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Saturday, May 12, 2007

UNICEF helps local government build pre-schools in Cambodia

By Guy Degen

SVAY RIENG PROVINCE, Cambodia, 11 May 2007 – Every weekday morning, Nita, 5, joins her friends at the Banteay Kraing Village community pre-school. Small sandals and shoes are neatly lined up in a row outside the wooden shelter that houses the school.

Inside, the walls are adorned with bright watercolour paintings. A local volunteer teacher asks the class to name animals drawn on a whiteboard.

For children such as Nita, these simple and stimulating activities are not only fun but essential for early childhood education, helping to ensure that they will enter primary school at the appropriate age. Yet only 14 per cent of all three- to five-year-old children in Cambodia are enrolled in pre-schools – most of them in affluent urban areas.

A safe learning environment

UNICEF’s child rights programme in Cambodia, known as ‘Seth Koma’ in the Khmer language, is working with rural communities to build pre-schools that provide children with a safe learning environment, including access to clean water and latrines.

Local commune councils select the land and UNICEF supports them with funds for constructing pre-school shelters, playgrounds, wells and latrines, as well as providing basic school supplies. UNICEF also helps train volunteer teachers in nutrition, health, hygiene and early childhood development, and provides them with a small incentive payment for their efforts.

In the past year, UNICEF has assisted about 900 pre-schools in six rural provinces, helping to bring early education to some 20,000 children.

Preparation for formal schooling

“Currently the Cambodian Government doesn’t have the necessary funds to provide early childhood education to all Cambodian children, especially in the rural areas,” says UNICEF’s Seth Koma Programme Officer, Tessa Rintala.

As a result, she adds, there are problems with children enrolling in school at a later age, dropping out or repeating classes.

“UNICEF believes that community pre-school education actually better prepares children for formal schooling and aids them to be more socialized and adjusted for school life,” notes Ms. Rintala.

‘The education she needs’

A two-hour pre-school class provides Nita with a positive daily routine. Her parents are divorced and her mother lives in Phnom Penh, where she works in a garment factory. Nita and her elder sister live with their grandmother and a young cousin.

Nita’s grandmother believes pre-school is giving Nita a head start in life, explaining: “Without her father she is much more vulnerable. Community pre-school gives her the education she needs.”

Nita says she is looking forward to going to primary school next year when she turns six. Having attended community pre-school since she was three, Nita will be on track to enrol at her local primary school with her friends at the right age.
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Shorter and more convenient route to famed Banteay Chhmar temple ruins found for tourists


A major battlefield during the peak of border conflicts with Cambodia in the 1970s, Ta Phraya has now turned into a potential gateway for tourists to visit Thailand's neighbouring country. Ratri Saengrungrueng, chairwoman of a tour operators club in this eastern province, said the route to Cambodia from Ta Phraya, which is an alternative to the Aranyaprathet checkpoint, has gained popularity with tourists wishing to visit the famous Khmer temple ruins of Banteay Chhmar _ a gigantic 12th-century Bayon sanctuary housing a four-faced monument and a magnificent bas-relief depicting a 32-armed Bodhisattva lokeshvara.

''The ancient ruins are in Banteay Meanchey's Thma Pouk district, just 47km from the Thai-Cambodian border,'' Mrs Ratri said.

She pointed out that border regulations, however, remain a major obstacle as the Ta Phraya checkpoint is open only to Ta Phraya residents, who are required to obtain a border pass from the Ta Phraya district chief for the visit.

Non-residents cannot do so and must either seek the provincial governor's written permission or enter Banteay Meanchey through the conventional route via the Aranyaprathet checkpoint, a distance of 119km altogether. [It is 49km from the checkpoint to Sisophon town, and another 70km from the town to the ancient ruins.]

''Last month our club organised a trip to Banteay Chhmar via Ta Phraya for members of tour agencies.,'' she said.

''They all agreed it was a fastastic route. The dirt road is in acceptable condition, and if open to tourism should greatly benefit the local economy,'' she added, noting that the Burapa Tourism Association _ an umbrella tourism promotion organisation for Nakhon Nayok, Sa Kaeo, Prachin Buri, Chachoengsao and Samut Prakan _ has pledged to push for its opening.

The Ta Phraya-Thma Pouk route is much more convenient than the other route as tourists can do a return trip within one day and also have enough spare time to explore the other attractions along the way, including the smaller Banteay Tuop ruins and a beautiful temple with a sacred Buddha in it, she said.

''The new route is an opportunity for local hotels and restaurants to exploit as well, as non-residents are likely to stay overnight in Sa Kaeo, either before or after the Banteay Chhmar journey. It's a trickle-down effect,'' she said.

Currently, tourists entering Cambodia through the conventional Aranyaprathet route have to stay overnight in Sisophon. Hotels in Sisophon are not very impressive, said Mrs Ratri.

It would do tourism a lot of good if the Thai government eases border regulations and authorises lower-ranking officials, like the district chief, to grant permission to non-residents, instead of waiting for the governor to do so on a case-by-case basis which is too time-consuming.

''We have to admit that Sa Kaeo itself is no tourism magnet for visitors. But the Ta Phraya route could make a difference,'' said Mrs Ratri.

However, her proposal has been given a cool reception by the provincial authorities. ''Those in power never see its importance,'' she said.

A provincial official has responded to her call by saying that the governor does not have the power to change any border regulations. Besides, he said, the change may not be worthwhile given the small number of travellers expected to go there.

However, Ta Phraya district chief Thammasak Rattanathanya has endorsed the idea.

He said the proposal is very interesting as it could help bolster the border economies of both Thailand and Cambodia if implemented.

''I will do whatever I can in my capacity to facilitate tourism,'' he said.

Governor Surapong Pongtadsirikul was not available for comment yesterday.
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