Weekend in Siem Reap

24 06 2012

Tim and I had a great time in Siem Reap this weekend. At least 50 Peace Corps Volunteers flocked to our provincial town  to celebrate birthdays, mark the end of the school year, and, for some, begin saying goodbye to Cambodia. Unbelievable as it is, the group before us has started packing their bags and preparing to return to the US after two years of service here. This weekend was almost certainly the last time that we will see many of them.

On our way to the hockey game

So it was a weekend of catching up and saying goodbye. A weekend of packages and indulgences. A weekend of dance floors and… floor hockey. One of the highlights of the weekend was heading to a nearby village where, believe it or not, they have a court for floor hockey. A team of PCVs challenged the Cambodian students to a game, unsure of what to expect. Well, after piling 15 people into a caravan of tuk tuks and heading out of the city, the game began. And it turns out that the Cambodian students were really good, crushing our team 25-5. Although I didn’t play, I am sure that everyone had a great time despite the loss, especially during those twenty or thirty minutes when it was pouring rain on the players.

The teams, jerseys and all

After three days of splurging on more food or drink than anyone should consume, we’ve returned to site. Tonight, the feasts continue though, as Tim tries his hand at some oven-less lasagna at the request of our host family. Tomorrow, however, life returns to normal and we’ll be back at work, trying to determine how our summer schedules are going to play out.


Camp GLOW Fundraiser – A BIG Success

23 06 2012

Last night’s fundraiser for Camp GLOW was a success! Thanks to a huge PCV turnout, we raised $154 to help support August’s girls’ empowerment camp. This is a low-cost project so every one of those dollars will have a big impact.

Molly Malone’s, located on Pub Street, did a great job of hosting the event. They promoted the project well and were able to round up an assortment of solid raffle prizes. In fact, several Peace Corps Volunteers won something, including Tim, who  is now the proud owner of a gift certificate for a free dinner for two at a nice restaurant in Siem Reap. I wonder who he’ll take…?

The bar at Molly Malone’s

Today, we’ll be trying  to solidify deals with a couple of local restaurants to provide the food for the camp at a discounted price. Once we get the food settled, we’ll have most of the bigger planning components finished. It seems to me that we’re right on track to have a stellar camp!


School Year Wrap up

22 06 2012

The school year has just about ended with semester tests finished for everyone but the 9th and 12th graders. You would assume that semester tests would mark the end of the school year, but the students and teachers are required to be at school for a few more weeks until the official end date. The end result: the students and teachers sit around looking at each other, but no class is held. Call me old fashioned, but if I don’t have to do my job, I’m not going to come to my place of work that day. In my mind, it seems like an awful version of workforce detention (reminds me of this), in which nothing is completed or produced or fixed or….how American of me.

The truth is, the teachers really seem to like hanging out, talking with each other, gambling, and being anywhere but home. One of my coteachers teaches three days a week but is at school at least five, because he’s bored at home. And, although it’s not true for him, for many students and teachers home means work. Home means farming, cleaning, cooking, childcare. Being at school is a reprieve from these activities and many students and teachers admit preferring six hour purgatory to a “free” day at home. The point is, school’s out (basically). One school year down and only one to go. Time is flying. So with a sudden lack of schedule on my hands, I think now is the time for some productive (there it is again!) reflection on the school year.

Surprises (also known as Wait…..What?)

I think most Peace Corps volunteers have these moments when we hear something, nod our head as we always do to appear agreeable, then suddenly our jaw muscles slacken and our heads turn to the side like an inquisitive puppy as the news finally hits us, culminating with a half-stuttered, “Wait…..what?” As we adjusted to the culture the first few months, there were a lot of these moments. Once, in the first few days, as I began to ask students questions, my coteacher would just shake his head, saying, “She’s from the village, she doesn’t know.” As he tried to redirect me toward the 4-5 advanced students in the class, it was clear that once students were left behind, they weren’t given much opportunity to get back on track. Those from the “villages” often were never taught English in 7-9th grade as they should have, but now had to compete with students with three years of English under their belts. Meanwhile, teachers would ignore them because they were “from the villages.”

The other few surprises came from what I thought I was prepared for: corruption. Finding out that all teachers have money deducted from their salary for political party dues was a bit staggering. All teachers are officially card carrying Cambodian People’s Party members. Without it, they can’t be teachers. I had assumed there would be some corruption, but assumed that the students would not be directly affected. However, as I mentioned on an earlier blog, students are not only charged to take exams, but they are overcharged by a factor of ten.


There have undoubtedly been some positive changes from the past year. First, my coteachers have improved their speaking and listening ability in English significantly. They are great students, soaking up anything I teach them, and immediately use the word, phrase, or technique so they won’t forget it. They are enthusiastic about being able to practice  their English and seem to see the value in it.

My coteachers have been able to pick up teaching techniques that require very little to no preparation. These are my bread and butter, knowing my coteachers often don’t have the time to prepare much for class. Ideally, some lesson planning would be great, but let’s keep in mind that Cambodian teachers make in a month what American teachers make in a day. Motivation is in short supply when everyone needs second and third jobs. Perhaps more importantly, the coteachers are realizing that a student centered class is a lot more fun than speaking in front of the class for two hours.

One of the things that was really important to me was to be available to students for questions, support, and opportunities to practice English. My formal “office hours” did not work, but through lots of urging, I now have students that are not so afraid of the cultural power difference between us and come sit with me and my coteachers during breaks to ask questions.

Lastly, the coteachers are starting to admit that the curriculum could be stronger. There was a strong need for them to follow the book exactly and make sure we cover everything in each chapter, whether the material is good or not. They’re beginning to be really good at knowing what is important to teach, what is important to teach differently from the book, and what is useless in this context.

Not Going to Budge

Despite the improvements, as meager as they might seem, there are certainly things that just will not change. Issues like taking money from students, allowing cheating, and poor teacher attendance are just not going anywhere. These are the realities that  I can discuss with our coteachers, but I don’t really see changing much during my tenure here. Also, getting my coteachers to sing. It’s just not happening.


There are lots of really positive people around that I would dare say are inspirations. First and foremost, is my counterpart and friend, Vanna. As a first year teacher, he didn’t get paid for seven months of teaching. He borrowed money, lived thriftily, and never missed a class until I took him to a training in Phnom Penh in May (even then, he left exercises for his students to have done when he came back). He lesson plans for hours a day, comes to every class, and is just a great guy to be around. If this is the new wave of young Khmer teachers, Cambodian schools will be vastly different in ten years.

Second, there is an old man who teaches Khmer. He knows English and French, and is overall a brilliant guy. More than any other factor that is inspiring is his consistancy. I think the Cambodian education system could be vastly improved with some very simple consistancy. This teacher comes to every class, arrives on time, teaches the full time, then goes home. I’ve never spotted him around the teachers’ card table, and he avoids the overly social teachers’ lounge. He doesn’t take money from students and always goes to class. For this, he is both revered and ostracized by other teachers. While some teachers invoke the group mentality as a reason not to stop earning money from tests, he shows that one person can change things.

Lastly, there is a particularly strong student in my English club whose family lives 45km from the school. Twice a month, she bikes the 45km to see her family for a day and a half, then bikes back. During the week she stays in a shared house with 26 other girls that are receiving scholarship money to finish high school. She studies hard, and talks often of university, knowing she won’t be able to go without a scholarship.

Focus for next year

What are my next steps? Mostly, I’m going to focus on cementing these improvements into the school. There is no clear indication that the improvements so far will continue after I leave, so next year will look a bit different. I will turn to more of an advising role to the teachers, making sure that they are implementing the changes that I’ve shown them. I taught a lot this year, and want to see my coteachers take the lead next year.


Teaching English at the Health Center

20 06 2012

I have never been a fan of teaching English. Before coming to Cambodia, I had taught English abroad several times, and I had always dreaded it. Teaching English was the worst! Although I’ve always appreciated good grammar, explaining the difference between indefinite and definite articles was enough to drive me to tears. Now, however, I have an English class that I enjoy teaching, and I consider this quite the breakthrough.

In November of last year, my health center director asked me to start teaching the staff English. I reluctantly agreed, assuring myself that their interest would surely fizzle after a few weeks and I’d be off the hook. More than six months later though the class is still going strong. It goes to show that I still haven’t learned to predict what will be successful and what will flop here.

Our English classroom

Honestly, I think part of the reason I enjoy the class so much is because it helps ease the guilt I feel for not yet figuring out how to be effective in the health center setting. Although I have many other activities that I think are positive, working in the health center still feels like the least effective thing I do. But teaching the staff English is something I feel proud of, something that has made a difference. It’s not necessarily the kind of difference I was hoping to make, but it’s a start.

I also enjoy teaching  because it allows me to show the staff my real personality. Operating in a foreign language all day really limits the ways in which I can express myself. But teaching English lets the staff see a different, more outgoing side of me than what I’m often able to show them in Khmer. Between my improved Khmer and their improved English, we are able to communicate with one another much more easily and naturally.

Finally, I like the class because the students want to learn. They come voluntarily four times a week to study with me, and are always actively engaged in the process. Even though most of them are in their late 30s or 40s and will probably not benefit professionally from the basic English classes, they are still devoted to learning with me. The class has been a great way for us to get to know one another better and has been a great tool to learn more about the community. We have no textbook and learn using more fun teaching techniques than can be used in formal classrooms. It’s been a huge surprise to me that the English class is still flourishing, but it’s been a pleasant one since the class has turned into one of my favorite activities.


TedxPhnomPenh Recap

16 06 2012

Tedx was entertaining, inspiring and surprising. Packed with a dynamic and energizing line-up of speakers, the all-day event had sold out a couple of days before, heightening the anticipation. The talks were hosted by Princess Norodom Soma, who had fled Cambodia with her family during the Khmer Rouge. She was an endearing host, showing her Californian and Cambodian roots equally throughout. Between talks, she flopped a few jokes, but she also told moving stories of growing up as an immigrant in the US with a family who, even to this day, does not like to talk of Cambodia’s most difficult era.

During the talks themselves, I geeked out over Gapminder statistics in a presentation on using data to support NGOs in Cambodia. My mind was stretched as I watched a group of Cambodians use music and drama to deal with the pain of their past. I was convinced that all I want to listen to from now on is a fierce Cambodian woman rap in Khmer. I was touched by the stories of several Cambodians overcoming the odds and becoming successful and happy despite their difficult beginnings. I laughed at one man’s journey from Budapest to Cambodia in a Trabant. Plus, a heck of a lot more!

Throughout the day, the speeches were punctuated with videos from the Ted  Talks website as well. Having previously seen Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on creativity in schools, my favorite video shown at Tedx was Dan Pink’s presentation on the science behind motivation. Another noteworthy talk, on the Egyptian Revolution, prompted the host to remind the audience that all of us, as individuals and collectively, can be a part of making change happen. She followed that up by saying, “The Arab Spring should not be contained to the Middle East,” insinuating that a political shift needs to happen in Cambodia as well. It was an extremely powerful statement to  make in this country. It also seemed to me like an extremely risky one, but apparently it fell just within the boundaries of what’s allowed. Because although that statement was cleared, an entire Tedx presentation was deemed to be a threat and was cancelled last-minute.

The presentation that was slated to be TedxPhnomPenh’s dramatic finale never made it to the stage. The event was going to feature prominent Cambodian activists, including the Venerable Loun Sovath, reading accounts of recent violent land disputes while images of the conflicts would play in the background. However, the finale never debuted because the venue, a prestigious university in the city center, thought that it “might cause problems with the government.” Human rights activists are labeling this as self-censorship and as a lack of the freedom of expression. The organizers of TedxPhnomPenh posted this official response, although it seems that their language, and the language used in various other articles about the incident, has softened since last week.

Loun Sovath, a well-known monk and activist

Looking at the event itself, TedxPhnomPenh was truly inspirational, featuring many wonderful speakers from both the expat and Khmer communities. However, the events surrounding the finale left many audience members feeling jaded. The day was truly a microcosm of life in Cambodia, simultaneously filled with hope and inspiration, frustration and defeat.

All of the talks will be posted online in about a month. Look for the links here.


Camp GLOW: Speakers Confirmed

8 06 2012

Remember me announcing that my girls’ empowerment project got funding? Well, I’m pleased to say that the planning stages have been going very smoothly. We’ve gotten the blessing of the Provincial Office of Education already, plus the venue and guesthouse are booked. Girls in all three of the participating schools have been attending club meetings regularly, despite the impending end of the academic year. We’ve even planned a Trivia Night fundraiser at a pub in Siem Reap later this month to bring in some extra funds.

However, the best news is that we’ve confirmed some really spectacular speakers for the event. The two lead presenters are young, strong and independent Khmer women who run grassroots NGOs addressing women’s health and empowerment. We couldn’t be any happier to have them on board!

Both organizations are providing women essential physical and mental health services that are not yet offered by any other organization in the area. The Women’s Resource Center, located in Siem Reap, provides health education, mental health counseling, legal aid, literacy education, positive parenting and work skills training. In Battambang, Our Strength describes itself as the only organization in the city for holistic women’s health education and counseling.

The Women’s Resource Center passing out brochures to eager students at the high school

Please click on the links below to view their websites. If you feel so moved, please also consider a donation. I can assure you that both of these organizations are worthy of your gift.

The Women’s Resource Center

Our Strength



7 06 2012

This weekend, Tim and I are heading to Phnom Penh for a Tedx conference. If you’ve never heard of Ted, and their thousands of TedTalks, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The website describes it like this:

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader… We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers.

There are two official Ted conferences each year but there are hundreds of affiliated events every month, referred to as the Tedx program. The second annual TedxPhnomPenh is being held on Saturday. This year’s theme is “Aspirations. Inspirations. Generations.” and features talks on ARTrepreneurship, the importance of language learning, building rule of law and much more. You can see the complete line-up of speakers here.

Can’t attend a Ted conference? No problem because the brief, accessible and inspiring talks are online. Check out some of our favorites below.

Katie’s short list

French artist JR turns the world inside out through public art.

Another Frenchy, Esther Duflo is a brilliant economist who lists three evidence-based ways to improve development. (Hey fellow PCVs, you should watch this).

Tim’s short list

They’re not the best presenters, but  Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche are doing really cool things with food.

Sir Ken Robinson explores the question, “What if creativity were valued as much as literacy?”



A Morning at the Dam

3 06 2012

While everyone headed to the polls today, Tim and I spent the morning riding out to a popular picnicking spot 10 or 12 kilometers from our site. Many of our friends visit the Makak Dam on the weekends to swim, fish or just relax, but we had yet to make the trip. So we globbed on the sunscreen, packed a few snacks and headed out. As you can see in the pictures, it really is a lovely spot and I’m sure we’ll visit it again soon.




Happy Election Day!

Steering Clear of Politics

2 06 2012

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are supposed to steer clear of Cambodian politics completely but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there has been a flare-up in political demonstrations and violence recently, but this weekend also marks two important political events.

10,001 days and counting

First, Friday was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 10,000th day in power. That’s more than 27 years, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math. Wikipedia has Hun Sen listed as number seven on a list of longest-ruling leaders currently in office. The New York Times took notice of this landmark date and published a condemning opinion piece.

This weekend local elections are also taking place. The campaign season here is, thankfully, much shorter than that in the United States. For about three weeks, the major political parties have been campaigning tirelessly by attaching loudspeakers to trucks, motos and centrally-located buildings. Although we’ve been told there’s no reason to expect any violence, the government has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol this weekend, just in case. Because, after all, alcohol, and not injustice, fuels political unrest.