Don's Diary: Cycling from Bangkok to Saigon

September 27, 2002

By 6.30am, we are on the road between Sisophon and Siem Reap in Cambodia. "Road" is a misnomer for baked mud and huge potholes turning to clay after yesterday's storm. Brain becoming intellectual equivalent of clay as mind wanders between physical effort, silence, beautiful rice paddies and shock at the number of roadside signs warning of unexploded bombs.

Young man on bicycle draws alongside. His enthusiasm for practising English revives my latent teaching tendencies. I watch the road for speeding trucks, potholes and bicycles loaded with piglets and live ducks while he asks about passive verbs and fog in London.

Waiting to hitch a ride at roadside tea stall, children on their mile-long walk to school stop to stare, giggle and practise English. Despite no running water or sanitation in the village - only 6 per cent of Cambodians have access to these - the children wear pristine white shirts and navy uniforms. After decades of civil war, foreign aid is helping to rebuild Cambodia's education system.

Perch on sacks of rice as our lift, a pickup, drives at bone-shaking speed until the road disappears. A long diversion on impossibly narrow tracks through rice fields is livened up by villagers charging vehicles 200-500 riel (between 3p and 7p) to negotiate half-filled potholes and ingenious bridges across irrigation channels. Wonder what lifelong-learning pundits at home would make of their enterprise skills.

At majestic Angkor Temple, 11th-century grey stone ruins and the invading jungle form photogenic backdrop for picture of a monk, in orange robes, reading poetry in the shade of an umbrella. The Buddhist religion is a key source of education for young men.

Overseas commercial interest is also fuelling road-building and educational expansion. In nearby Siem Reap, tiny roadside shacks reveal rows of adults in rapt attention, taking courses in philosophical and political concepts, English, Mandarin Chinese and computing for beginners, all "taught by professors". Hand-painted posters advertise happy adults in mortarboards and gowns studying for MBAs from an Indian university.

Over a cool evening beer by Mekong River in Kompong Cham, we talk to an ex-soldier who fought against Pol Pot. Now 45, he earns $30 a month teaching classes of 56 children. After buying rice and motorbike petrol, he has $10 to support his family of seven. The cost of three nights in our hotel equals his monthly salary. Another primary teacher proudly shows us a certificate qualifying him to teach peace, social justice and citizenship.

Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh, was a secondary school before becoming the infamous "S21" prison. This gruesome place is now a genocide museum, with cells, torture instruments and photographs of 17,000 children and adult "dissidents" tortured here in 1975-79. Only seven survived. Cambodia has a thriving war-tourism industry: you can buy books about Pol Pot, bits of bombs and trips to the killing fields where tourists can kill a pig with old machine guns and buy Khmer Rouge scarves. Ponder fine line between learning about history and war porn.

Tourist dilemmas reinforced by cocktails at ex-colonial Grand Royal hotel. Optimism returns on passing noodle stalls that buzz with hundreds of university students discussing books during evening break from class.

In Saigon's revolutionary museum, four young women question me about English life, verb conjugations and views on the American war. Later, the assistant in a silk shop asks me if accents on her language tape are "good". Actors recite phrases about London bus journeys in a mixture of 1950s received pronunciation and bad cockney.

Prepare for home, where annual media alarm about falling standards and unmotivated students will be in full swing.

Kathryn Ecclestone, senior lecturer in post-compulsory education, University of Newcastle.

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