In many places around the world, going to school could be a matter of life and death. In the rural Zhang Jiawan Village of Southern China, children have to make it to school by moving up unsecured ladders to climb hillocks while parents in Lebak, Indonesia, need to cross a damaged suspension bridge with their children in tow to reach class on time. Whereas, in Cambodia most children don’t really risk life and limb going to school, which are mostly very far from home, but the tedium could still be exhausting and dangerous. Taing Rinith goes back to school to document their daily ritual.
In a small wooden house in Prey Kabas district in Takeo, Say Raksa, a 12-year-old sixth grader, is having her lunch of steamed white rice and fish soup. Then she will do the dishes and get ready for school. She gets on her second-hand bicycle and head for Prey Kabas Primary School, which she and many of her friends have attended for six years.
The class, during the afternoon shift, starts at 1pm, but Raksa, like many other kids in the village, has to leave home at noon as the school is 7km away. Cycling there usually takes her almost an hour.
“Today, the teacher is busy. So there is no extra class and I can leave home at 12pm,” Reksa says. “Usually, the extra class starts at 12pm, so I will have to leave home at 11.”
Cycling on a dirt path under the hot sun, Reksa usually stops a bit to drink some water. By the time that she reaches class, her uniform is soaked in sweat. Reksa says she is used to travelling a long way to school every day, but she imagines next year will be more difficult. She will be studying at the farther Banoy High School, which means adding another 4km to her daily journey.
“When I am big enough, my parents will allow me to drive their bike to school,” she says.
However, not everyone is so fortunate. On a serpentine, muddy road in Steung Sen district of Kampong Thom, almost 200km from Phnom Penh, 11-year-old Sun Chheng is walking to his class at Balang High School, a small bottle of water huddled in one hand and shielding his eyes from the sun with the other.
The school is 5km away, but under the blazing sun or the driving rain, the son of a rubber plantation worker feels it 10 times more in his legs.
“Going to school during the morning shift is much easier,” Chheng says. “But, it also means I have to get up at dawn, which I hate so much.”
Chheng longs for a bicycle but he still counts himself lucky because at least he does not have to drop out of school like his elder sister due to personal safety concerns.
Many children in Cambodia, especially those living in remote areas, will have a similar ring to their stories when it comes to commuting to school. In fact, many cannot go to study or had to leave schools because the institutions are just simply too far from home.
“The reason, we can say, is that there are not enough schools and teachers in the rural areas,” says Dr Mengly Quach, the founder and Chairman of Mengly J. Quach Education.
“Long distances between the community and schools has many bad impacts on young students… especially their security and health,” he says. “To make it worse, the exhaustion from travelling can cause them to pay less or no attention to their lesson.”
While claiming that bringing the school closer to communities, which requires great effort from the government as well as the private sector, Dr Mengly who was also born into a poor farmer’s family, as a child wanted nothing more than a bicycle. Thus, in fact he has been helping students in rural areas to “get to school faster”.
In the past few years, his Mengly J. Quach Education has given away thousands of bicycles to children all over the country, and Mengly urges other local tycoons to do the same.
“A bicycle is not expensive but it could mean everything for a child,” he says. “To help them arrive at school safely is not only the responsibility of the family or the school but all of us.”