I’m abruptly woken to darkness at 5.30am to get the school bus, but it feels like Phnom Penh has been up for hours.
Now bouncing along the roads, it’s easy to tell you’re nearing the school. The dust swept up by the congregation of cars, scooters, bicycles and small feet reduces visibility, and through it, the Happy Chandara school uniforms start to multiply. It’s soon time to step off the bus and walk down the narrow track to the secondary school, whose painted red building illuminates the lush green surroundings.
The short walk from the bus feels more like pushing through the centre of a busy market than the edges of a school. Wooden stalls, trolleys and carts busily serve breakfasts of rice, noodles and fruit to girls hurrying to beat the bell. Bicycles and scooters weave in and out of students chattering and laughing, ready to begin the day. Then inside the school gates, the girls instinctively fall into their regimented rows and silence descends, broken by the singing of the national anthem and raising of the Cambodian and French flags. It’s a ritual which is repeated in the afternoon, then as quickly as the students form, they disperse in all directions and the sound of excitable voices resumes.
Any grogginess that I might still have instantly evaporates the moment I approach the high school, a further 200 meters down the track past the secondary school. I’m greeted by a girl, too young to yet be at school, sprinting towards me exclaiming ‘Hello! Hello!’ before finally reaching me and reeling off high- fives, to her excitement. She must have told her friends, since I’m now mobbed most mornings by a group of young girls and boys all screaming ‘hello’, seeking as many high-fives as I can manage! Early start forgotten, I’m now ready to start my day.
Expatriates make up only a small proportion of the school’s staff as it looks to provide opportunities for Cambodian teachers and students alike. Not only that, a huge boost is provided to the local community through the sale of their home cooked food and snacks, and a building firm from the village is now applying the finishing touches to the high school. The area is a hive of activity that benefits from the school being there, and it’s everyone’s hope and expectation that the school will one day be solely Cambodian run.
The day I went, accompanied by one of the school’s social workers, I travelled to the edges of Prek Thmy, the village where Happy Chandara is located and approximately 300 of the girls live. A short walk past the fragrant, cream budded jasmine fields led me to the house of one of my students.
Outside of school, I’ve begun learning Khmer which will provide me with basics in speaking for when I’m out and about in the city. What my learners of English would give to have grammar as simple as in the Khmer language! The sentence structure is similar to English, the key difference being that there are no tenses or changes to the verb.
សព្វថ្ងៃនេះខ្ញុំបង្រៀនភាសាអង់គ្លេស thngai nih khnhom bangrien Anglais
Written by James