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.
The roads are packed with every mode of transport and the city is going through its range of unique sounds; horns, megaphones and Khmer music playing in the distance wake me from my early morning slumber. Phnom Penh is in full swing and the bus to school offers plenty of people watching opportunities. Crossing the Tonle Bassac River, it all changes as wide, tarmacked roads become a dusty track befitting a Rally race. Surrounded by greenery and as likely to pass livestock as other cars, the respite from the city is sudden and welcomed.
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.
As you walk around the school grounds, the girls’ beaming smiles and their immaculate uniforms make it easy to forget, even hard to imagine that these are among the most disadvantaged. For this reason, the school insists that new recruits visit some families, pertinently reminding us of why we’re here.
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.
The family couldn’t have been more hospitable, inviting me in to their home, gifting me with deftly threaded decorations made from Jasmine, and were keen to learn all about me! ‘What had made me come to the school? Where had I taught before? What were my impressions of Cambodia?’ It felt like the final round of interviews, but I was grateful to have the chance to explain what brought me here and prove my commitment. However, it was also impossible not to notice the starker realities of their living. Houses built precariously on wooden stilts, rubbish filling the waters which would later be boiled to become drinking water. I asked the counsellor where the bathroom was. ‘Anywhere’, she replied.
The sight of a crying toddler picking his way across a damaged bridge suspended over water was a reminder that they’re living close to the edge. And yet their family bond and happiness in what we would consider extremely difficult conditions puts one’s own menial troubles back home into perspective. Long term plans don’t go beyond the next crop harvest but Happy Chandara is trying to change that, and so too are the families I met. It is their belief that things are changing and life will be very different for the next generation.
It was a sobering and at times uncomfortable experience to see how difficult it can be just to make ends meet for the families, their main source of income being Jasmine which sells for approximately $1 per kilogram, depending on the season. But it was important too and I returned to school vowing not to forget what I’d told the families. And then the little girl ran out smiling and shouting and it was time to give some more high-fives.
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
‘’I teach English today’’
ថ្ងៃស្អែកខ្ញុំបង្រៀនភាសាអង់គ្លេស thngai’saek khnhom bangrien Anglais
‘’I teach English tomorrow’’
កាលពីម្សិលមិញខ្ញុំបានបង្រៀនភាសាអង់គ្លេស msailminh khnhom bangrien Anglais
‘’I teach English yesterday’’
Simple! In theory. But judging by my attempts out in the markets and restaurants so far, the accent will take some mastering!
Written by James