A vivid poster resembling Cambodia’s map takes form through a mosaic of drinking water bottle caps, diligently collected by students at Kampong Speu-based Coconut School. Among the 161 young participants is Phi Reaksa, a twelve-year-old currently in Grade 5. 

Reaksa, living with her single mother in Thmey village of Kirirom commune, Phnom Sruoch district, benefits from free education at the school in exchange for contributing to the collection of rubbish.

Kirirom Mountain hosts the Coconut School, where Reaksa studies. Before joining, she used to assist her mother by begging from visitors to the mountain. 

One man, Ouk Vanday, however, encouraged village children to join his school. This institution, though not public, embodies Vanday’s generosity, requiring no tuition fees. Instead, students are asked to collect discarded items like empty water and beer bottles, discarded by visitors to Kirirom National Park. 

For Reaksa, every day begins with an early morning three-kilometre walk to school.

“Despite the long walk, I find joy in studying because I am no longer as illiterate as I used to be,” she proudly states.

Despite her youth, her education prompts her to advocate to visitors, urging them not to thoughtlessly litter in the park or elsewhere. Instead, she encourages people to dispose of garbage responsibly in rubbish bins and appropriate locations.

“I often observe people leaving garbage after eating. Sometimes, I assist in putting it in the bin to maintain the cleanliness of our environment,” she comments.

“For my future plans, I aim to complete Grade 12 initially. Afterward, I want to pursue further studies at university while also working part-time,” she adds.

Kindness echoes

Reaksa acknowledges Vanday’s kindness, noting that although he could spend more time with his family and rest, he chooses not to. This decision, she says, is driven by his commitment to preventing village children from remaining uneducated.

Vanday, the founder of Coconut School, recounts his former role as a hotel manager in Kampong Thom province. In 2017, during a visit to Kirirom National Park, he witnessed children begging along the mountain path and observed discarded rubbish in touristed areas of the park.

He highlights that many park-residing children did not attend school due to its distance from their homes, leading them to beg for money from visitors. 

Reflecting on this, he resolved to build a school, aiming to provide education and alternatives for these children. He chose garbage collection as a symbolic model to help them understand its value, leading to the creation of Coconut School.

“I thought that merely giving money to the children would be insufficient, and If I picked up all the garbage myself, the cleanliness would only be temporary, and the area would return to its cluttered state in a day or two. So, I had the idea of setting an example for both the community and visitors. They could witness the unseen value of garbage,” he says.

In 2017, he sought approval for one hectare of state land on Kirirom Mountain, where he established the Coconut School, also known locally as the ‘garbage school’. Initially, the school had only five teachers and 30 children. However, within six months, the student population grew to 76, and presently, it accommodates more than 160 students.

Recyclable wisdom

Vanday clarifies that he does not collect tuition fees from students; instead, he encourages them to collect recyclables and contribute those instead of monetary payments. The students enthusiastically participate in this endeavour. As of October, the school has been open for three and a half years.

“They need to provide recyclables each month, similar to paying school fees. I aim for students to comprehend the advantages of both waste management and education. All 161 students were previously without hope for accessing education,” he explains.

He notes that his school operates with the backing of both local and international philanthropists. Additionally, the school houses a coffee shop catering to tourists visiting the national park, providing insight into the students’ lives.

The school’s decor predominantly features recycled materials, earning two awards from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport for innovative waste-to-decoration designs.

However, he clarifies that the school offers only primary education, covering Grades 1 to 6, and includes one kindergarten class.

Vanday just returned from his recent visit to the US, where he sought philanthropic support for advancing his school. In 2028, he hopes to enrol three students for studies in the US.

Concerning community involvement in environmental cleanup initiatives, Chanthet Thannarak, director of the Kampong Speu provincial Department of Environment, stated that both the ministry and his department are presently running “Today I Will Not Use Plastic bags” campaign in schools, urging students and their families to abstain from using plastic bags.