This is the fourth of a seven part series entitled 36 Hours in Cambodia. This is an unedited account of a personal journey and will be followed by stories from a few more of my international volunteer trips. Many of the experiences on these trips would become the impetus for founding UniversalGiving™.
June 16, 2002
How Do You Educate
We pass a large, elongated structure. \”Lots of schools… our government is spending much money,\” says Sukhom, but he smiles, \”no teachers.\” The teachers get paid about $25/month, and therefore are hard to recruit. Some teachers therefore charge their students, making it impossible for the poorest to attend. Only the richer students can afford privates (private lessons with the teacher), where most of them learn English. As part of the military, and part-time taxi driver, Sukom himself gets paid $25/month, $4/day if he drives a taxi, and the government also gives him 1 kilo of rice per month. However, they also pay for his home, and he keeps money from his taxi rides.
Sukom himself was able to go to private schools and to receive privates in English. For his education, he, among others, tried to pass tests to get into the military. Hundreds tried.
He did not pass the first year. The second year he did and was sent to learn radar screening. What was it like? First, to go to school he worked in the factories at night, school for four hours during the day, and then privates for English. He was sent to a school run by the Vietnamese communists. During the day you learned Soviet history, Russian, and other general subjects. Once passing these grades, he was sent to Krgykistan (spelling?) for more studies regarding radar screening.
But since the war has ended, he works as a taxi cab driver. There is little military work, and while elements of the police force will still stay, the military is planned to be phased out by 2004.
Sukhom dropped me off at the airport. My plane – had already left. One thing about Cambodian airports is that the planes leave EARLY. Sometimes 45 minutes early! And, you will find that the taxi cab drivers do not know. Remember that many of them have never flown. Remember that the taxi system is not as established or experienced as ours. And remember that many taxi drivers just don\’t speak English. Therefore if the flight says 13:30, they just assume they can get you there 15 minutes in advance. This happened in both Angkor Wat and Phnom Pehn, but I caught the latter.
A Piece of Paper
It was not possible. I had to get Phnom Penh this evening. I had someone meeting me there, and I just felt it was right to go to Phnom Penh and not be in Angkor Wat that night… I do not know why, but it just felt right. I just did not want to go to a hotel and stay there alone that night.
I had a piece of paper.
It is amazing how smallened, humbled and beholden one can feel to a piece of paper. But this time, my paper was not valid. It said, \”PHNOM PENH: 4:30.\” I was staring at it. What do you mean that \”I wish I could help you…. but the plane already left….really miss, I wish I could help…\” I still could not process. The clock: 4:p.m. My ticket:4:30. Clock, ticket; clock, ticket. I simply stared down at the ground… \”you must help me… I need to leave.” Creeping up, compounding was one of my cardinal rules never to travel alone at night.
Mindracing: I looked around at the warehouse. How many flights would go out of here per today? Maybe 3, 10 on a busy day. In the airport I was calm, clear, straightforward externally, and panicked, geared up, \’battle mindset\’ internally. It is a strange, strange feeling to be beholden to a piece of paper. I needed it; I was panicked for it; I owed my next steps to it. But I had it…
There was one last flight leaving for the day. A different carrier, and it was for Phnom Penh. I changed money. I bought a ticket. $50, it was not cheap, but…
My piece of paper was an airplane ticket that allowed my to get out, to move where I wanted to go. I had the finances to do so. This same piece of paper was supposedly going to let me leave the country in a few days. These pieces of paper do not simply provide a mechanism for travel. In these circumstances, they do indeed represent the financial ability to travel; the freedom to travel; the freedom to leave and go; the ability to return to democracy, no matter how beautiful a country, culture and the people you are visiting may be…
It was a small plane with propeller wings, holding 18 of us. It was a bumpy, increasingly dark ride of one hour to Phnom Penh, crossing the broadest, lighter, rusty, light chocolaty thick, wide, LONG rivers. They cut into the fields, the brush, and make their way slowly but relentlessly through the country. They do not appear to stop. They are beautiful and thick, cutting slowly down, through the earth….
I was on the plane — I had a new piece of paper. This time I was able to buy my way. I would be, and will be careful not to think, that that is always the case that I may do so, or even wish to do so.
I do not need to point out that millions of people crave that paper, and especially the one I hold that allows me to leave for Bangkok in a few days. Alternatively, there are many other people who have no wish to go, which is to be respected equally.
Arriving Phnom Penh
At this stage, it is still not a good idea to be around at night in Phnom Penh. It\’s misleading because on the riverfront you see international restaurant alternated with Internet with Italian restaurants, Web signs, French cafes galore. Along the Tonle Sap brown river, there are flags up of every country, then one strip of only about 10 Cambodian flags. Very beautiful and symbolic and welcoming and simple.
But since the end of the war, many younger people have organized into gangs and drugs. I think people will always seek a place to belong, and a place of opportunity. And if you have leadership and belonging in gangs, and you have an opportunity to attain wealth or status (or at least seemingly so) then especially those \’new\’ to life may jump at what seems an opportunity. Therefore at night, there are often robberies and killings to get money and drugs.
To give you an idea of the challenges that Cambodia still faces, it was interesting to note information as I paged through the hotel services in my hotel room. Among the listing of food, pool and business services provided, I was
EXPECTED TO FILL OUT AN APPLICATION AND PAY YOUR BILL ON TIME
NOT ALLOWED TO BRING IN ANY PROSTITUTES INTO THE ROOM
NOT ALLOWED TO BRING IN BOMBS OR EXPLOSIVES OF ANY TYPE.
The pool was on the fifth floor.
You can take action.
Give $20 to provide gardening tools to a Cambodian family.
Give $25 to clear ground of landmines.
Give $100 to support economic development in Cambodia.
Volunteer with an arts center in Cambodia.