Friday, 14 March 2014

Samart School library build

In November/December 2013 George McIldowie and I spent a month building a library for a rural school 20km from Siem Reap, Cambodia. It turned out to be an amazing experience and the highlight of our 4 months in South East Asia. 

Previous to arriving in Siem Reap we had spent a lot of time on the internet trying to find a volunteer program that suited us. There were heaps of programs advertised on the net, but all were very expensive. Luckily, we found a small flyer in a hostel detailing a rural school that was just about to start building a library and needed some volunteers to help. We rang the number and started the next day. 

The ride to the school took us through lush green rice fields as far as the eye could see. After bouncing along dusty roads and getting very lost we arrived to find a beautiful, humble little community comprising mainly of children, a few foreigners and a couple of Cambodian adults.

Introductions were made, followed by a tour of the grounds. Food, drink and banter were a plenty. We eventually retired to our dorm style bedroom, which was actually Mummy and Pappy's (the elderly couple who hosted all the volunteers) bedroom. They insisted we use the double beds while they slept on a thin mat on the floor. The first of many gracious acts of kindness from them. 

The following day began with a hearty feed of rice, coffee and fruit. Construction began straight away. At this stage the construction crew consisted of 5 Cambodian builders, 8 foreign volunteers, an infinite supply of local children and our fearless leader - Song Samart the monk. Song was the only person who could speak Khmer (Cambodian language) and English. Therefore all instructions from the buidlers to us had to be translated by Song first. Consequently whenever Song wasn't there, communication was done through pointing, grunting and laughing. 

This is Song Samart (pictured below). A monk at the local Pagoda from age 13 to 25. In 2013 he left the monk life to help his sick mother, who unfortunaly passed away not long before we arrived at the school. In between all that he started this school which provides free after school English and IT lessons to 350 local kids. He's also in full time study at university. A real character, a good friend and a true inspiration. He's only 25 years old. 

The first days construction went well. After spending the last 18months building a house in New Zealand, I was amazed at the building techniques and tools adopted here. The entire tool kit consisted of 1 hammer, a few nails, half a broken tape measure, some fishing nylon, a rubber tube and a few shovels. My initial thought was that there was no way we were going to be able to build a strong/straight building with such limited tools and materials, I was very wrong. 

Here are a few pictures from the few first days constructing the foundations. 

The local builders prooved to be extremely resourceful. They used tree branches as stakes and fishing nylon as string to set the profiles. Then they filled up the rubber tube with water and used the meniscus at either end to insure the stringlines were level. Very simple and accurate solution. One of the many acts of cleaver ingenuity I've seen throughout 'undeveloped' communities. 

The day ended with the monks scrubbing us clean in the hand-pump well, the schools sole water source. 

Our main job was mixing concrete. Even this was done very differently to home. We would pile a mound of sand on the grass, sprinkle some cement on top, then mix it using shovels. A depression was made in the sand/cement mix and small stones were piled into the depression. Water from the well was then bucketed onto the mix and left to penetrate. After a while we would again attack the mound with shovels mixing the sand/cement/stones/water until we had concrete. It made ringing a concrete truck at home seem like cheating. 

Construction was progressing well until we started to run low on sand. With no money to buy more, Song opted to go down to the river and dig up our own sand. This was easier said than done. The only sand was in the river bed under 1m of water. The children/monks/teachers would wade into the water with buckets, fill up the buckets with sand then we would carry them to the tractor and empty the buckets into the trailer. A physically demanding job in the heat, but many hands make lite work. 

We built during the day and aided with the English lessons in the evenings. Some of the crew were great teachers and I use to love watching their lessons. The guys had such awesome energy and the kids lapped it up. You could see everyone was learning and having a great time doing it. 

The lessons at our school were completly optional. Every student was there because they wanted to be. They would go to normal compulsory school during the day, then come to us in the evenings for extra English class. From 3pm to 8pm approximately 350 students would come through the Samart School doors. Their thurst for knowledge was incredible and it made me think of how I was a terrible student. Only going to school because I had to and having no real drive to learn. These kids had a fraction of the opportunities I had and were great students. Made me feel like a spoilt little shit. 

I helped in the English lessons for the advanced English students. The youngest in my class was 12, the oldest was 29. I enjoyed teaching English, but felt I could offer more on the building site than the classroom. 

Life at the school rolled by very effortlessly. We had a great crew of volunteers from all over the world. A total of 14 people at its height. Our host family transitioned from strangers to be more like family. We would go back into Siem Reap on the weekends to indulge in luxuries like a toilet you can sit on, the internet and food that wasn't rice. Every time we left Mammy would give us a big hug and kiss and wish us well. Mammy and Pappy were great people and came to be like grandparent to us. I miss them a lot. 

This is Pappy with our good friend Dom. 

Here's a selection of photos from the build. 

On 22nd December we had a huge party to bless and celebrate the completion of the library. The Cambodians really know how to throw a party! 

As a thank you gift from the volunteers we bought and spit roasted a pig. The process consisted of going to the pig farm and selecting a beast, killing and butchering it, building a spit roast and then cooking it. None of us has ever done that before, but we figured we could give it a go. George killed and butchered it and I made a spit roast from the left over building materias. It's was a real success and tasted delious. The entire thing was devoured in 10mins and not a single trace of it was ever seen again, not even a bone. 

The celebration was also used as a time to bless the new building. The monks from the local Pagoda came and we were offered the privilege of being blessed along with the building. This was a very interesting and spiritual experience. We were told that elderly monks, like the ones that blessed us, are very rare because most of the monks were executed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70's. 

Just before Christmas we had to leave the school for the last time. This was very hard as we had made some very strong bonds with lots of people from the community. It was tough saying goodbye to Mammy, Pappy and Song for the last time. They will forever be in my heart and the lessons they taught me will stay with me forever. 

It was equally as hard saying goodbye to a lot of the other volunteers that we worked and lived with. Some truly beautiful humans who I know I will see again some time. Hopefully when they come to visit George and I in New Zealand. 

I would thoroughly recommend anyone travelling in Cambodia to go to Samart School. It's a place where you can give a little, but learn a lot. I think the people saw us to be donating our time and money to them, but to me it felt more like an exchange. We gave something and in return learnt a lot of valuable life lessons. 

At $5/day (this includes all food and accommodation) it fits any travellers budget. 

This is the finished product with the crew at the end. 

George and I then jumped on our motorbikes and made a bearing for Vietnam for our next adventure, that's another story. 

Thank you so very much Samart School. I'll be back.....



  1. Hamish you and George are massive, proud to be a kiwi.

  2. Just stumbled across you blog and it is so awesome. Well written and so true! Keep on keeping on friend.