13 July 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Wheels are the prosaic feature of Cambodia: wheelchairs carry the victims of landmines and those who missed out on polio vaccines during Pol Pot’s murderous regime; tuk-tuks transport commuters and tourists; and at the Royal University of Phnom Penh it's clear that bicycles and motos (motorbikes) ease access to education for the students who travel from afar to study here. I’m visiting the university with SeeBeyondBorders, a not-for-profit busily raising the country’s educational standards, and have been assigned a pair of students hungry for English conversation. I ask Thida and Mengky to show me around the sheds that house incalculable numbers of bicycles and motos. These vehicles – their sheer profusion – fascinates me: I have seen a young man racing through the citys chaotic traffic, making a call on his mobile phone as he went, a lady in a pink-and-white-striped sunhat shielding her eyes from the sun – and the road – as she flew by, and whole families hanging off a single bicycle. Be careful, I want to say to Thida and Mengky. But these bright young students are welcoming me into their culture, not the other way round. We leave the sheds and order a drink of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice at the university canteen. Their world is spread out before me, and I can tell that they are imagining mine. We like to visit Australia one day, they say, as frangipani petals waft slowly to the ground beside them.

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