Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Savong’s School plans to open new primary school classes.

Ministry of Education figures show a national shortage of primary school teachers, and this is felt particularly in rural areas where the teacher/student ratio is often close to 1 teacher for 47+ students. Savong’s School intends to offer 6 classes (Grade 1 – 6) each with 30 students per teacher. Schooling will be provided free of charge: something that will be appreciated in the  Bakong community where many families live below the official Cambodian poverty line.

Here’s how you can help.

The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia


This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

Are girls lagging behind in the Cambodian school system?


A long-held concern with the re-emergence of the Cambodian education system has been the worry that girls are being disadvantaged, perhaps for reasons of tradition (is it the girl’s place is to look after younger siblings?) and possibly for systemic reasons: for example more male teachers.

Well, the Ministry’s figures suggest girls are doing virtually as well as boys, overall, though are clearly disadvantaged in at least half a dozen of Cambodia’s provinces.

MOEYS (The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) has in its most recent census (2013) of school attendance measured the number of students who have successfully graduated past 3 goal-posts: Grade 6, 9 and 12 (which mark the completion grades for Primary, Lower Secondary and Secondary schools.)

Of those students who pass at each level, what percentage are girls? The answer, 49% for the lower grades, and 48% for Grade 12.

In other words almost exactly half of all students. A great result. More than this; the figures are almost identical when we compare Urban schools with Rural schools. Here are the MOEYS statistics.


In half a dozen provinces, (I’ve indicated these in oranges and red) however, there is room for improvement and the Ministry, to it’s credit, is working to ensure gender equality within the education system.

For more fresh data about Education in Cambodia:

Here’s a Traditional Khmer Folk Tale – Judge Rabbit


Cambodia has a rich culture of storytelling and many Khmer folktales revolve around an interesting character called Judge Rabbit. Judge Rabbit is undoubtedly an intelligent creature, but while he often resides on the side of truth and justice, there is an element of trickster about this character. Sometimes Judge Rabbit simply takes advantage of foolish people.

There are many published Judge Rabbit stories, and these provide an insight into the Khmer culture which clearly has little time for ignorance or for boastful pride. In a typical story, Judge Rabbit will fight for the underdog by pointing out the foolishness of those in power.

In one example, a young man asks a wealthy family for their daughter’s hand in marriage. The family sets a challenging task for the young man. They demand that he immerse himself in a lake for three days and make no moves to keep himself warm. If he can succeed in doing this, then he may marry the daughter.

And so the challenge begins, but after two days of immersion the man is shuddering with cold. He is scarcely conscious. On a distant hill he sees a fire, and lifting is hands above the waterline he reaches hopelessly – in his delirium – toward the fire. Aha! At that moment the wealthy family tells the young man that he has failed in his mission and that quite clearly he was keeping warm from the fire. He has failed in his task.

The young man seeks justice, and pleads before a local magistrate that it was impossible for him to gain any warmth from the distant flames, and that he had not broken his pledge. But the magistrate is friends with the wealthy family who have plied the magistrate with generous gifts. In his findings, the magistrate sides with a wealthy family, and to make matters worse for the young man, he orders the young man to prepare a large banquet, as reparation, in honour of the wealthy family.

The young man is distraught, but as he goes to the market together things for the banquet he meets Judge Rabbit who asks why he is so sad. The young man explains the story and Judge Rabbit takes sympathy. Judge Rabbit tells the young man to go ahead and prepare the banquet but not to use any salt when making the soup.” Make sure you use no salt!”  he instructs the young man, ” and place a salt container at the far end of the table from the magistrate. Then leave the rest to me. Together we will find justice.”

The banquet is held. Judge Rabbit makes sure he is in the district, and he duly gets invited to the banquet by the magistrate who is in the pocket of the wealthy family. “splendid!”  Says Judge Rabbit.

Now comes the first course, and the first dish to be served – as is tradition – is the soup. Naturally, the young man shows honour to the magistrate by serving him first.  the magistrate takes a mouthful of soup and splutters! “this is terrible, the soup is too bland, it needs salt!”

“Well that’s strange,”  says Judge Rabbit. “there is a salt container just here, and if a distant fire is capable of warming this young man’s hands, then surely this nearby salt container is capable of flavouring the soup. Don’t you think?”

The magistrate shifts uncomfortably,  and embarrassedly  agrees with Judge Rabbit. He reverses his decision, and says that the young man is hereby entitled to ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage.

Many cultures have folk stories similar to those of Judge Rabbit. Every culture appears to enjoy tales in which the rich and powerful are humbled and held to account by their own words. We love seeing ingenuity at work!  No child listening to a Judge Rabbit story could not be impressed by the intelligence and independent thinking of the lead character.

For an insight into Khmer culture I strongly recommend that, no matter how old you are, you get hold of some Judge Rabbit stories. They are by turns instructive, ingenious and hilarious.

  • For the cautionary folk tale of the Rabbit and the Earthquake – click here.
  • For more folk tales from Cambodia – click here.
  • For a Judge Rabbit book via Amazon click here. there are also several variations on the Judge Rabbit character, including tales of a smart rabbit or hare,  who manages to outfox – if that’s the right word – other bigger stronger members of the animal kingdom. Click here.
  • The delightful illustration above comes from a well regarded book: Brother Rabbit.

And here is another funny, insightful folk tale about A Farmer, His Son and a Donkey.

Opt-In. A fund raising idea for Savong’s School


So there I was, drooling over a $4,000 bicycle when the idea hit me…

This year I have set myself a challenge. I’m 58 and within sight of that ‘retirement’ finishing line which, mysteriously, is coming up more quickly even as I’m slowing down. The challenge is to set up a fund-raising ‘machine’ that continues to operate, and prosper for the sake of the rural students we support, even if I’m run over by the retirement bus.

Fund raising. I wonder who enjoys it? I think one reason I don’t enjoy it – despite having a great cause to support – is that it fundamentally leads to a lot of people losing face. By asking you for a thousand dollars I risk that awkward moment of having a friend or acquaintance saying, “No, sorry.”  They feel awkward, I feel awkward.

A second problem is, I think, the way requests for money are framed. An out of the blue request for $50 seems like an imposition: an unexpected expense. Yet if you were buying a new car and the salesman said, look – the sports-styled magnesium cup holder will cost an extra $50 – then, well to hell with it! What’s an extra $50 when you’re already investing $40k? It’s nothing.

I recently visited a bicycle shop near where I live and it was there I had an insight flash. A way to fund-raise that removes the face problem and the framing effect. A bicycle had caught my eye. It got me reminiscing about a great 800km journey I’d completed with friends 20 years ago and I was seduced by the weight (about 3 nano-grams) and appearance. Just beautiful. And it could be mine for a mere $4,000 which itself was a discounted price. You could buy 45 children a new bicycle each, for the same amount in Cambodia.

Yet the person who buys the $4,000 bike is not a bad person. They may be a dedicated triathlete perhaps. Or a weekend road-warrior with the dream, simply, of sailing downhill on a summery afternoon after completing a personal challenge.

So if I were to accuse them of being selfish (“How dare you buy that bike when there are needy children in Cambodia!”) I’d myself be offensive. And both of us would lose face.

But if I were to ask that bike purchaser this offer: “Hey, you’re buying a fantastic bike – instead of paying $4,000 – how about contributing an extra $50 to make a child in Cambodia equally delighted?”  Now we’re talking. What’s $50? It is 1.25% and about a sixth of the price of the Italian leather saddle. And a lot more comfortable. Now the purchaser can easily opt in or not – and the amount, when framed this way, really doesn’t seem like a terrible imposition.

So there it is. My big fund-raising thought for 2014. Now I’ve got to find a few opt-in partners – starting with the bike shop. It needs to work for them too. But which bike shop can you think of would not want to spread the joy and benefits of cycling not just amongst the well-heeled west, but through the villages and muddy roads to the schools of rural Cambodia?

The Cambodian Primary School droupout rate – 39% don’t complete primary school


Here’s another sad statistic that reflects on the underinvestment in education for young Cambodians. For every hundred who start primary school, 39 do not complete their studies at primary school according to the latest available figures. “Oh but we’re a poor country,” might be the argument of the government – but poorer than Myanmar or Laos? The fact is, Cambodia spends a smaller percentage of the annual government expenditure on education than does its neighboring nations.

The result: 4 in ten do not make it to middle or high school.

Reasons include:

  1. Insufficient provision of primary schools especially in remote regions.
  2. Distance and transport. Many children live too far away from school and do not have transport.
  3. Financial – the fact that state schools charge money to attend. This is extremely widespread, and penalises the poor.
  4. Children required to work on farms to help the family income.
  5. Sickness. Child health is still far from ideal in Cambodia.

During the 2013 election the Government announced a 20% lift in education budget (a move I’d rate as a shift from totally inadequate to merely inadequate,) but the Government has not released any plans or policies to indicate where the additional money will be spent.

The annual education spend works out to around $50 per child in Cambodia up to age 18.

For more education statistics click here.