Much of my time in Cambodia was spent working in the small rural villages of Northeast Cambodia, and many of my recent articles have reflected that. These have tended to be an environment where having any school is a novelty, something new. What though of bigger communities in Cambodia, one with more established infrastructure and education provision?
Bunlung is the capital town of the Ratanakiri province. Nine hours from the capital, Phnom Penh, it is a large place with shops, a busy marketplace, schools, a hospital as well as a local university. I spoke with a couple of adults there about life in Bunlung.
‘Some kids will go to Uni in Phnom Penh, but not many; its expensive and parents get worried, Bunlung is safer. Maybe 80% [of kids] go to school and this drops off into High School. It costs: uniforms, books, extra classes. Teachers now do extra classes but kids have to pay for this and so the rumour is that they are then only interested in those who can pay.’
‘It was the same for me. I enjoyed primary but when got to secondary I felt discriminated against because I was poor. If there is a good international school here I would send my kids there, but there isn’t. More people in Bunlung have money now; more money coming into area from agriculture. My generation want good education. Why I have a tutor for my kids.’
A few days later I got chatting to a couple of young people who work in a nearby restaurant in Banlung that we visited regularly. Working in their family’s restaurant, both Selakeo and Sasha were motivated to get the most out of the opportunities available to them, and, as has been commonplace from my conversations in Cambodia, to try to also help others. That said, they too described a schooling system that wasn’t as effective as it could be,
‘Some students study hard and like school. Most are lazy and don’t pay attention, just talking and on cell phones. It annoys me. I sit at the front. I get distracted. I ask then to be quiet – they do for a bit but then they get distracted again. Teachers do say things but they can’t control them.’
‘School is important to me. It’s where I get knowledge and I can have fun with my friends. The place I can get everything I want.’
‘What I want to do? I want Cambodia to be more developed. Have better economy and more opportunities for people and also indigenous people. Lots of people in town don’t know about them [indigenous people]. I think it’s important – they have such a unique culture. They are really different, very poor. I have visited them; they need to know things like health and women’s status. For me I just want a good future and to have good relationships with those around me.’
Selakeo’s older brother, Sasha, works on the border checking customs. Four thousand people went for the job and he was successful after passing the initial exam. He works in the restaurant in the evening at the end of his working day.
‘I just want to help people in my country. Especially the villages near the border. They really don’t have much.’