TEACHER BLOG: The Roots of the Problems in Cambodia

By Saveth Chhean 
I was born in Kley village, Chreybak commune, Roleabhear district, Kompong Chnang province in January 1st 1977. At that time in Cambodia, we still had the civil war between Khmer army and Khmer Rouge army. Because of this, when I was 13 years old, many children in my village had no education.
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The rural area in Cambodia and the road to my house.

Instead, they had a lot of problems and a lot of suffering. I was one of those children. Now, 36 years later, I am beginning to learn and understand why I had these problems. What were the causes of these problems? And, very important, I am learning how I can change these problems in my country now.

When I finished grade 9, I was 15 years old and I did not know what I could do to make a successful life. I knew to take my books to the school, but I did not take the time to read my studies. At that time, the teachers fight the students for not knowing the answers. The teachers hit the students. At that time, I think I am lazy and that is why I did not do my studies. But now, I know it was not just because I was lazy. Because I am studying Social Work with two Khmer professors from Royal University, I now know there were other roots of my problems.


The Maslow that taken from Wikipedia

Recently, we have talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is the first time I have seen something like this. And, it has helped me to know the roots of my problems. I was not able to study well when I was young because there were basic needs that I did not have. They are the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For example, my family did not have clean water or a good toilet. Our toilet was made from palm leaves and pieces of wood. So, I was sick a lot. I would be sick for one or two months every time because we did not have a good clinic that could give me good medicine. When I was sick, I could not go to school. And then, when I could go to school, I did not have security of body because I was afraid that the teachers would hit me because I did not know the answers. I think now that maybe this is why I was not able to learn so well. And, I realize now, that this is still the same situation for many people in Cambodia. I estimate between 60 – 70% of my fellow Cambodians do not have their basic Physiological or Safety needs being met. I think a lot now about how I was able to change this for myself. Now, I am able to teach and to learn very well. I have Self-Esteem and Confidence. I am higher on the Hierarchy of Needs. So, how I can help to change the problems for others? How can we help others to reach to the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

For four years after I finish grade 9, I worked in the rice fields with my family. But, the work is too hard. We work from 3AM until 5PM everyday. After the four years, I think about what else I can do. Somehow, my family found $350 which was a lot of money, and they paid for me to become a monk so that I could study more. I started to learn many languages such as Pali, English, Thai and also Korean. However, more importantly, I started to think, “What is life?” After four years, I decided to leave the pagoda and stop being a monk because I believed I could work and communicate with other people. I came to Siem Reap to get started in a new life. For the next 12 years, I worked in a small restaurant, hotel receptionist and finally as a Tuk Tuk driver. However, these 12 years were a very difficult time for me in my life.

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When i was a monk!!

When I became a Tuk Tuk driver, I had just become married and had a baby. We moved to Siem Reap. As I began to make more money as a tuk tuk driver, a friend of mine that I know from the restaurant was also making more money as a tuk tuk driver. At this time, I and my family had enough food, clean water and some extra money. After my friend and I finished work at midnight every night, we went to drink beer and sing karaoke until 3 or 4 in the morning. My wife was not happy. It was a bad time in my life. But, then our baby became sick. We went to the hospital, and the doctors told us that our baby girl had blood cancer.

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When i was a Tuk Tuk driver!!!

 So quickly, we had to make so many decisions about hospitals and doctors and money. Because I wanted to stay with my daughter and wife at the hospital, I could not work. So, soon we did not have enough money to pay for food, water or rent for the house. It was so difficult and I did not know how to do. I continued to drink because my friend would buy for me. Why? Because I hurt so much and had so much suffering. When I drank, all of the pain was gone. For two months, it was a time of blackness in my life. In the end, I chose to return to my village because it is a very comfortable place for me. I have my parents, sisters, brother and friends who can help me with the situation. Maslow would say that I needed to have my needs of Love and Belonging being met.

 After several days, my wife left the hospital and brought my daughter to me because we had no more money. She was still very, very sick. My daughter died at midnight. In the next hour, people began to come to my house to help me and my family. By 6:00 in the morning, we began to have a ceremony for my daughter. The ceremony lasted for two days. I was so sad. The people in my village would watch me and follow me to make sure I would not hurt myself. On the third day, I made a decision. I would not drink again forever. Because as we say in Buddhism, “The bad thing that we do is like a shadow. It follows us.” For me, drinking too much was like the shadow. And the shadow was with me everyday. It stopped me from being a good father and husband.

A year later, my life began to change a bit for the better. My wife and I decided to be together again because we both knew the mistakes we had made. We promised to not think too much about the past, and also promised not make the mistakes again. We left the shadows behind us. We had two more children. And, we began to keep a budget in a notebook so that we could try to have enough money everyday for food, water, medicine, clothes, and a place to live. Maslow calls having our needs everyday Homeostasis. I began to feel better and could sleep well at night.

What could make all of this possible? It was when I began to work as a Tuk Tuk driver for the Seven Candles Guesthouse. Before, when I worked as a tuk tuk driver by myself, I never knew how much money I would have at the end of the month. But now, every month I knew exactly how much money I would have because they gave me the same salary every month. It was Homeostasis. Also, my days were different. I began to drive volunteers to work in the schools. I could watch them while they worked with the students. I saw three volunteers, Lucy, Jane, and Robyn teach the students so well. They talked a little bit and then let the students practice what they are learning. I thought this was a good way for the students to learn. I also thought that this could be how to improve myself: I began to take time for my brain to understand what was being taught. And I began to think that to be creative is important way to learn. I also began to borrow books from the Knar School library, and when I had time to rest between driving the tuk tuk, I read. I begin to have Confidence and Self-esteem that I can learn so much.

After nearly one year, I was offered a job as a Media teacher with the Ponheary Ly Foundation. Even though I did not know anything about media, I said yes because I wanted to study more. Because my wife and I had a budget and I felt good that I can have enough food and water for our children. Maslow would say that I was motivated by Achievement.

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I am in the Media class

I started to learn how to how to use a MacBook laptop because people who worked in the office like Farida, Rany, Lori and Sokha began to teach me. And I watched videos about how to use the MacBook. How to open it. How to turn it on. Everything was new to me. Really, I did not know about the technology at all. I knew how to send an email and how to check my email. That was it. But I had Confidence that I could learn. After one week, I started to go to school with Sokha Khoun (you can read about her experience of teaching media on her blog Media in Cambodia). When Sokha was teaching the students, I would sit with them and learn too. But, I would not explain anything to them because I did not know anything. I would help to give materials to the students when they needed them.

Two months later, after I finished taking Media 1 with the students, Sokha let me start to teach the Media 1 class to new students. And she told me to make a lesson plan, but she did not explain to me how to make a lesson plan. Anyway, it was not easy to make a lesson plan because my knowledge was limited. I could not make new lesson plans, I could only teach what Sokha had learned from Diana Gross. I did not feel confidence. I felt that the students did not yet respect me. But, I was still motivated to do better.

Then, Diana from Global Citizen Media came back to Cambodia to do more Teacher Training and explained more to Sokha and me about how to teach better. I learned about the word Curriculum. I learned that we as the teacher need to decide what Skills, Performance, Practice, and Values we want to instill in our students. We learned about the four different learning styles of students. I realized that when I talk too much to the students, they become bored. But when we begin to make activities, the students become creative. We begin to tell them to brainstorm, to think of any topic that they want to do. And then when they do not understand, they have to ask questions because otherwise they cannot do. Then we discuss together. I explain around. Then they can use creativity to try to do. Now, I see that they begin to have Self-Esteem and Confidence. They are not afraid in the classroom so their brains can learn so much. They like to learn how to use Creativity and Problem-Solving. And when I look again at the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I see they are getting very high. And, I am too.

My wife and daughter.

My wife and daughter.

When Diana explained Values to us and asked us to decide 5 values that we wanted to teach to our students in Media, I thought, “Wow! We talk about these same things in our Social Media class!” And I start to think that these are things many people in Cambodia do not know about. But, now I think it is so important for the people to know because it is how we as Cambodians can become better for ourselves. Today there are more than 3,500 foreign NGOs who work in Cambodia. And, I wonder how it is that Cambodians will someday be able to do for ourselves so that Cambodia can be strong. Sokha and I talk about why we teach media. And we talk about Social Work so much and how we as Cambodians can begin to help our students and help each other to become better and be a stronger Cambodia.

I am very thankful for everyone who help me to succeed and achieve so much in my life. First, my family and community in my village. When my daughter was so sick and she died, I knew I could return to my village because I was Loved and Belonged there. Then, my wife: together we decide to make a plan so that we can try to have our Physiological and Safety needs met everyday. Also, the Seven Candles Guesthouse gave me the opportunity to have the Homeostasis of a monthly salary and the opportunity to meet good volunteers like Jane and Lucy who have the good experience of teaching and teach some children so well. And the Ponheary Ly Foundation has given me the opportunity to teach Media and study Social Work so I now have the opportunity to be a Cambodian who can help my fellow Cambodians.

And a thousand thanks to my best teacher Diana from Global Citizen Media that she taught me about the curriculum, performance, practice and value. I feel so much confidence now when I know these things, that I can use Self-Actualization of Creativity, Spontaneity, and Problem-Solving in the classroom. As a Cambodian I can teach without her from now on. And, this will be what makes Cambodia stronger in the future: Cambodians teaching Cambodians. And I will teach my students to be strong.

Finally, I want to thank the most important people in my life: my three clever children. I love them so much and they give me the motivation to make everyday a good day.

Screen shot 2014-02-06 at 10.30.21 AMSaveth grew up in Kampong Chhnang Province, but moved to Siem Reap in 2002 for work. After spending one year working for the Ly family and Seven Candles as a driver, mentor, translator, and teacher, Saveth is now a media teacher for Ponheary Ly Foundation’s thriving student media program.

In addition to his duties in the classroom, he works with Sokha to learn more about student family situations so PLF can be of better service to these children. Saveth spends his free time becoming even more fluent in English. He has a daughter, two sons and a wife who all live in Siem Reap.


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  1. Saveth, you made me cry. I am so proud that you are not just a good teacher, but that you have taken the time and energy to learn and work to be a better person. You are an amazing man! <3 See you very soon!

  2. Saveth – thank you for sharing your personal story with the world and your thoughts on improving your country. I look forward to hearing about the next chapters in your life. Jan and I are so proud to be your friends. Best wishes to all your family.

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