“Hello, where are you from?” said a cheerful boy while I was examining one of the Rolous Temples.
Perhaps it’s due to my upbringing that I’m surprised how people here open up to strangers. I remember my parents and teachers used to tell us to be careful of strangers and not to talk to them. As a result, we always approach strangers with caution.
“Oh I am from Malaysia,” so begun our conversation.
Surprisingly, the kid spoke exceptionally good English. Many young people could converse in English but he was a cut above his peers. He was noticeably less shy as well as before talking to me, he was chatting with his friends. As he approached me, his friends left for elsewhere. He then asked me some basic questions. How old am I? I’m 26. How long would I be in his country? 2 weeks. Do I like Angkor Wat? Of course I do.
He told me he was a 16-year-old high school student. The temple I was visiting had a small school where a monk would teach them English regularly. Occasionally, volunteers abroad would visit their school as guest teachers.
“Do you want to visit my school?” pointing at a wooden structure in front. Sure, why not.
The wooden structure was similar to most traditional houses in Cambodia, where they are elevated and supported by a few pillars. As we walked around the structure, I came to a small compound underneath the main housing. There I found a blackboard and a few old long tables. In traditional houses, the compound is used for cooking or various storing purposes. Here at the temple, it is a makeshift classroom. Not fully enclosed, therefore not fully protected from the weather. It clearly wasn’t the ideal place to study.
Despite all that, my new friend here was proud of showing off his school. It may be inadequate for our standards but to him, it meant a lot.
The classroom had a notice board filled with pictures taken over the years. Some of the pictures showed a monk leading a class. Another was a group picture taken during their recent school trip.
“Those are the Americans who visited us,” pointed the kid at one of the photos. “Do you want to come inside?”
The compound next to the makeshift classroom was enclosed. Lighted only by the sunlight coming through the door and a few holes coming through the wooden wall, the room was dark. I stepped into the room with the kid. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I spot a few computers to my left. They were brand new and still wrapped in plastic.
I spotted a donation form sitting on a table. I made a small donation before I left.
As I was about to say goodbye, I asked him what his plans were after high school.
“I want to go to university to continue my studies but I don’t have the money to,”
“That’s ok man. You could start working after school and save up. Then maybe 5 or 10 years later you could still go back to university,”
“Yes, I know I can’t go to university now. So I will work first and hopefully in the future I can go into university. My dream is to work in the tourism industry,”
Then I thought of how everything was cut out for me in Malaysia. I never had to worry about paying for education. I had it good. Much better than good actually. In fact, much better than anything the kid could ever dream of.
“That’s good. Don’t stop working towards your dreams,” I replied.
And like every friendly Khmer I’ve met, he nodded with a smile.
I’m sure you remember Vai. He was the first person I met in Cambodia and he brought me around the Angkor temples a couple of times. As he was interviewed by our hostel, he often hangs around the hostel when he’s not working.
I spotted him one night at the common area, on his headphones and using his laptop. I interrupted him for awhile as I wanted to arrange for a tuk-tuk the following morning. I ended up chatting with him for awhile.
I asked him what he was listening to and he told me it was a political speech by the Cambodian opposition party. An election was due in Cambodia soon and the involved parties have drummed up their campaigns. Ah… That reminds me, when I told Vai I was from Malaysia on the first day, he asked me about Anwar Ibrahim (De facto leader of Malaysia’s opposition parties). He told me that apparently Anwar visited their opposition party recently.
He also told me that the Cambodian government isn’t doing a good job. People are still poor and life is difficult for the locals. Remember I mentioned about paying the market price for tuk-tuk tours? He told me that some drivers have no choice but to work with foreign tour agencies that in return squeeze as much as possible out of them. Many agancies paid half of what the accepted rate was. USD$7 per day.
But what struck me about the conversation was Vai’s optimism of the future.
“I know that in my lifetime, I would never get the chance to go out of my country. I can’t see the world. But I don’t want my children to be the same. I bought this laptop and I bring it around, so that when I have free time I can learn English. Then I can help my children. I want them to be successful.”
[FYI, Malaysian and Cambodian elections have since taken place and both sets of ruling parties managed to retain their power respectively. Opposition parties of both nations cited election irregularities as one of the reasons for failure.]
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Cambodia from March 4 to March 20. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. The rest were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone.