one year. He’d wake up at four thirty am, study for half an hour. Then help the nun cook food for all the Monks. He had to help serve and clean up after the monks had eaten before sitting down for a bite himself.
At the end of the year Savong decided to study Buddhism and became a Monk for three years. He told me that he found a mentor in his teacher who instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in him. It was during this time that he decided that he must help the children of Cambodia to get a better education.
Things were not much better for his family after he retuned from the monastery. Savong and his mother would make Banana cakes to sell in the village to make some extra cash.
Savong’s father is also a remarkable man. I was told that he was a clergyman at the Pagoda and would help collect the skeletal remains of the people murdered by the Pol Pot Regime in the infamous ‘Killing Fields’ or mass graves near Siem Reip. Savong’s father collected money to build a Stupa in remembrance of the people who were massacred. The regime was in power from 1975 to 1979 and some estimates claim that as many as 2.5 million people were killed.
“I think education is the number one thing in the world. If you have an education, you have everything”, he stressed. These are words he lives by. Savong’s school was established in 2005, when he was just 24 years old. A few friends lent him a helping hand all the way from Japan and New Zealand and he chipped in all his savings as well. 618 students are enrolled here currently and they learn English, computers and Japanese. Some of the students also attend the local government school, but it lacks the language and communication skills they need to apply to university or to find a decent job.
For the first four months all the teachers worked here as volunteers. Now Savong can pay them about 85 Dollars a month. I spent some time with one of them, a lovely girl called Salas. She’s been teaching here for five years now and her classroom didn’t even have standing space. That’s a great endorsement for any teacher!
Apart from the school, Savong also runs an orphanage nearby. Taking care of 29 children from the poorest areas in the country. It’s plain to see that he’s struggling. But that doesn’t stop him from planning even bigger things for the future. The orphanage also has a small clinic- the only one serving about six hundred families living in the vicinity.
Savong told me that the villagers requested him to set up the clinic. He explained that “The village is about 15 km from Siem Reip and most of the people here only have a bicycle. When they get sick, or when the women are ready to deliver babies how are they supposed to make it all the way there?”
For a man of very limited means, it’s amazing how much he’s accomplished.
I think I’m a very attentive listener, but sometimes my mind wanders as I hear the stories of my heroes. Savong is just a year older than me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how different our lives were as we grew up. My parents had a hard time keeping me in school too, because I just didn’t want to be there! I hated most of my teachers, whined and complained about how unfair ‘the system’ was and scraped through from one year to the next. Not because I’m stupid (that’s debatable though), but because I was completely uninspired. And I had it all too easy.
Savong works tirelessly; managing the school and orphanage, teaching, finding individual sponsors for the students and arranging scholarships for the brightest ones, getting supplies for the free clinic all while being a father to two beautiful little girls!
The children at his school and orphanage were so young, eager and hungry to learn. I hope each one has a great life. And I’m happy that there is a man like Savong working to ensure that it’ll be well spent.