I’d been tempted for years – now my plan was hatched.
Downtown Siem Reap. The colour of the markets, the hustle and thrum of the traffic. The incredible smells from sizzling fresh dishes being flame cooked. And, er…those fish massage places. How many are there? Half a dozen?
I’ve never been tempted to dip my toes in the water tanks. Part of that is just a hygiene thing – do you want to soak your feet in the same water as the previous guy with the fungal problem? But part of that is a private shame of mine: my right foot has two missing toes, and for 30 years since the ‘deep pedicure’ incident I’ve either tried to hide my foot or make light of it. I love trying on shoes because the assistants always squeeze the right shoe in just the right spot and…and there’s nothing there! The shoe sales staff look plainly confused – the shoe seemed to be the right size. It gets me each time.
But over the years I’ve been tempted by the presence of the foot massage places to try a practical joke. The other week I was in the mood. I’d been approached by the foot massage people: “Fish massage sir?” three times today already, and I thought it was time to exorcise my fears.
As I strolled past a fourth fish massage place the young woman came up with a menu in hand: “Fish massage sir?”
I feigned being aghast, and explained that after ‘last time’ I would never have another fish massage. “Do you know what happened?” I asked. I now had an audience, a couple of would-be customers, the young woman and now her concerned colleague, as well as a group of Australians who were already sitting by the fish tank – delightedly getting their toes nibbled.
“Look, I’ll show you what happened,” I said, taking off my right shoe and rolling down a dusty sock to reveal….THE FOOT FROM HELL! The sales assistant guy flinched, the would-be customers recoiled and the Australians shrieked with laughter.
But here’s the thing: the young sales woman was unflappable. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “How about try again? We’ll give you half price.”
She looked concerned, but a sale is a sale. She had me there.
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Lolei Village is very near Savong’s School in terms of distance from Siem Reap, but is located further North; over the road as it were, with Number 6 Highway cutting its dangerous swathe between Lolei and the Rolous temples of Bakong.
In the heart of the village is the home of teacher Sovannarith who now runs a school of his own, dedicated to teaching English and computer skills to the children of his village. He used to teach at Savong’s School, right back in the days when salaries were a competitive $US45 a month and computer education was not even feasible.
After teaching at Savong’s School for several years, while he studied hard to complete his arts degree from the internationally recognised Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Sovannarith harbored dreams of running his own school. He wanted something for his own community. I was keen to see what he had achieved since 2011.
Actually since 2005 I had already been familiar with the local school situation in Lolei thanks to the great work of Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), a registered and well-run charity from the UK that focuses on the rural children of Siem Reap province. Like us, I’m sure they must constantly explain that despite the boom town quality of Siem Reap, the rural areas are still desperately poor. One of the original schools they supported, back in 2005, was in Lolei Village.
Alas and through no fault of SCC the arrangement didn’t work out, and rather than run the school in their prescribed way the then headmaster had a seriously divergent view of how the school ought to run. SCC walked, and soon put their hard earned funds to better use elsewhere. They continue to excellent work.
But from that story, told to me by members of the SCC, I was always aware that Sovannarith’s village had an educational gap whereby the local State School still provided inadequate teaching of English (and computer skills) to children who need both if they wish to proceed into salaried employment or further tertiary education.
Enter Sovannarith who set up Angkor Legacy Academy in April 2011. It is a vibrant place, with high quality volunteers (the one’s I met were a quantum leap from the gangling gap-year ‘Facebook Volunteers’ who often visit these organisations.) and a well equipped computer lab with late-model laptops. The vibe was happy, busy and thriving.
Sovannarith made me feel very welcome, and during our brief chat (I was on the way to Savong’s School,) we reflected on times past. Sovannarith hasn’t changed one bit. He is still passionate about educating the children of rural Cambodia. But he was kind enough also to say that his time at Savong’s School was what got him started – we gave him a teaching job and in those years he learned a lot about running a classroom and running a school. “Without that experience I wouldn’t be here today running the Angkor Legacy Academy,” he told me.
That made me feel very gratified. In 2004 when we commenced plans to build a school in Bakong, Savong and I never dreamed that his school would help multiply the number of teachers and schools. I can count 9 schools that began in a similar fashion to Sovannarith’s project and owe their start to Savong’s initial vision. If anything, that is the major achievement of the project. I think SCC and other organisations can also claim similar influence. As I’ve found in business, losing good staff can be sad – but seeing them succeed is a wonderful thing.
For more on this theme:
Holidays always sneak up on you in Cambodia. I don’t think in 8 visits I’ve ever had 14 days without a holiday in there somewhere. Early this year I was in Siem Reap for the night on International New Year. Pub Street was going off in a big way. Blocks away in my hotel I could hear the DJ – probably at The Temple Bar – roaring to his crowd: “Are you-u-u-u-u re-e-a-a-a-d-dy-y-y!!!??” At that moment I was doing my laundry: the glamour of travelling light. Much as I like a party, I was running out of shirts.
On January 7th I was in Phnom Penh and it was the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Pol Pot Government. How many nations have a Victory over Genocide day? To be honest, Phnom Penh didn’t seem subdued or in mourning: the roads were as jammed as ever.
These dates below are courtesy of Acleda Bank.
|Jan 01||International New Year Day|
|Jan 07||Victory over Genocide Day|
|Feb 19||Meak Bochea Day|
|Mar 08||International Women’s Day|
|Apr 14, 15, 16||Khmer New Year Day|
|May 01||International Labor Day|
|May 13, 14, 15||King’s Birthday, Norodom Sihamoni|
|May 18||Visak Bochea Day|
|May 20||National Day of Remembrance|
|May 22||Royal Plowing Ceremony|
|Jun 01||International Children Day|
|Jun 18||King’s Mother Birthday, Norodom Monineath Sihanouk|
|Sep 24||Constitutional Day|
|Sep 27, 28, 29||Pchum Ben Day|
|Oct 15||Commemoration Day of King’s Father, Norodom Sihanouk|
|Oct 23||Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord|
|Oct 29||King’s Coronation Day, Norodom Sihamoni|
|Nov 09||Independence Day|
|Nov 10, 11, 12||Water Festival Ceremony|
|Dec 10||International Human Rights Da|
A close friend of mine is heading to a divorce court in Siem Reap in 30 minutes time. This is a sad time both for him and for his wife and both have used SOBBING emojis in recent correspondence. Both are hurting. They have three sweet children.
How does divorce work in Cambodia? In fact the laws are reasonably progressive, and while divorce-rates have been extremely low in Cambodia the laws provide reasonable protection to both parties who are generally entitled to half the matrimonial property each. In fact this is widely understood following an incident in 2008 when an estranged husband sawed their matrimonial homestead in half and carted it away.
For a detailed discussion on the subject: http://cambodialpj.org/article/legal-and-gender-issues-of-marriage-and-divorce-in-cambodia/
Whether the laws are fair or not, women – especially in poor rural areas – are likely to be disadvantaged simply because they cannot afford the expense of seeking legal advice, and because traditions (which frown on divorce,) still over-ride current law.
However my friends are educated, and I hope they both leave on peaceful, fair terms that protect the children too.