Cambodia’s construction boom has attracted a female workforce, who earn less than men and carry an additional burden.
Prey Veng Province, Cambodia – In March, after a year of hard work, Paen Long’s creation, an eye-catching machine that he built from scratch, stood facing down a long straight dirt road, wider than most in rural Cambodia.
On the sidelines, dozens of neighbours from the nearby villages waited in ever-growing expectation, to see a handmade plane, built by a Cambodian car mechanic, fly.
It was a chance for Paen Long to prove that he could build a plane that could fly and also, fulfil a childhood dream, the pursuit of which has permeated the lives of those around him.
At his house in Prey Veng province, east of the capital Phnom Penh, after entering a metal sheet garage where old engines, pistons, and chains coexist with chickens, dogs and his second son’s baby walker, the 30-year-old mechanic talks about his background and the series of events which led to this important day.
Paen Long was born in Svay Rieng province, in a village close to the eastern border with Vietnam. The third of six children, Paen Long started herding his neighbours’ cattle at the age of seven to earn money for his family.
Shortly after he started, one day while herding the cows, he saw a helicopter fall out of the sky.
“Many people went to see it [the crash site] and they felt scared, but for me, I was not scared,” he says, explaining that his encounter with the flying contraption made him “happy”.
From that day, Paen Long knew he wanted to build his own plane.
At age 12, he relocated to a different village with his cousin to train to be a mechanic. While working as a teenager, he learned how to read and write. But the idea of pursuing a higher degree that would allow him to one day build planes wasn’t a feasible one for him in a country where, according to USAID, 80 percent of the population still live in rural areas and 70 percent rely on agriculture, fisheries or forestry.
Two years after he got married and the couple had their first child, Paen Long revealed his master plan to his wife. At first, she tried to stop him, believing it was too dangerous.
“I didn’t allow him to do it. Later on, he still kept insisting. It’s his dream since he was young. So, I allowed him to follow his dream,” says Hing Mouy Heng, Paen Long’s wife. “He promised me that he would not let it threaten his life.”
Each night, Paen Long spent hours on a tablet, watching YouTube videos about planes, accidents and the construction of an aircraft in English, as well as other languages.
“Even though I don’t understand the language, I can see and guess what they mean and how they do it, since I am a mechanic, therefore, I can easily understand the working process,” says Paen Long, whose only hobby is building things in his spare time.
But he says this wasn’t the first time he became interested in planes or attempted to build one.
As a practising Buddhist, Paen Long believes in reincarnation. He believes that in one of his previous lives, he was a Muslim man who knew “the technology behind the construction of planes”.
“I used to know [how to build planes],” he says. “[So] I can know it now.”
Combining his newfound knowledge – and what he says are experiences from his past life – he began to build. The first breakthrough was a remote-controlled plane. Following its success, he decided to build an aircraft that could “transport people”.
In the back of one of his six garages, pieces of his early attempts are scattered around, evidence of his determination and persistence. He wasn’t satisfied with the result of his second attempt, so never tested it. His third model, the human piloted plane which he tested in March, took a year to complete.
That single-seating light aircraft is a hybrid of recycled metal, wood and second-hand parts from other vehicles. The wheels come from a motorcycle, the 35 horsepower engine from a boat, the pit is a petrol drum and the control stick comes from the gear shift of a car. Paen Long acknowledges that the quality overall is a bit mediocre, but he argues that what ultimately matters is that “the plane can fly”.
So far, he has spent $18,000 of a budget of $30,000, from the money he makes from his successful mechanics’ shops. He asked his wife for the money since, as is often the case in Cambodia, women manage the household finances.
Funding has not been the only challenge. He says that since he started pursuing his dream, most of his friends have distanced themselves from him; others in nearby villages call him crazy.
“They talked behind my back and people came to tell me this. Sometimes, my tears fell because of this. But I still didn’t give up,” he says.
Close to his house, in a small village along a national road, everyone knows about the plane creator. A coffee shop owner says that Paen Long is a clever guy and a good mechanic. But he says some people think “he had no technical skills related to aeroplanes to make it fly” and that villagers “are concerned about the aircraft crashing on their houses.”
The chief of Prey Chhor commune, Sek Kheang, doesn’t agree. He says Paen Long is a good person and dismisses the idea that people think he is crazy, as, if people did, they wouldn’t give him business. “His garage never lacks customers,” he says.
Back in March, Paen Long explained that he decided to test the plane a month ahead of schedule after a local production company asked him to be part of an advertising campaign. It was for a telecom company ad featuring the struggles young people endure when they pursue their dreams.
“They just asked me to drive [the plane] back and forth normally. However, the production manager thought if the plane only ran on the ground, there was nothing great,” he explains while walking along the same dirt road from where he attempted the takeoff.
“I felt that I may not be able to control it or that there were some technical problems, but I told myself, ‘I must test it, if I don’t test it, I won’t know’.”
I've already made up my mind. I've already made up my mind about dying in a plane crash. Because what's important is that I finish my dream.
Paen Long recalls how he accelerated to the point where “the plane had enough speed to be able to fly”. Then the aircraft “lifted from the ground” but he says he was worried about the audience so he lowered the speed, losing control and causing the plane to fall in a pond beside the road. With a flat tyre and a damaged wing, the trial was over. The ad doesn’t show the crash, but just the moments before takeoff.
The director of the commercial, Somchanrith Chap, says it was Paen Long’s initiative to try to fly the plane. They paid him $200 for his participation, according to the mechanic.
Paen Long wasn’t injured, but he could not bear losing face publicly. He left the plane behind with some friends and rode home on his motorbike on his own. “I could not sleep that night, I was sitting for the whole night until my wife told me: ‘Go to bed, don’t think too much’.”
That night, Paen Long went to check the plane again to see what went wrong. “I kept looking at it, and I thought, I will create it again. I will make the plane again,” he says.
Now, in the middle of one of his garages, the skeleton of a new aircraft stands out among minivans, private cars and motorcycles. The fourth attempt will be a seaplane. “It is more advantageous,” he says with confidence. “The building time will be faster. The plane is lighter. The risk is low.”
Paen Long says if he is successful, he hopes one day to manufacture aeroplanes in Cambodia. He sees it as a way towards development “so that the neighbouring countries won’t look down on us”.
When asked if he is afraid of crashing, he replies that “there shouldn’t be any fear around the topic of dying because it is inevitable”.
“I’ve already made up my mind. I’ve already made up my mind about dying in a plane crash,” he says. “What’s important is that I finish my dream.”
Horm Sreynich contributed to this article.