Chhem Sreykea’s Poor Background Inspires Free Libraries

Chhem Sreykea, 21, was born in Pailin province into a poor family and could not afford books to study in high school. Photo: Po Sakun

PHNOM PENH – Chhem Sreykea, 21, was born in Pailin province into a poor family and could not afford books to study in high school.

To buy a book, she had to save up or borrow from friends. Library books had to be returned in a few days, not long enough for her to study and research.

The bitter experience inspired her to open the “Reading Garden”, a public library at parks, to help people who cannot afford books to read for free.

She hopes this will give those who cannot afford to buy books the opportunity to broaden their knowledge.

Reading Garden is currently available in front of the Wat Botum Park in Phnom Penh city and in Kampong Cham and Siem Reap provinces. It will be available soon in Battambang and Kandal provinces.  

The books are arranged in six sections, philosophy, motivation, fiction, politics, economics and children. Sreykea said most books are philosophical and motivational. The novels were written by experienced and amateur authors.           

Other than her own books she has saved for the library, Sreykea has also received books given by people who saw her Facebook post about donations.

Sreykea asked authors when there were fewer donors but this has rarely yielded results.

“The time I need book donations most is when I am going to open a library in provinces, but they are not hard to find when the library is open in the city because there are many donors here,” she said.

About 50 to 70 people, aged from 10 to 80, come to read at the library every day. Motivational books are read mostly by people aged between 15 and 30.

People can read books anywhere, said Sreykea who developed her love for reading in 2018. She also wanted to put a stop to the idea that reading in public is pretentious and for attention.

Sreykea called on the public who have unused books to donate them to the library in Phnom Penh city, where she is staying. She said, “We don’t mind the state of the books — whether they are old. We will accept all books.”

The library in Phnom Penh is open on the weekends from 5pm to 7pm. Sreykea chose these periods because it is time she has available from her study and work and because people feel more relaxed to read during their days off.

However, the library in Phnom Penh might not be open regularly because Sreykea is busy looking after other libraries in the provinces. She usually tells her readers in advance through her Facebook page.


Originally written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey, this story was translated by Meng Seavmey for Cambodianess.

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