Tuk Tuk talk

Like taxi drivers in the West, the SE Asian tuk tuk drivers are eager to chat and are a mine of information.

Bhoun in Battambang enlightened me about the Cambodian education system which he had experienced first hand.

“Why” I asked him “do so many  schools seem to be closed or have lots of children playing outside the classrooms every time we go past one?”

“Because of corruption.” His answer was simple. Then he got very animated telling me about the various scams teachers get up to. Here are some he told me about.

  • They let the pupils go home early so that they can then charge high rates for extra lessons.
  • If you can afford to pay, you get a copy of the exam paper answers. This ensures you get a better job. The poor don’t get their papers marked fairly even if they have the right answers.
  • At school, the teacher used to sell her cakes which were more expensive than those outside the school. Those who did not buy the cakes got lower marks.
  • Poor children who were late for school were made to stand on a board for an hour. They had long journeys to get to school and had been up early doing their jobs before leaving. Wealthier children who were late were not punished.
  • Teachers used children to harvest their rice crops during school time.

This was enough to make me realise why he was so angry about his schooling. But it’s not the whole picture. Cambodian teachers earn about $20 a month and they are not paid regularly. To top up their salaries they charge “informal fees” which stops poorer children being sent to school. Most teachers have not even completed  secondary school so the quality of education is poor.

Of course, there are private schools where one can pay for a better education but this is way beyond the pockets of most people. With only 1.6% of GDP spent on education, one wonders what the future holds for the ever growing population. It also makes me hesitate before criticising the education system back home.

In the photo Bhoun was explaining to me how to make sticky bamboo rice. He would make an excellent teacher.

In Phnom Penh I learnt more about the madness of the Khmer Rouge and I wanted to know how people who had survived had been affected.  I asked my tuk tuk driver about his parent’s experience.

“They used to have a big house in Phnom Penh but then of course they had to leave with everyone else on April 17th 1975, the beginning of Year Zero.”

His whole family were forced to walk over 148 kilometres to the countryside around Kampot. City people were seen as the “new people” and Phnom Penh as” the great prostitute of the Mekong” and therefore it had to be evacuated. His mother survived the horrors but refused to go back to Phnom Penh to reclaim her house. She was afraid that the same thing could happen again. Her son, my tuk tuk driver, was saving up to try to move to Australia as he saw no future for his family in Cambodia.

In Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, Naga my tuk tuk driver was very well educated and had taught English for a few years. However he could make better money being a tuk tuk driver but he still didn’t have enough to afford a bride.

“You have to pay a dowry to the bride’s family,” he explained. “This can be very expensive, let’s say about $5000 to $10,000.”

It’s hardly surprising that you often see the slogan, “no money no honey” blazoned on the tuk tuk.

Another driver I had in Siem Reap had very little English so we communicated by sign language. One Saturday I wanted to get visit Phnom Krom, a 9th century temple out near the  Tonle Sap lake. I knew he had children and so I suggested that they came along for the ride. The three of them made my day. They all bounced up the hill to see the temple with me and made sure that I was alright. The little three year old girl had no problems keeping up with her brothers but when strangers approached she quickly took hold of my hand. When they were questioned about their motives by the attendants, they just pointed at me.

For more photos of Cambodia go to

  1. #1 by jelford on February 3, 2013 - 11:08 pm

    Hi Vanessa, One of my friends who has been doing VSO in Ethiopia has accepted another placement in Cambodia, so it was very interesting to read about their education system. It looks like she is going to have some challenges ahead! Good luck with the next part of your adventure.

  2. #2 by kathrinaha on February 4, 2013 - 3:56 am

    I travelled in Cambodia about nine years ago and found it very depressing. The country seemed to be in a deadlock, and it doesn’t look like much has changed. Phnom Penh fascinated and shocked me at the same time. It’s a very sad recent history this country had, but Angkor is absolutely amazing. Well done for taking the kids with you.

  3. #3 by Carys Burston on February 4, 2013 - 5:01 am

    Hi Vanessa, unwaith eto, mae dy brofiade di mor ddiddorol i’w darllen. Gobeitho dy fod wedi cael amser da gyda’r bechgyn pan gwrddest ti a nhw yn gynharach yn y flwyddyn. Edrych mlaen i’th weld di pan ddei di nol I Gymru.
    Cofion fil
    Carys x

  4. #4 by Mary Dawson on February 4, 2013 - 7:51 pm

    Hi Vee – good to read of your travels and really loved all the pictures.Lovely that Alex and Cai joined youi for a period over New Year. great pics of the three of you. when do you return to UK? life very full here, with lots of theatre activities and some work too. plus travels [not as adventurous as yours]!
    love from us both…. Mary x

  5. #5 by richardgwyn on February 6, 2013 - 6:47 am

    Fab. You are getting around, aren’t you Vanessa. I have been a little out of touch so it is a great pleasure to read up on your recent progress. All best, Richard

  6. #6 by Enid Evans on March 10, 2013 - 10:05 pm

    Quite thrilled to find your blog. Gwilym has just found this, I did try when you first made contact but failed. I often think of you and wonder how you are getting on.
    This proved to be such interesting reading. My goodness what an adventure you must be having.
    Do keep in touch, I look forward to meeting up with you when you get back to the UK.
    Much love,

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