Near Cambodia's Temple Ruins, a Devotion to Learning.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA — Millions of tourists come here every year to visit the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, an influx that has helped transform what once resembled a small, laid-back village into a thriving and cosmopolitan town with thumping nightlife and more than 10,000 hotel rooms.
But the explosion of the tourism industry here has also done something less predictable. Siem Reap, which had no universities a decade ago, is now Cambodia’s second-largest hub for higher education, after the capital, Phnom Penh.
The sons and daughters of impoverished rice farmers flock here to work as tour guides, receptionists, bartenders and waitresses. When their shifts are over, they study finance, English and accounting.
“I never imagined that I could go to university,” said Hem Sophoan, a 31-year-old tour guide who is now studying for his second master’s degree. “There’s been so much change and opportunities for young people.”
The establishment of five private universities here is helping to transform the work force in this part of Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries and a society still living in the shadow of the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Employers say that English proficiency is rising and that workers who attend universities stand out for their ability to express themselves and make decisions. A generation of students who would otherwise have had little hope to study beyond high school are enduring grueling schedules to get a degree and pursue their dreams.
Khim Borin, a 26-year-old tour guide by day and law student by night, says he wants to become a lawyer. But he sometimes has trouble staying awake in class during the high tourist season, when he spends hours scaling vertiginous temple steps and baking in the tropical sun.
“I tell my friends, ‘Hit me if you see me falling asleep,”’ he said.
The son of a broken and impoverished household, Mr. Khim Borin worked as a bartender and a masseur and installed air-conditioners at hotels before becoming a tour guide. He summarizes his life as “hard but happy.”
The five universities in Siem Reap currently enroll more than 10,000 students. Most of the campuses, which are scattered around the town, are quiet during the day but come to life with the buzz of students’ motorcycles as soon as the sun sets.
The United Nations and foreign aid organizations have had an oversize role in helping steer the country since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power more than three decades ago. But the symbiosis of work and study here came together without any master plan.
It was driven largely by supply and demand: universities opened to cater to the dreams of Cambodia’s youth — and offered flexible hours in sync with the rhythms of the tourist industry. University administrators say 80 to 90 percent of the students hold full-time jobs.
“They come here, find a job first, and then they start their bachelor degree,” said Rous Bunthy, vice president for administrative affairs at the University of South-East Asia, which opened here in 2006 and has an enrollment of 2,300.
Most students pay the annual tuition of $400 themselves, Mr. Rous Bunthy said. “Some of their parents can help a little — maybe $10 a month,” he said.
Although the fees are a small fraction of what private universities in more developed countries charge, students often struggle to pay, administrators say.
“The main problem is financial support,” said That Bunsay, vice president of administrative affairs at the Siem Reap branch of Build Bright University, the largest in Siem Reap with about 5,000 enrolled.
“They need to find money first and then go to school — money is the first priority,” Mr. That Bunsay said.
Luckier students get sponsorship from foreigners. On a recent evening, an Argentine insurance saleswoman on vacation here, Maria Theresa Landoni, waited outside Mr. That Bunsay’s office. She had come to the university to pay the tuition of a young woman who wanted to study tourism.
Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/25/world/asia/cambodias-angkor-wat-temple-ruins-brings-tourists-and-higher-education-opportunites-for-tour-guides.html?_r=1&ref=cambodia