Nhim Bunrith sits in front of shelves of books that line his bar in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. “I want to motivate Cambodians to have more knowledge, to read more and research through books. I want to see people have better lives. That starts with education, it’s the basics,” he says.
Born in 1977 in Kandal province during the Khmer Rouge regime, education was scarce as Bunrith grew up. Access to books was even rarer.
“In the 1980s, there were no libraries or anything like that. We had just come out of the Pol Pot regime and there was nothing. All we did during that time was find things to eat, there was no study. I want to give that opportunity to others.”
Despite the hardships, Bunrith managed to complete high school and moved to Phnom Penh to continue his studies. In 2002, he graduated with a degree in business administration in the field of management and industrial engineering for textiles. He went on to work in the garment and footwear industry, driving productivity and quality within the sector.
In 2014, Mark Blanchard, a friend of Bunrith, launched The Library bar in the capital’s lively Bassac Lane. Bunrith and Chinda – also known as Dave and Maria – got involved in November 2021, after a two-year pandemic-fuelled closure and the announcement that the country was reopening for tourism.
Harbouring a passion for reading and inspired by their surroundings, the seeds to develop a series of libraries nationwide were planted.
“I come from the countryside so I know what’s happening and what people there need. Even though I now live in the city, I love the people in the countryside and want to help them,” Bunrith says.
The first phase of their grand vision is to build a library in Krong Chbar Morn, a small village in Kampong Speu province, about 1.5 hours from Phnom Penh. With the help of investors from Singapore, Bunrith and Chinda have sourced a plot of land and consulted with the community.
“They are happy to have this library there because in remote areas of Cambodia they don’t have libraries, only in Phnom Penh or the cities,” he said. “I want to have the library in the countryside and Kampong Speu is not too far from the capital.”
Named after the revered monk who created the Khmer dictionary, Somdach Preah Sangka Reach Chuon Nath, the library will be open to all. As well as stocking Khmer and foreign literature and educational materials, Bunrith wants to create a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) hub with workshops and equipment on hand for students to put their newly-acquired skills to practice.
“The time before and now are so different. We are entering the digital era, so we need to offer different skills and education,” adds Bunrith.
In addition, Bunrith plans to train people to deliver workshops from the library that will benefit the wider community. This will include short courses on financial literacy, how to run a business, and how to increase productivity, especially within the agricultural sector.
“My background is in productivity improvement and I see a lot of small rural businesses and farmers not reaching their full potential. Better productivity brings higher performance and quality, and eventually more profits. Working smarter and faster with higher quality output are important skills to have.”
To transform their dream into reality, Bunrith and Chinda have launched a fundraising drive to raise $140,000 to build the multifaceted educational hub, equip it and train staff. And they do not want to stop there. Their grand vision is to create a collection of libraries covering the nation’s provinces in the next few years.
“We want to open one after the other,” Bunrith says. “My last role before I die is if I can manage to build the biggest library in Cambodia. Then I will be happy. It will bring more benefits to Cambodian people from one generation to the next.”