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Saturday, March 04, 2006


Cambodia 2006: week 2

Thursday 2 March

This week has been rather busy I have not found time for daily entries so will give some highlights and general thoughts.

Last Saturday I did not accomplish as much as I had hoped. I was told to expect a bus to Phnom Penh between 8 and 8.30 am. I sat at the front of the guesthouse until 10.10 before one arrived. I enjoyed the time saying 'hello' to the many passers-by. However that was two hours less that I had to spend in Phnom Penh as the last bus still left at 3 pm (or thereabouts). I spent most of that time in the internet cafe but I still did not finish all I had wanted to do there. Nor did I have time for shopping or the other tasks I had hoped to complete. I did not have lunch until I returned to Kompong Chhnang at about 5.30. Still the bus trip was enjoyable. I always enjoy travelling through rice fields and villages. And on the return journey had the company of a young monk who could speak a little English.

I am now teaching daily classes at Wat Xam. At 3 pm each day I have a class of young monks—most aged around 20. They have mixed abilities in English. Some grasp what I say immediately while others are struggling to understand much of it at all. This week's picture shows some of my students waiting at the school for class to begin. The waterway in the background will be much deeper in a few months when the rainy season begins. Hopefully I'll still be here to bring you photos.

For many of these young men the decision to become a monk is a financial rather than a religious one. Students at public schools in Cambodia are required to pay the teacher for their daily lesson—no money, no school. This is because teachers are paid quite a low salary. If they don't supplement their income in this way, they cannot afford to continue teaching. Sophal told me that his children go to public school in the morning and 'private' school in the afternoon—same school, same teacher but teachers keep the 'better' lessons for the 'private' students—ie those whose parents can afford to pay a little extra.

I do not know about the wages of teachers in Cambodia however there is an article in the Phnom Penh Post about doctors and nurses in rural health centres. Nurses and doctors are paid a government salary of $US20 and $45 respectively, per month. With the help of NGOs these wages are being subsidised so that they now receive an average of $120 per month. I am not aware that teachers' salaries are being subsidised in this way. To put this in perspective, I live here quite frugally. I probably spend around $US10 per day.

For many boys the only way their families can hope to have them educated is to send them to the monastery to become monks and they are educated for free by teacher monks. I don't think a similar opportunity is available for girls. These young men might be 20 or perhaps more but they tell me they are in grade 10 or whatever. Because of missed schooling over the years, not many complete high school by the age of 18.

I observe that many of them are normal young men who happen to wear monk's robes and live under the restrictions that this places on them. Some talk about the day they will disrobe and be able to get a girlfriend or wife. One apparently contrived to miss his last head shave because he wants to wear his hair longer. They seem to have caught up with him now but earlier in the week his hair was longer than mine. Usually between 15 and 20 of them attend my classes. I'm told there are around 100 monks living at the wat.

At 5 pm each day I have another class of mixed teenagers. Well, I assume they are all teenagers. It is hard to tell by their size. The smallest student in the class is a girl who looks to me to be around eight. She is twelve. The oldest student, whose age I am aware of, is 18. They are a delightful group although a little shy. I am encouraging them to practise role play to build their confidence. For some reason this class is much looser than the monks' class. I go into crazy storyteller mode and we have a lot of fun. I share this class with Sokun who I befriended last year when he was a monk. Although he has disrobed he still lives at the monastery as he cannot afford to live elsewhere. He has more freedom than the monks but the head monk still keeps a watchful eye on him. Sokun is 25 and respectfully, or perhaps a little cheekily, calls me 'grandfather'.

Teaching English here is also to teach social studies. Such is the students lack of knowledge of the Western world. Most of my students have never used a computer and have no concept of the internet. Most have never been inside an airport, let alone flown overseas. They don't have a clue what a supermarket is. One of the English teachers asked me to explain 'rock', 'jazz' and 'rap'.

I have quite a few friends outside the wat now and am in demand socially. Everyone wants to practise English with the 'barung'. On Monday, La and a couple of other guys took me to Phnom Suntooch, where there is a wat and a 'mountain'. The Khmer word 'phnom' means either 'hill' or 'mountain'—there is no differentiation. They keep calling it a mountain but it is not really even a big hill. There are many boulders there and we spent some time climbing them. Hopefully, by time you read this, there will be one or two photos on the flickr pages. There is a bigger hill that is perhaps almost a mountain just a little further out of town and tomorrow, Friday, a group of us are planning to climb it. We travel to these places by bicycle.

One day I was looking perhaps a little lost in the markets when a young woman, maybe about 135 cm tall, took the time to assist me. She did not belong to the stalls I was buying from but was simply being helpful. When I went to pay I produced a $US20 note. She grabbed the note and ran off with it saying 'I get change.' After a few minutes I was wondering if I would see her again. She returned eventually with not just the usual rate of exchange but also the little extra that you only get from the money changer. She had taken the trouble to go down the road to change my money and returned it all to me.

A few days later, walking through the market, I saw a girl who I recognised as my helpful friend. We started talking and she invited me to her stall. She sat me down, introduced me to her parents and brought me water. After the usual basic questions in English she began teaching me to count in Khmer. Her name is Sunah and she prepares meals that are sold to vendors all over the market—potentially several hundred customers. We were quite involved in my lesson when another one arrived. I looked at her. She said 'hello'. I looked back at Sunah and then again to the newcomer. They were almost exactly alike.

'Are you sisters?' I asked.

'We are twins.' the newcomer replied.

The second twin is named Sunee. They are almost identical but I am able to tell them apart. However, last night when I was visiting their home, which is quite close to my guesthouse, Sunee told me that it was she who had helped me in the market a few days before. Until then I had simply assumed it was Sunah.

Late last Sunday afternoon as I was riding past the school I visited on my first night back in KC the director called out to me. I stopped to say hello. 'Leave your bike here,' he said. 'Come on my motorcycle.' I did as he suggested. We went down a side road (dirt track) towards the Tonle Sap. Here the last of last year's flood was still receding. In the water a late crop of rice had been planted. There were also ponds of lotus flowers. As the sun was setting we stood enjoying the sight. Phnom Kong Rai is on the other side of the Tonle Sap. (More about this mountain to come when I learn the whole story.) And the frogs were chirping. For once I didn't have my camera. You'll have to take my word for the beauty and tranquility of this scene.

I have been back in Cambodia now for almost two weeks and as I'm sure you can tell I am extremely happy here. In another two weeks I will have to renew my visa. All being well, I will apply for a six month extension.

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