Humanitarian Engineering in Koh Chraeng and Other Adventures in Cambodia

As some of you might already know I recently returned from a design summit in Cambodia hosted by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia. Getting back into the swing of life hasn’t been easy after such an incredible academic, cultural, and emotional experience. Even though my trip was merely a month ago, it feels like an eternity has passed, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the locals I met, friends I made, and memories that have impressed upon me lifelong lessons I will cherish forever.

My journey began with a sixteen and a half hour flight from JFK to Taipei where I waited a few hours for a four and a half hour flight to Phnom Penh International Airport. This lengthy trip in itself was a life experience for an inexperienced traveler such as myself. The combination of jetlag, time change, and flying halfway across the globe to a land with which I was unfamiliar was exhausting in itself.

Arriving blurry-eyed in Cambodia I was met by a few Australian university students and team leader of the design summit. It was here that I got my first real taste of Cambodia and the exceptional individuals with whom I would be working. With our luggage stacked in a motorcycle-driven rickshaw taxi (tuk-tuk), we squeezed ourselves into the remaining space and took a short drive to our hotel in Phnom Penh. On this eye-opening ride, I learned two things, if the Khmer (Cambodian) people were as kind and generous as I had heard, then the Australian university students I was working with were giving them a run for their money. Within approximately half an hour I had made about three lifelong friends who I was ecstatic to work with on the summit. The second thing I learned was how scary it was to drive in Phnom Penh. I had heard stories about the clogged streets of New Delhi and thick traffic of Hong Kong, but I wasn’t sure how it would compare to Phnom Penh. The roads were a free for all of pedal bikes, cars, motorcycles, and tuk-tuks. With no traffic lights, road lines, or seemingly minimum age to drive (it wasn’t uncommon to see young kids riding without helmets or parental supervision) you feared for your life at every intersection; the ultimate game of chicken.


A typical street in Phnom Penh lined with vendors and shops.

Upon arriving at the hotel, I met the whole of the design summit team. Here, I started to become somewhat used to their style of speech (there is a nickname for everything; swimsuits are “bathers,” sunglasses are “sunnies,” flip-flops are “thongs,” etc.). We met our roommates, grouped up, and explored the city. Phnom Penh is hard to picture but if I had to describe it would be best characterized as a combination of the winding streets, buildings, and vendors of Cairo, mixed with the traffic of New Delhi, and pungent smells of New York City.

At first, I must admit I was taken aback at the deteriorating state of some of the buildings, roadways, and markets. But, as with most things, a quick history lesson of Cambodia and its government put this all into perspective. Phnom Penh is by no means a perfect city. Though it boasts some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met, markets that offer everything from Yeezy knockoffs to wooden and marble chess sets, fantastic cuisine, all combined in a scenic setting, it definitely falls short on a few fronts. For one, there are places where raw sewage runs in large open sewers around the city. The country suffers from contaminated tap water which must be boiled. Western toilets are not very common across the nation and air-conditioning is a luxury that many can’t afford. Furthermore, illnesses such as malaria and dengue are all too familiar in cities such as Phnom Penh. Despite these critical issues you see many people using cell phones, watching online videos, or using Facebook. A naive foreigner such as myself thought some of the sanitation issues would take priority. How could necessities such as clean tap water and closed sewers be less important than Facebook?

A few critical experiences during my trip cleared up this confusion. The first was my trips to S-21 and the Killing Fields. A trip to Cambodia would not be complete without paying respects to the country’s dark past. During the 1970’s, Cambodia was shaken to its core by extreme changes in its political stance due to the Communist Party of Kampuchea, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. With the Vietnam War raging next door and a half million tons of U.S bombs being dropped on the country since the Viet Kong’s Ho Chi Minh trail cut into Cambodian territory, anti-Western sentiments developed among the Khmer population. This animosity would eventually lead to the demise of the pro-American government under Marshal Lon Nol and put the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot (short for “political potential”) in power. Almost immediately labor camps and prisons, such as the Killing Fields and S-21, respectively, were constructed at the beginning of the ill-fated Khmer Civil War. Genocide and human rights atrocities ensued which saw intellectuals such as teachers, doctors, politicians, etc. physically abused, and tortured. Unfortunately, the majority were executed. This mass “cleansing” aimed at producing a rural agrarian nation, would end up brutally exterminating almost a third of the Khmer population.

My trips to S-21 and the Killing Fields revealed the destruction and evil perpetrated in graphic detail. At S-21 we visited the cells of former laborers who were cuffed and restrained to iron grid beds often being starved and left to die. Many of the cots from the cells remain today mangled and bent with blood and decomposing stains beneath showing the struggle and suffering of these innocent civilians. In the next building, black and white mug shots line the wall documenting just some of who had been lost. Walking through these halls, I was deeply touched to the point where at one point I couldn’t speak. Yet one image among the thousands reduced me to tears. It was an image of a young doctor. The picture showed him smiling in his cap and gown just having graduated medical school and excited to begin a career in medicine. This bright young mind was unfortunately brutally exterminated by the country that had produced and educated him all because he was an intellectual hoping to attend to the illnesses of his people.

The Killing Fields only furthered my understanding of the tragedy that was perpetrated by the genocide. As I walked the trails that cut through the Killing Fields, I was surprised to see cloth sticking from the ground. In the beginning, I thought it to be the woven cloth that covers the roots of trees or is planted beneath newly placed sod and grass seed. To my dismay, I learned that these were in fact blindfolds sticking out of the Earth. When laborers were executed at the Killing Fields, they were blindfolded and hacked with machetes. In the words of our tour guide, “a quick death by a bullet was too expensive.”

I learned that when the Khmer Rouge came to power, they evacuated Phnom Penh allowing its infrastructure to crumble. Upon the end of the civil war when the Khmer People returned, the city lay in tatters. To make matters worse, Cambodia’s contemporary legislative issues have not been entirely resolved. Although a President is now in power, he is seen as unbelievably corrupt in the eyes of Cambodia’s citizens. Freedom of speech is not seen as acceptable in the eyes of the government, and thus the people’s inner thoughts remain silent.

Due to the genocidal killing of the majority of intellectuals in the country, education has suffered dramatically resulting in an economy mainly dependent on farming and small businesses and allowing more significant issues such as infrastructure to fall to the wayside. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see areas where crumbling roads, buildings, and old sewers remain in use, all too costly to repair remnants of the war. Yet despite this misfortune, the Khmer people are an unbelievably resilient and generous people, always smiling and willing to share what they have.

As engineers, we are trained to identify problems and then design and construct thoughtful sometimes ingenious, methods and solutions to solve them. In Cambodia, there are many infrastructural and economic problems which could be solved with high-tech solutions, but these solutions are only worthwhile so long as they can be maintained by the people who use them. Thus, the idea of humanitarian engineering; seeking solutions that are appropriate for the local population and their circumstances. Understanding the perspectives and needs of the local people was the focus of what we were after. We understood that the problem that was to be addressed must be relevant to those who suffer from it, and the solution must be maintainable by these individuals.

After a week of workshops and preparation in Phnom Penh focusing and reviewing ideas critical to humanitarian design, we split off into two big groups and headed for Kratié Province. Here we stayed on a small island in the Mekong River known as Koh Chraeng. Groups of twos and threes were selected and assigned a homestay on this rural agrarian island, the beauty of which is awe-inspiring and at times seems unreal. We stayed in small one-room homes elevated on large wooden supports which had thatched or wooden walls, a planked floor similar in consistency to a wooden deck. The floor had small planks and large spaces between planks for passive cooling, while the rooves were constructed of clay tile. Though definitely minimalist in style, these homes were very cozy and featured a small open kitchen, often a hammock, and even electricity using a car battery powered by a solar panel.


Team Ibis

During our time in the homestay, we attempted to talk with our homestay families in Khmer. During this period we conducted interviews with farmers, school teachers, residents, and the village chief to gain a deeper understanding of the issues that produced problems for them in everyday life and were important to the local residents. Eventually, we identified problems and then presented our ideas and designs to the residents and listened to their opinions, thoughts, and criticisms.


My homestay family and group.

My group decided to focus on storage issues relating to the construction and design of the locals’ homes. After many interviews with the villagers, we discovered a significant problem concerning storage of crops during the wet season. During the wet season, it is common that severe flooding occurs thus requiring elevated, living spaces. However, we learned that there was no designated space allocated for crops during the wet season often causing families to store massive amounts of produce (sometimes up to a couple feet of crops) in their homes. This prompted one such family to sleep outdoors during the wet season, a dangerous endeavor considering the mosquitoes, scorpions, and other animals and insects that are part of the local environment.


The interior of a raised home in Koh Chraeng.

Our team came up with a design primarily constructed of bamboo, a resource abundant on the island, to create a raisable pallet system. The design consists of bamboo planks laid across a square wooden frame (imitating the passive cooling design of the floor to aerate crops) with pullies attached to the sides. Each corner has a protruding wooden guide that cuts into notches on the wooden supports of the home. This allows for a customizable, raisable pallet system attached to the floor of the house that boasts stability and can be tied off at any height. Also due to the large number of supports beneath the home, many pallets can be constructed beneath the floor, increasing the surface area for storage. Furthermore, pallets can also be hung from other pallets producing a drawer-like system. We presented the design to local residents and leaders who were intrigued with the apparatus and our storage solution.


Raisable pallet storage solution (constructed in SolidWorks by Alvin Tsang).

My trip to Cambodia with EWB Australia was a life-changing experience that I shall cherish forever and undoubtedly will never forget. Not only did it open my eyes to what others struggle with on a daily basis, it gave me the opportunity to help the Khmer people through the application of humanitarian engineering principles. The experience provided a great opportunity to learn how powerful engineering can be and how its focus is the betterment of people and their lives.

I would like to express special thanks to EWB Australia for giving me the opportunity to take part in their summit. It is uncommon for the program to take international students, so I am genuinely honored they took a chance on me. Pictures of my trip can be found below. Photo creds go to Chelsea Jane, Ali Arman Khurshid, Logan Spiers, and Antony Maubach.