Three Hundred Sampeahs

In Cambodia, people don’t shake hands or hug, they “Sampeah.” It is pronounced Sohm-Pay, and it is a bow of the head and body, with hands together in a praying motion. The amount of bow is determined by status or gratitude for a particular act. Most of the time it’s just a customary act, but occasionally it means much more. On a hot sunny day outside a run-down elementary school we received over 300 heartfelt Sompeahs. Maybe it was the dust, maybe it was the heat, but water began dripping from our eyes as impoverished eight year olds shuffled past us and bowed their heads in respect.

For two weeks we had been welcomed to Siem Reap by an affable monk named Sok Samnang. He showed us his monastery and was our guide for the ruins of Angkor Wat. We spent much of the time discussing the country and the place he grew up. Samnang was a child for the tail end of the Khmer rouge reign of terror and he lived in an area still controlled by the rebel group. His uncle was tortured and killed when he was eight, a landmine was placed at the doorstep of their hut, his family were forced to hide in the forest for several years, and he was stabbed in the foot while escaping in his early teens. The Khmer Rouge were finally defeated but the conflict left it’s mark. The country was set back 100 years in it’s development and the countryside was wiped clear of most of it’s natural resources. After hearing about this, Cortney and I decided we needed to help Samnangs village in any way we could. That’s when we turned to our friends and received an outpouring of donations.

In the early morning, with four bags full of school supplies, we stuffed into a crowded taxi and hit the road west to Samnangs village. The road transitioned from paved, to gravel, to dust and dirt. Two hours later we parked at an intersection with two stores and no stop light. We picked up waiting motorcycles, perched the supplies between our knees, and rode through the most parched land I have ever seen (this picture explains it all). Forty bumpy minutes later we skidded to a stop at a small group of buildings. Here was the elementary school. No electricity, no running water, and only a handful of wooden desks.

“How many children attend the school here?” we asked.

“Over 300,” said Samnang, “although most only make it to grade 5. After that, only a few pass the 8th grade, and due to lack of money and distance to secondary schools, just 5 students of the 300 graduate high school.”

As we absorbed this information, the students started arriving. Slowly at first, but picking up over the next hour. As soon as they saw us, their eyes widened. The children, ages 5 to 10, kept their distance. They regarded us with curiosity and suspicion. This makes sense because we were the first westerners to visit the area in over 50 years. It was the first time for these children to see a “white person.” Even the oldest villagers could barley remember a time when white men were around. They assumed we were french, some even yelled out “bonjour,” harkening back to their colonial days. Soon we had over 400 eyes peering at us. We were the biggest curiosity around. And we brought presents!

Each student would receive an eraser, pencil, notebook, and sharpener. They obediently lined up to receive their MUCH needed supplies. Cortney and I held out the gifts as a cautious six year old approached. Before accepting, he stopped, bowed his body and held his clasped hands over his head. Then the next child did the same. And the next. And the next.

“Oh, my God,” we said, “they are all going to Sampeah us!”

And for the next hour, we received over 300 Sompeahs as we handed each child their school supplies. It was an overwhelming feeling. We were so emotional, we couldn’t help shedding a few tears in front of the crowd. They were so grateful and so respectful to be given something worth less than our daily coffee habit.

After each student was stocked up, we passed out a couple soccer and volleyballs and let the kids play. They ran around screaming with their pencils and pens. They compared notebooks and practiced their sharpening skills. It was our best moment in Asia. And it was made possible by the donors; our selfless caring friends.

Thanks to all who gave money and support. We owe you three hundred Sampeahs.

Sok Samnang and family.