Having spent the first part of my trip in some of the most developed countries in the world (UK, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand) it is of course not surprising that one of my main reflections upon leaving Cambodia is about contrasts.
In addition to the most obvious ones I have observed during my time here; the stark difference between growing up in rural Cambodia with no access to a school and growing up in the nearby town of Bunlung with its established system of schooling, there are of course other stark comparisons, for example comparing either of these two places with the situation for a child growing up in the UK where a good standard of education is always taken for granted.
There are also more subtle contrasts. Within Bunlung, the major town in the region, there are many students studying hard, eager to get the most out of their opportunities but frustrated that they might not actually get the most from their schools and their teachers, not having the additional money that might help them to get the most out of these opportunities. By contrast, according to many there remain numerous students simply going through the motions, perhaps knowing that for them employment (if they can find it at all) will be with jobs not needing any qualifications, going to work in the farms and fields nearby.
In addition the contrast that exist in Cambodia it is hard not to reflect on Cambodia without mention of its context.
Cambodia is an extremely poor country; still grappling to construct and sustain an enlarging infrastructure; still dealing with the long-term after effects of the Khmer Rouge; still suffering through the everyday presence of corruption in much of its society. Against this backdrop it is perhaps not surprising that some of the contrasts are just so stark. And that is without me having really looked in any detail at the horrific health challenges the country faces, or having even mentioned the desperate trafficking situation, that exists.
Despite all of these elements, I left Cambodia feeling strangely positive – yet another contrast given the supremely disturbing context I have just described. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been as positive had I on visited the rubbish dumps in Phnom Penh on my last day, or perhaps it is simply easier for me to draw a line under my Cambodian experience knowing that I am gradually heading back to the UK and its relative comfort and prosperity.
But, upon reflection, and despite it being an overused cliché, I know the reason I am positive about my experiences in Cambodia is because of the people I have come across. The people I have met, the people I worked with, the people I have read about; all who were seeking to move their country forward in a positive direction, providing better opportunities to those around them and trying to make the most of the situations. It’s so easy to follow the negative news stories in the press these but looking back over my pieces from Cambodia I realise that the majority of them have in fact been positive because the people involved were doing positive things: students continually trying hard and enjoying school; teachers looking out for their students; charities building new schools that are succeeding in challenging environments; orphanages housing street orphans; villagers helping to build their first primary school…
It is also appears critical to state just how fundamental many people see education here. Consistently, whenever I have spoken to people about schools they have been just so passionate about the opportunity that education provides for their children. They trust it implicitly and I hadn’t seen such an emphatic and consistent response since my time in Singapore. But yet, upon reflection it appears a slightly different kind of response, more a belief that education could be a supportive path for their children rather than knowing it in fact would be, which upon reflection is how I felt responses in Singapore were, with the wealth and prosperity there reinforcing to them the benefits of a good education.
I guess, that this in fact entirely understandable. With the Khmer Rouge banning schools and many of the most educated people of that time being killed, the current adult population is the first to really have had a full experience of attending school before then finding work. So as of yet, there may not be a clear grasp within society of the generational impact an education will bring. Compounding this dynamic is the simple fact that many families just do not have enough money to survive and so have to pull in their children to help them with work, removing them from attending school, regardless of how important they may have felt it to be.