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.