Getting to know you 

It has been a great pleasure to get to know young people across Cambodia. There have been many opportunities for meaningful conversations including hotel staff, guides, teachers in training, musicians, dancers, artists, entrepenures, NGOs workers, students, recent university graduates, fellow travelers, and nieces and nephews of Cambodian colleagues.

Their openness has been remarkable, as they share their dreams and goals for themselves and for their communities and country.

Higher education is a huge priority and there are many obstacles to achieving it. I met youth who, after working all week, rode hours from far provinces to the capital to attend weekend classes. And youth who could afford to only take one class at a time. And when there were family emergencies like a sibling needing hospital care, they withdrew from school to help pay for the costs. Youth described families that could only afford to send $5 or less per week toward their room and board for school, and much of that disappears in the fee to ‘wing’ it to them. Yet they persist.

Many shared their clear eyed analysis of economic, environmental and political realities. This is in stark contrast to my experience in 2010, when young people were very wary of any  discussion of ‘complicated’ issues. There is not however a particularly hopeful expectation for change on a national level, but young people are thinking critically and are not apathetic. They are working hard and have aspirations.


The rising generation of potters


In Siem Reap we found Son Seyhak, a skillful and enterprising young potter from Kampong Chhnang, running his business Morodock Ceramics.  Seyhak learned his skills from his mother and grandmother, both traditional potters, and from Professor Kang Proeung’s workshops.

This is grandmother; she is 85 years old and still makes 10 big pots per day.


Seyhak launched his business two years ago. He now employs a staff of 15. Only 5 are local to Siem Reap, the other ten are from his hometown in Kampong Chhnang. He must provide salaries and room and board for these young potters.


His technical skills are high, and his products are high quality. He uses ash glazes he makes from local rocks and natural ingredients.

The tall jars on the right are inspired by ancient Khmer artifacts.

The business uses both wood fire and gas kilns each designed and build by Seyhak.


Kampong Chhnang the center of pottery production


We visited pottery communities in villages where pots and cooking stoves for everyday use are still produced by hand much like they were hundreds of years ago, and also new products like piggy banks, pumpkins and dinnerware.


We saw a wood fire kiln firing. This kiln has three chambers; the first is stoked from the front side openings as shown above. The second and third chambers are stoked by pulling two loose bricks out for access after the first chamber reaches temperature.


This group, originally funded by a Japanese NGO and now an incorporated group of ten potters, makes their own glazes by crushing and pulverizing local rocks with some powerful equipment.image


Their shop is filled with beautiful wares.


At another site in the village we watched demonstrations of hand built pots.


Two kinds of clay are mixed together to get suitable properties. Using feet instead of hands saves energy.


Two part molds are lined with slabs of clay to make newer designs.


This pig will become a bank that must be broken to take the money out; these are popular in the market. The new products sell for a higher price than the cooking pots, so younger generation potters prefer to make these. Their are fewer potters as a result who have the skill of hand building pots. It is in danger of becoming a lost art.




Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus

imageimageThis art school began 30 years ago in 1986 in Site 2 refugee camp on the Thailand border as an art therapy activity. It continued after repatriation in the early 1990s, moving to Battambang. This city was historically a center for the arts.

Today they train students in visual arts, graphic design, music, dance and circus arts. It has evolved to include professional development for employment in the arts following graduation. The school is free and students are recruited / admitted from only the poorest families and especially prioritized when there is violence or other urgent danger within families. Besides education and art training, students and families receive social supports.


The spectacular gymnastics are part of a story with a moral and reflection of society that is also infused with humor.

I ended up attending the circus in Siem Reap as well,  where the performers are professionals in contrast to Battambang where the performers are still students. I couldn’t tell the difference except in the admission charge!

My second time I had more opportunity to talk to staff, and left deeply impressed by the shared mission.


Riding the Bamboo train

This was scary like a roller coaster as it roared down the track at breakneck speed. The bamboo railroad is an entrepreneurial invention of Battambang citizens making use of the abandoned rail tracks to ferry passengers and freight. It has become a tourist attraction, and quite lucrative for the owner of the track. The platform ‘cars’ are owned individually, and each owner must pay a majority share to the track owner. Our ‘car’ grossed $70 for the @ 40 minute ride. It would seem yet again the powerful have the biggest advantage.



The rice fields whizzed by.

image.jpegWhen a “car” was coming toward one in the opposite direction, the car with the most passengers can pass, the other car has to dismantle and wait on the side.

Yary’s childhood Wat is in central Battambang

Built in 1904 and funded by a Thai couple this Wat is considered lucky because it was not desecrated during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The deacon showed us around, and highlighted the stories carved in high relief around the exterior.  He lamented that while there is occasionally money available from the government to build new temples, no one is interested in funding restoration of this exquisite site. (Note the train image humorously included on the storyboard, Battambang is know for its train.)

By boat to Battambang

We crossed the Great  Tonle Sap lake and followed a river to Battambang. It took 7 hours. We saw fishing communities and floating villages.image.jpeg


Life is more challenging for this population that lives on the water. Life expectancy is lower because there is scant opportunity to access fruits and vegetables for a healthy diet, less access to health care, sanitation and clean water and education.

With the Tonle Sap fisheries depleted there are fewer and smaller fish, and the dam being built in Laos will surely cause further harm. Fish provide about 70% of the nation’s protein, so the crisis will be huge.

Our boat at the dock in Battambang.