Women in Cambodian Society

My English class had on average 30 people attending. That’s about as many as could be fit within the space of our classroom. Strangely enough, there was only one girl in the class, the rest were boys (of which about 10 were monks). Because class was open for anyone who wished to improve their English (this was an advanced speaker’s class), there were odd days when we had two girls in the class, but for the most part there was only one. The disproportionate gender distribution was instantly noticeable and got me curious.

View of the Classroom from the Wat Preah Prom Rath Grounds
View of the Classroom from the Wat Preah Prom Rath Grounds

Since it was not only my class that suffered from severe lack of women in comparison to men, I asked why there were hardly any girls attention the classes in Wat Preah Prom Rath Pagoda. What I was told was not a bit surprising. My students simply said that if I went to the Khmer University in Siem Reap, I would see the same ratio of women vs men. They said only about 4 girls attended the university, the rest were all boys.

I was curious why that was so I kept asking. Did Cambodian women have aversion to education or was there something else in play? The responses from my students suggested that based on Cambodian cultural and societal beliefs, the place for a woman is at home, looking after children and making her man happy. She is not to care about anything else and should always stay by the side of her man, even if he cheats on her or beats her up, which is a common treatment Cambodian women receive from their husbands.

The world has moved forward and both sexes are deemed equal in most of the world, but some countries still perceive women as the lesser of the two. Cambodia appears to be one of them. High rates of rape also suggest that many Cambodian men perceive and treat women as mere sexual objects. Sadly enough, it is socially and culturally unacceptable for a Cambodian woman to admit pre-marital sex, even if she was brutally forced into it. Because of that, most cases of rape don’t get reported and remain a burden a woman-victim is left alone to bear.

In The End, It Was All About Money

I enjoyed my English class profusely. The class was lead by a Buddhist monk with great command of English (the best English I’ve heard any Cambodian speak – I’m guessing he must have gotten scholarship to study in an English speaking country, but I never actually asked to know for sure) and the students, who came from all walks of life were a wonderful bunch. Anyone was welcome to attend the class, but after the class, students paid the Khmer teacher (the monk) 500 Riel (there are 4,300 Cambodian Riel to a US Dollar) each. This didn’t apply to monks. Monks don’t pay.

The students also didn’t have to pay anything to me. The 500 Riel fee for the Khmer teacher was a regular per class fee they’d have to pay regardless of whether I was there or not, but there was no extra cost for the class with me. However, I had to make something very clear right from the get go. Unfortunately, being a foreigner, the first and foremost thing each of the students saw when they looked at me was money. It was really disappointing and it took me a while to eliminate it. Lesson after lesson, either during the class or right after it, various students would approach me with seemingly personal questions, but they always swerved into business solicitations. It would typically go about something like this:

Student: How long have you been in Cambodia for, Mark?
Me: Only for a little over a week now.
Student: How do you like it so far?
Me: It’s very hot, hotter than anything I have previously experienced but I drink lots of coconut so it’s manageable.
Student: Have you been to Angkor yet?
Me: Yes, I went today. It was my first day and it was amazing.
Student: Would you like a tuk tuk for tomorrow?
Me: No, thank you. I have a bicycle and I enjoy riding and exploring at my own pace.
Student: Where are you staying?
Me: In Prom Roth Guesthouse, right around the corner from here.
Student: I know a better guesthouse, can get you a special price.
Me: Thank you for your offer, I may take a look at it later but for now I’m happy with this one.

Day after day, lecture after lecture my students would be approaching me with offers clearly directed at making money at me. It only confirmed what I already knew – for a Cambodian, a westerner is nothing more than a wandering cash cow. It was a dog eat dog world in Siem Reap, though. Millions of tourists keep coming year after year, but for each tourist, there are dozens of relentless touts out there. Tourists are pushed beyond their limits and forced to lock in, disregarding any and all locals trying to approach them.

Needless to say, any foreigner who’s been in Cambodia for more than 5 minutes will be so fed up with aggressive touts, they will not accept any more locals into their personal space. As a result, locals know that their chances at striking a successful conversation with a random foreigner on the street are minimal. They simply know that each foreigner, regardless of how long they’ve been in Cambodia, has already been jumped so many time by locals (and each time it was solely for the purpose of making money at them), they have had enough of it and will just beat each next one off without listening to what they had to say.

Siem Reap is overflowing with money hungry Cambodians who wish to skin every foreigner that comes into view off every single dollar they have, but are unable to get to them because their boundaries were already crossed and all locals are already seen as aggressive, money hungry machines that don’t stop at nothing to get their dollars. And then they see me, standing right in front of them, within the walls of the same room, looking straight into their faces instead of looking away to avoid eye contact (in Cambodia, if you make an eye contact, it is perceived as an invitation to let them sell you something) and talking to them without them struggling to get to me. So what do they do?

That’s right… I threw myself right in the viper’s nest. Each of my students had the most seemingly helpful advice for me, because apparently if I buy from anywhere else but from where they say I should, I will buy badly. It went on like that for a few days until I could not take it anymore and made myself clear in front of an entire class. I said the following:

I come here to help you study the English language. I do not take any money for it and I do not expect any. I am here because I enjoy the lectures and like to share the knowledge. However, I do not like that you see my presence as an open invitation to sell me something or get commissions for me. I volunteer my time to help you improve your English speaking skills, but I must ask you to respect me and stop looking for the ways to make money at me all the time. Whatever the type of business you are affiliated with, whatever the type of services you offer – do not solicit any of it to me just because I make myself an easy prey by coming to your class.

Sadly enough, my class was not a part of some overpriced school so anyone was welcome to attend. This was a good thing on one hand, because not many Cambodians can afford to pay $400 per semester for a fancy classroom with a fly-by teacher. Classes like the one I joined allowed people without a sponsor or with lower income levels to still get some education and improve their chances at scoring a better paid job. But because it was so open and affordable, it left me exposed to endless solicitations. In the end, it was all about money for them. You offer them a finger, they don’t just take whole hand. They’ll take all of you.

Teaching English at Wat Preah Prom Rath

Yes, it was one of my intentions to dedicate my time to volunteering and yes, since I didn’t have much experience volunteering before, teaching English seemed like the easiest way to start. As I was talking to that young man, he mentioned that he studied English here at the Wat Preah Prom Rath temple. He said he was from a small village but moved to Siem Reap in order to get some education and perhaps a decent job. I highly approved of this thinking.

He said he didn’t have the money to pay for his own accommodation even though being local he could find a room for $30 a month, so he stayed at the pagoda sharing living space with monks. Classes at the Wat Preah Prom Rath are free and anyone can attend so he takes full advantage of it. Having come from Canada, he asked me if I would like to come to his class which started at 5pm – in about 30 minutes. You wouldn’t have to ask me twice. I could not say “YES” fast enough.

View of the Classroom from the Wat Preah Prom Rath Grounds
View of the Classroom from the Wat Preah Prom Rath Grounds

Before I knew it, I was in a class. Room was full of people who were giving away surprised looks, but the overall feel was that I was welcome. I tried to introduce myself but probably sounded a bit awkward. There were both monks and non monks among students. Before I could get down to anything, a teacher walked in.

The classroom had no doors and no windows, just holes in the wall. The building in which the lectures were held was old, walls on it were mouldy and paint was peeling off. It offered striking contrast to shiny gloss of the temples across the walkway from there.

This Small Building in Bad Condition Serves as English School at Wat Pream Prom Rath
This Small Building in Bad Condition Serves as English School at Wat Pream Prom Rath

The teacher was a monk who spoke great English. I’m guessing he spent some time in England as he bore accent affected by the British. I introduced myself to him, after which he introduced me to the class and told me he had a bit of a sore throat and asked me if I could lead the class on my own. I have picked up his TOEFL book, got to a page where they were and without any ado I got straight down to teaching.

It was amazing. The class was at first a bit reluctant but I poked a funny here and there which eased the mood and so the lecture went like on grease. I enjoyed it so much I could not believe when an hour went by and everyone started leaving to attend to their other duties. My first English class as a volunteer was awesome. Everything about it was awesome. I have enjoyed it thoroughly and could not wait for the following day to do the same thing over again. As I was suggested, they held the same class every day during the week between 5 and 6, except on weekend. This was Tuesday – my first day in Cambodia and I have already taught English. What an amazing start to my new life.