Utilizing the communal space of the bus, this project aims to provide frameworks in trying to solve the issue of reading literacy in Cambodia. In my experience on the bus, those who not engaged in conversations with other passengers resort to their phones. I have not seen anyone reading on the bus or at the bus stop beside a few elders reading their morning newspapers. This is, indeed, representative of reading culture in Cambodia, which is to say it is sparse. According to the National Population Census in 2008, adults of 15 years old and over have the literacy rate of 77.6%. The percentage breaks down and reveals the tight link between literacy and poverty in Cambodia.
By Panharith Ean. Harvard GSD. Published: Fall 2018
During one of the hottest afternoons in Phnom Penh, I escaped the tropical heat by jumping onto the City’s bus instead of walking downtown. I paid 1500 Riels (~0.37USD) for the ride, and on I went in an air-conditioned, newly-refurbish bus. As I settled to my seat, I realized that I have walked into the middle of a very engaging conversation. The two middle-age women in front of me were discussing, in details, the schedule of their children’s classes and went on to exchange parental tips for their smaller kids. What I did not know was that they were stranger to each other.
Phnom Penh City Bus is a new public transportation that the city municipality started in 2014. As the capital city grows in population exponentially from year to year, the bus system is intended to help mitigate congested road traffic in the city. It is thus far the only successful public transportation in the country. This is due to its affordability and convenient location of its stops. It is free for children, seniors, students, educators, and factory workers. It pulls demographic from different age groups and economic classes.
The kind of in-depth conversation between strangers I mentioned above is not atypical. In fact, I have witnessed this kind of engagement, again and again, every time I got on the bus. It becomes a new social ecology that is different from other similar environment of a public transportation system in the West or elsewhere.
There are a general excitement and hype around this new system that cause people to engage with one another in a different way from other contexts that they are used to. In many of the bus rides, I have witnessed people furiously try to help each other navigate the route. Strangers would discuss openly about family life, career path, current events. There are a candor and generosity that seem to be born with the bus system, that do not exist elsewhere. It is the one space that I have experienced the most sense of community and solidarity.
Utilizing the communal space of the bus, this project aims to provide frameworks in trying to solve the issue of reading literacy in Cambodia. In my experience on the bus, those who not engaged in conversations with other passengers resort to their phones. I have not seen anyone reading on the bus or at the bus stop beside a few elders reading their morning newspapers. This is, indeed, representative of reading culture in Cambodia, which is to say it is sparse. According to the National Population Census in 2008, adults of 15 years old and over have the literacy rate of 77.6%. The percentage breaks down and reveals the tight link between literacy and poverty in Cambodia.1Beside bookstores and a few coffeehouses that promote reading, the public access to books is another issue. There is currently only one main branch of the National Public Library in Phnom Penh. Other libraries belong to institutions and have mostly specialized texts, that are not accessible to the general public. There is a lack of physical infrastructure for free books and reading.
By integrating reading programs and activities onto the existing bus system, this project is about bringing the content of the library to where the people are already engaged, -the bus and bus stops.
Reading, in this context, is intricately linked with the transient states of waiting for the bus or sitting in traffics. It is by no mean discouraging the existing social engagement of strangers on the bus. It is to provide an alternative of experience this transient space. In “Railway Reading”, Michael Kubo writes about the parallel success of paperback books and expansion of railroad in the 19th century Britain.2There is a connection between traveling of the body in a public transportation and traveling of the mind in a book, which happen simultaneously. An ambitious goal of this project is to improve the country’s literacy by promoting the simple act of reading and the joy that comes with it.
The project operates in three phases from short term, most plausible to a long-term plan proposal:
Book for You
The initial phase would be a book-giving program on the bus and at the bus stops. The stops are set up to be a street library. A simple structure of a bookshelf is constructed to attach to the existing steel post of the bus stop’s structure. On the bus, books can be left on random seats, presenting as a gift.
There are two means of getting these books. One is through crowd-sourced donation. People can donate their books to the bus stop library and/or gifting them on the bus. Second is through commercial sponsors. Currently, there are already advertisement banners, mostly from phone service providers, on the bus. In this phase, the project can partner up with these companies to fund more books for the program. It can also reach out to more specific commercial partners like bookstores and local coffeehouses that already have an interest in the subject.
Books on Bus
The second phase of this project is a book festival that is hosted by institutions along the bus routes. The project will partner up with institutions that have done similar programs with literacy in Cambodia. These potential institutions include Cambodia National Library, Bophana Center, Wat Phnom Museum, Nou Hach Literary Association, Sipar Books, French Institute of Cambodia, Japan International Cooperation Agency, US Embassy Cambodia, and local schools.
During the festival, each route will be assigned a specific genre of book and event: fiction, non-fiction, young adult and children books. The bus will operate on a regular schedule, in order to not interfere with regular passengers. By hosting the events along the locations around the bus stops, festivalgoers will take the bus from one place to the other, bringing with them books and conversation about books onto the bus and hopefully engage with those who are not otherwise be exposed to the topic. It will bring visibility to books andreading.
Books in Library
The physical infrastructure of library in Cambodia has not always been this way. Most of the infrastructure, along with literacy and education were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. When looking further back into the history of Angkorian Era in the late 9th century, one can see that libraries were very much integrated into the urban planning at the time. The city of Angkor is organized around different Hindu-Buddhist temples, centering out from the temple to resident villages. Each temple complex usually has a pair of libraries along the main entrance path. It is telling that placement of the library is at the threshold between the public and the sacred ground of the temple. It speaks of books as sacred but also a welcoming sign, or a metaphorical bridge from one realm to another, from reality to imagination.
The centralizing urban planning around temples is still evident today in Phnom Penh. When one is descending to Phnom Penh International Airport or maneuvering through Google Earth, the dense red and blue rooftops of the city is occasionally pierced by relatively large grounds with ornate and colorful structures. In this highly congested city, Buddhist pagodas still hold hierarchy in the city, taking up ground for the city to breath. In a lot of these pagodas complex, there are, in fact, libraries. However, most of these libraries are only dedicated to religious Buddhist text. As a long-term proposal, the project aims to build a public library in the existing ground of the pagoda. It is another space of community engagement in the city and that a lot of its locations are along the route the bus. The vision of this library is to expand on the existing infrastructure of pagoda that is already a space of cultural engagement. The library will hold books beyond religious texts, to accommodate readers and spark the interest of new readers.
Panharith Ean is a Master in Architecture candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (MArch ’20). He is interested in a narrative-driven design, using design as a tool for storytelling in context to the built environment and the human experience. His work ranges from two-dimensional graphic design to three-dimensional architectural space and installation. His installation work has been exhibited in Siem Reap, Cambodia and North Adam, MA. Panharith holds a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from Wentworth Institute of Technology.