Tran Minh Tri, 56, stands in front of his class holding a large stick in his right hand. He strikes it against a desk to draw his pupils’ attention. They repeat back his instructions in Vietnamese.
The blackboard behind him is covered in Vietnamese. This could be a scene taken from anywhere in rural Vietnam, only Lien Huu School is in the floating village of Chong Koh, Kampong Chhnang province.
“None of the lessons are in Khmer,” says Tran Minh Tri. “I can’t teach in Khmer.”
Born in Vietnam, Tran Minh Tri came to Cambodia 20 years ago to trade fish. He started teaching at the school five years ago because he “believes in Jesus”. The cross above the school gives away the religious nature of the school.
“The children are good,” he says. “They live around here and come by boat.”
The overwhelming majority of Kampong Chhnang’s boat people are Vietnamese.
Huon Vorn, the village chief for neighbouring Kandal village, estimates there are about 360 families in Chong Koh, of which maybe 30 are Khmer. In his village only 40 out of the 474 families are ethnic Khmer, including his own.
Like most of the structures in the floating village, the school is built on buoyant pontoons. Most of the houses in Kandal village are built on stilts.
“The main problem is when the big storms come,” says Tran Minh Tri. Then houses can come loose from their moorings.
With an average class size of about 50 students, Tran Minh Tri admits it is tiring work. He also has no cover. “When I am ill there is no school,” he says.
According to Huon Vorn, Lien Huu is one of two floating schools in Kampong Chhnang. Neither teaches in Khmer. The few Khmers who live on the water send their children to school on the mainland. The Vietnamese children also go there once they have completed Grade 4.
“We try to teach Vietnamese to the children first and then they go to the Khmer school afterwards,” says Tran Minh Tri.
However, change is on its way.
“A primary school is being constructed on the land near the Vietnamese pagoda,” says Huon Vorn. “The funds for the new school have come from a Vietnamese association in Australia. It will be completed by the time the floods come.”
The village leader adds that there are plans to move his villagers voluntarily from the water to dry land, although precise plans have not yet been presented to the villagers. “The majority of them do not want to go anywhere,” he says. “This is where they work.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY