This is Lois writing - I woke up early - just thinking...
First of all, most Americans do not have a clue how lucky we are. The fact that education is free for everyone is definitely taken for granted. Sure, there are many schools in the US that are not up to the highest standards, but at least all kids can go. And with government help, many children get fed at school if necessary. Here in Cambodia, families must sacrifice to send their kids to school, and many choose not to do so. Instead, the kids are sent out to "work", which in Siem Reap at least, means badgering tourists at every opportunity. Going past elementary school means you have to find a way to get there, to pay tuition, buy a uniform, and have close-toed shoes. The Spitler School I visited yesterday is in a very poor village (Ang Chagn) where houses are shacks made of corrugated metal, and furnishings might be a bed on the floor, and that's it.
The reason that school was not in session yesterday is this: two weeks before classes were to begin, the Cambodian government told everyone that instead of the school year beginning on October 1, it would begin on November 1! The kids in the village are clamoring to be there, so they show up anyway. The woman who showed us around is an American, who is volunteering for a year to teach English. Kids go to regular classes for four hours – either 7 to 11 or 1 to 5, and the two groups switch every month. In the other half of the day, they come for optional English classes, and everyone goes. I told the teacher (who is in her mid-60s, and had just finished a stint in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia) that she is a saint. The school was started by an American couple with $650! When the kids graduate from the sixth grade, they are given a bicycle so they can commute to the middle school in Siem Reap. While John & I are involved in lots of volunteer activities at home, nothing compares with this.
Here in Cambodia teachers are paid $60 a month, not enough to live on. There is very little tax on personal income, and no way to collect it. The money the government makes from selling natural resources doesn't seem to be spent on public works. Large Chinese firms are involved in resource extraction, and seem to get whatever they want. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese seem to be a shadow force in the government.
The one natural resource that really benefits the people are the old temples. Tourism provides jobs. All of the restoration work we have seen is being done by foreign organizations. Life is hard in Cambodia, and it is difficult to see so much suffering from a people so likeable. (End of John comment.)
Only 7 of our group of 17 on the Road Scholar trip went to see the school. We had been up since 4 AM and the heat is quite oppressive. Also, some of the people flew in just in time for the tour to begin, and that’s a lot to recover from. Probably more than half of us are retired educators, from all over the States. Those that were not working in schools were physicists, diplomats and engineers. Everyone is interesting and punctual, and that really helps with a tour of this type. Our guide Bros is excellent.
At Angkor Wat, as well as at other sites, we've encountered tourists from all over the world. On our China trip in 2012, we found the Chinese to be very loud and pushy. The Chinese behave the same way here. Bros says he thinks that it's because the Chinese are relatively new to tourism, and they have not been taught the social graces of traveling that other nationalities have. For example, be respectful of other tourists: move out of the way when someone needs to pass, don’t touch the artifacts, don't climb on ruins. Wear proper clothing for religious sites. Bros says he would not want to guide groups like that.
Our hotel is gorgeous, and the food is excellent. And the Internet is great too! We are taking off on the boat trip down the Mekong River later today, so I am not sure access will be so good during the next week.
By the way, much of Cambodia does not have reliable electricity, but lots of folks seem to have smart phones! I don't see how they can afford them. Seventy percent of the population is below the age of 30, and 1/3 of the people were killed during the reign of Pol Pot in the 1970's. Bros and his family were separated at that time: parents sent to labor camps, kids sent to children's camps. Fortunately they were reunited when the civil war ended, but most of his extended family members were killed during that era.
As Americans, we have ready access to schooling, food, clean water, medical care, transportation and too many other things we take totally for granted. Sometimes I feel guilty for having so much and not appreciating it all. I can't really dwell on that, but I hope those of you who are reading this can understand how very lucky you are to have the life you do.