In Ratanakiri, a remote province on Cambodia’s border with Laos, I went trekking with Bleng Phom, our English-speaking guide, who told me how learning English had allowed him to significantly improve his income and bring him out of poverty. Tourism is the second biggest industry in Cambodia. However, very few Cambodians can speak the language properly and those who do have a real chance of upward social mobility.
Bleng is about two hours late for the beginning of our trek. He explains in his hasty English that the police arrested him, as he could not afford to have a license plate on his motorcycle. He laughs, we laugh in return and we embark on a two-day journey, trekking in the jungle.
Bleng, who calls himself Blanket, is sympathetic and talkative. He has been an English-speaking trekking guide for three years.
During the walk, he explains that he is of the Kroeng people, one of the many indigenous communities living at the edge of the jungle in Ratanakiri. His parents are farmers, growing rice, mangoes, cajun, pineapple and banana. Like 23% of the Cambodian population, they live below the national poverty line, as agricultural incomes are extremely precarious.
As we walk, the jungle gets more and more dense, and we struggle to make our way through the entangled bamboos. As the walk becomes harder, we grow silent, watching each and every one of our steps. Blanket keeps telling us his story.
Like most Cambodian children, Blanket went to school, but he never obtained his secondary school certificate. The quality of education in Cambodia is very low and to achieve his dream of becoming a trek guide, Blanket quit secondary school and started to work.
We arrive at our camping spot and Blanket, assisted by a porter, starts to prepare the meal and installs the hammocks. He knows how to cook in the jungle, rinsing and soaking the vegetable in the nearby pond, cooking rice and vegetables on a campfire. He is quick; he knows the job by heart. Half an hour later, dinner is ready. He continues his tale.
To get a foothold in the trekking industry, he started to work at the age of 17 as a porter. Working for free or very little money (2,5$ to 5$ a day), he started to learn the job. Simultaneously, he decided to learn English. “I bought an English book from the market and showed it to my older brother. He taught me how to read and write in English. I learnt from him for one month and then I practiced alone.”
Walking alongside tourists allowed him to improve his English. He admits being very shy at first. Slowly, he grew more confident and started to interact more with the tourists. After one year as a porter, he finally got the chance to become a guide. To learn the job, he initially partnered with a more experienced guide and began to lead his own tours shortly thereafter.
The dinner comes to an end, and Blanket has brought along homemade rice wine that he serves into bamboo-curved pots. His enthusiasm for the throat-burning liquor is contagious and we cheer when he announces the second round. Night falls and he continues to explain his life path.
As an English-speaking guide, Blanket earns $25 per day on a trek. He works two to three days a week depending on the season. When he does not work, he helps his parents at home “bringing water, cutting the grass and collecting the rubbish on the farm.” His income is shared among the family members. With his income, he also registered into a private school where he learns English: “I go to school two days per week, on Saturday and Sundays. The lessons last for two hours and cost $1 per hour”.
The next morning we are woken by the smell of fresh fish grilled above the campfire. Excited by this unusual breakfast, and surprised by the ability of Blanket and his porter to find food in the inhospitable jungle, we keep questioning him about his future.
Improving his English is a way to secure employability in the tourism industry. At the moment, Blanket can only operate tours in the buffer zone of the national park, as tours in the park itself are reserved for licensed guides accredited by the Ministry of Tourism. To become a licensed guide, Blanket has to take training and pass a competitive exam. To avoid having too many guides, the Ministry of Tourism only runs training every five years. Becoming a licensed guide would allow him to earn 35$ a day. Waiting for his turn, Blanket keeps training both his linguistic and jungle skills hands-on, in the field.
As far as unlicensed guides are concerned, more and more young Khmer are learning English to get into the industry. Blanket is conscious that he needs to expand his language skills to be able to work in the long-term. He has noticed that many French tourists had limited English so he is devoted to learning French. He seizes every opportunity to learn a new word. On a piece of paper, he has written all the words he needs to know to greet his customers politely and proudly repeats all the sentences. He is confident that his language abilities will ensure him a great future.
We leave the camp and start our trek back out of the jungle. At this point, only one more question burns my lips: “Could I write a story about you?”