Two years ago I dipped my toe into Cambodia. A quick visit to Phnom Penh to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and then on to Siem Reap to take in the world heritage site of Angkor Wat and to get a taste of village life in the area. That visit left me wanting to learn more…and man…did I get more on this trip.
I don’t think anyone can leave Cambodia without a huge amount of admiration for the people. For starters most of us know Cambodia not only endured the Pol Pot Regime (Khmer Rouge) when over 1.5 million people (mostly educated) were killed, but also the civil unrest that continued into the 1990’s. The 1990’s! That wasn’t that long ago! This era not only had a massive impact to its citizens, but to their entire infrastructure…not to mention their corrupt government that continues to this day. But it wasn’t until this trip that I walked away with much more awareness and a better understanding of the impact on their education.
Going back to the Pol Pot regime, anyone educated was killed…but it didn’t stop there. Today education is so lacking because most families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Meaning children are needed to help out during rice harvest or with other home chores, therefore they are kept out of school. In addition, many families will migrate (illegally) to Thailand in search of work taking their children with them. The bottom line is that many Cambodians can’t see the long-term benefits of education because they’re too busy focusing on the short term goals of feeding their families. Many of the parents also don’t see the value in education since they aren’t educated themselves. If the children are fortunate enough to go to school, it’s unfortunate that the teachers are paid low salaries and have little motivation to improve the quality of the education. I was stunned to find out that most children are taught by repetition and memorization without acquiring an understanding of how they arrived at the answer…imagine the impact on their problem solving skills! Because of low wages throughout the country, higher education just isn’t possible. Not only is there lack of formal education, but businesses today aren’t satisfied with the soft skills of their employees. All of these forces create a significant up hill battle in lifting up this country out of poverty.
When I reflect on my first visit it was the museum experience and the smiles and warmth of the people that captured my heart…and still does. (Like the woman above…how beautiful is that smile?) But it was this trip that ripped my heart wide open. Not only was it the enlightenment of the education situation shared above, but hearing their personal stories…
Our guide shared that when he was eight years…he remembers running through the jungle with his mother to escape the Khmer Rouge…they ate bugs to stay alive. Or the story of how the manager at our hotel had lost his leg at fourteen when a landmine exploded and was shunned by his school mates because of his disability. It was spending time with a novice monk to learn how he joined the monastery to gain as much education so he can help create opportunities for other Cambodians. It was chatting with an elderly nun who had never had an image of herself throughout her 88 years of living. (Yep, fixed that…more on her later!) It was the story a tour guide told…once displaced from his home to the area of Angkor Wat…he would play in the moat and learned to swim quickly through the watercress surrounding the temple to escape the leeches. Imagine!
All of these stories were topped off with hearing firsthand from a small group of young university students their dreams and desires for a better life. Students who now have a chance at accomplishing those dreams because a local nongovernment organization is reaching into the community that suffered the most from the Pol Pot Regime era with one goal in mind…empowering youth through education.
The two weeks of immersion into the Siem Reap area had a profound impact on me. I’m hoping this overview will shed light as to why Cambodia…as well as my future postings.
So stay tuned! gg
P.S. I’m adjusting to the time change much quicker than from the Vietnam trip…not sure why, but I’ll take it! And before I left…I promised a giveaway! So I picked a name out of the hat from the comments of the last posting and we have a winner! Virginia Kirnberger of Beyond Cinderella…come on down! Kat Sloma has put together a fabulous book and if any of you own an iPhone…it’s a must to have in your photography library! Congrats VK!