The Kouk Khleang Youth Center is a new initiative in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Relatively hidden in a suburban community about 400 meters from the capital’s busy Okhna Try Heng Street, a two-storey bamboo building stands proud.
With its walls and ceilings primarily made of bamboo culms, the building gives a welcoming and refreshing vibe, contrary to the intimidating feels of most concrete edifices we see around Phnom Penh.
The building, officially called Kouk Khleang Youth Center, is a home to young Cambodians in and out of the city who desire to learn English and upgrade their computer skills.
“We hold classes for young people who want to understand and speak English and also want to know how to use computers,” says Mr Pen Somony, executive director of the Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS).
CVS, which also has its office inside the Kouk Khleang Youth Center, manages the operation of the building – from scheduling classes to hiring of teachers to coordinating with youth organisations from provinces to encouraging youth to be part of the center’s advocacies.
The center started its first classes in mid-2014, giving youngsters in the neighbourhood the chance to better their skills. The classes are held in evenings.
Before it was inaugurated in April 2014, the youth center was originally a mere undergraduate thesis of a group of architecture students from Finland. It was not even meant to be built.
According to Mr Somony, the Finnish students visited Phnom Penh in 2010 for their project. The students were required to design a sustainable and ecological architecture in the country.
The students aimed to create a design that is centred in the use of environment-friendly materials that are suitable for the Cambodian culture and climate.
The group, who partnered with CVS for the design, thought of using low-carbon materials such as bamboo, recycled plastic bottles and earthen blocks.
The design of the bamboo building had been approved and submitted to the students’ university in Finland.
“But after the students finished the design, we thought of taking it a step further. Instead of just stopping with just a design, we decided to really build the center,” said Mr Somony.
The students, composed of six students, founded Komitu and partnered with CVS again to find funds for the construction of the building.
The Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA) joined the project and donated a vacant lot for the building.
The construction started in 2012 and was completed in early 2014, with the help of several organizations and individuals from Cambodia and Finland.
Many people helped in the planning and construction. This, the Komitu architects said, is a good way to encourage community participation and give them a sense of ownership of the building.
The two-storey building has two stairs, both made of wood, and has several rooms for classes, offices and workshops. Whiteboards, chairs and tables are set neatly in the training rooms.
English and computer classes usually take in about 20 students each session. Additional training centred in personality development, political awareness and environmental preservation have also been held inside the center.
Mr Somony added that the center has also acquired 10 computer sets and other educational materials from donors.
He also noted that since the building is made primarily of bamboo, sunlight and fresh air can pass through each room, keeping them well-lighted and cool.
“There’s no need for us to turn on the lights and have fans in here. This means that we only pay less for our electricity,” said Mr Somony.
In fact, the center won an Energy Globe Award in 2015 for its sustainable design.
Since it first opened its doors in 2014, the center is anchored by its goal to be a rendezvous where people help preserve the environment and get an informal but quality education.
However, Mr Somony admitted that the center is not currently holding classes and training.
“We stopped for now because we do not have teachers to hold the classes. We don’t have volunteer teachers anymore,” he said.
Despite the present setback, the people and organisations behind the center know that it has gone beyond expectations – from a mere thesis requirement to a solid structure that fosters learning.
They firmly believe Kouk Khleang Youth Center will continue to stand proud through the years – just like a bamboo.