Education In Southeast Asia


Education in Thailand and Cambodia

By Kelly Ortiz

Why is education important?

                      Education is a process of inviting truth and possibility, of encouraging and giving time to discovery. It is a cultivation of learning that all should have the chance to share in life (Smith, 2015).  Education gives us the foundational building blocks needed to survive and the information needed to progress in society.  Education in both Thailand and Cambodia is valued, although at enormously different levels.  One country values it enough to offer it for free to children for 12 years of their life, the other holds it up like a carrot on a string, making it accessible only to those that have the means necessary to attain it.

Education in Thailand

                      Thailand offers free basic education for all children for the first 12 years of schooling.  They first attend Prathom, which is kindergarten to sixth grade, ages 6-11 years old.  Then Mattayom, seventh-twelfth grade, 12-17 years old.  From there they have a choice of formal education.  They can choose vocational/technical education or higher education (university).  During the basic education years students study a total of eight subjects: Thai language, math, science, social studies, religion/culture, health/physical education, careers/technology, and foreign languages (Bureau of International Education, 2008).

Thailand’s education policy is to create a system of lifelong learning for Thai people (Bureau of International Education, p. 9)Citizens of all ages are encouraged to continue to progress in the education system. If students do not choose the path of higher education but that of vocational, there are many pathways; trade and industry, agriculture, home economics, fisheries, business/tourism, arts and crafts, and textiles and commerce.  All the vocational opportunities are current modes of economic influx.  This not only encourages the student to participate in a career where there is ample need in their community, but it also is an integral way to pour back into the economy by growing from within.

Education in Cambodia

                      Education in Cambodia has come a long way and in 2001 they introduced a nationwide reform.  A new policy called EFA (Education For All) went into effect and it appears as a product of the reform, students no longer had to pay for schooling (Chansopheak, 2009).  Although there is no longer a fee to go to school, families still must pay for books, supplies, and have many other fees.  Migration and child labor play a huge part in student’s attendance along with the family’s ability to pay the fees required to attend school.

The dropout rate in Cambodia is very high. According to Chansopeak, 43% of children will stop attending school before reaching fifth grade (Basic Education in Cambodia: Quality and Equity, p. 138)  When it comes to taking responsibility, everyone is pointing the finger. Teachers blame the parents for the dropout rate, stating they do not value education, and parents blame teachers stating they are not qualified enough.  A lot of this frustration comes from the government not following through with distributing funds evenly and timely.  The money does come, but inefficiently, meaning the money is not always allocated for what it needs to be; books, closed in walls, roof repairs, clean water, and teacher salaries.  The teachers work half day, then spend the other half of the day working another job in order to earn enough income to survive (Chansopheak, pp. 139-143).

Thailand, Cambodia comparison

                      It is evident that Thailand has a more developed and advanced education system in comparison to Cambodia.  This can be attributed to the country itself holding education at the utmost importance.  The adult literacy rate in Thailand is 93.5%, proving that they are a well-educated society (Bureau of International Education, 2008).  Free education for the first 12 years of school can also be a nominal reason for success in this area.  Although children in Cambodia have opportunities to be educated, many of their families do not choose that route.  Cambodia’s highest need vocationally is for those that work in agriculture; therefore, most families do not see a need for school past the primary grades.  There is also a very slim job market for high-paying jobs (Phiau, 2009).

In conclusion, when weighing the differences in education in the two countries, Thailand and Cambodia, there is a huge gap. There is monumental support from the government to make education a primary focus in Thailand, including free education and many scholarships available to low-income students that seek higher education, not to mention a prime job market with a plethora of opportunities.   Cambodia is making strides but does not have the funding or the organization to see it through.  Starting from the top (government agencies), no one assumes the responsibility of the dire state of their education system.  Although many citizens value it, frustration wins the battle majority of the time, and families forfeit their right to education whether it be finances, a need for children to work to support family income, or just seeing no need at all to be a part of a system that wastes their time and money.  Cambodian education has great potential.  The policies that are set in place need enforcement, and organization.  Observing other successful education systems like that of Thailand would benefit them greatly and put them on a track for societal growth and success.


Bureau of International Education. (2008). Towards a learning society in Thailand, an introduction to education in Thailand. 2-3. Retrieved May 15, 2019

Chansopheak, K. (2009). Basic Education in Cambodia: Quality and Equity. In K. Y. Hirosato Y., The Political Economy of Educational Reforms and Capacity Development in Southeast Asia(pp. 132-151). Springer, Dordrecht. doi:

Phiau, C. M. (2009). The Effects of Migration on School Attendance and Work Activity of Children in Cambodia.

Smith, M. K. (2015). What is education? A definition of discussion. The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved May 18, 2019, from e



NGOs and Education

Kelly Ortiz


Prevention was the resounding theme while visiting each NGO in Thailand and Cambodia.  One director after another would say (in their own words), “Education is the key to prevention.”  Each NGO provides their students with tools to better equip them for life after school using the methods, they feel are most effective. Mr. Hartanto’s Community Learning Center equips young girls by putting them through a year-long nursing program, The Freedom Story offers scholarships for children starting at age 10, and Love Without Boundaries has built two schools in a village in Cambodia where children have limited or no transportation.

Why is education the key to prevention?  Like the story you are going to read later about Winda Singhom, most students live in areas where resources are scarce, and they have a familial obligation to make money.  There are many situations where transportation is not possible, or the child is the oldest of the siblings, so they must stay home and watch their younger siblings while their parents go to work.  Parents are sometimes gone for weeks at a time leaving the children to fend for themselves for food and welfare.  Education gives the students a way out.

Mr. Hartanto’s Community Learning Center

Former monk, Hartanto Gunawan has built a school on the grounds of Wat Arun, The Temple of Dawn, in Bangkok, Thailand. His school is a compound of sorts set up to house a certain number of girls that all sleep in a dormitory type setting.  They eat together, study together, and sleep together. Many of these young women are at-risk for human trafficking because they either live in a village that is difficult to travel to and from, or their family has financial hardships and cannot send their daughters to school.  Mr. Hartanto goes into the villages and talks to the families that are most at-risk.  He does his best to convince them that their daughter’s time at his school is a better option than the people that are offering them waitress or hotel jobs, which are most likely a cover for prostitution or some other form of slave labor.

Winda Singhom says, “No job, no studies, and no good opportunities” is where she was headed before her life at the community learning center (Boivin, 2016).  She was orphaned at a young age and lived with her ill grandmother.  One day at school she was informed about the community learning center, and her life has never been the same.  After finishing one year of Mr. Hartanto’s school she went on to study in Taiwan (after having to intensively study and learn Mandarin). She now works in a prominent hospital in Thailand.

Freedom Story

The Freedom Story is in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and services children in the local village and surrounding areas.  Their base location is a resource center that is open to children of all ages including the university students.  The center is a safe place for the students to come in order to learn and play with their peers.  Chinese and English classes, music, art, cooking, and tutoring are just a few of the classes that are offered to the students at the resource center.   They also offer sustainability classes to adults in the village.

One example is a mother whose daughter, Nue started attending Freedom Story after her father overdosed last year.  Nue’s mother was working in the field for $5 per day leaving Nue to care for her younger siblings.  Although education in Thailand is technically free, there is still the cost of transportation, uniforms, books, and more that were beyond her reach.  Nue was offered a job in a massage parlor but decided to pass it up and applied for a scholarship to the Freedom Story.  She was accepted and her scholarship covers all her fees including transportation.  Nue’s mother then took part in the sustainability program offered at Freedom Story.  She learned organic farming and weaving and was able to start her own silkworm farm.  The money she makes from silk farming covers the rent, and she joined a farming co-op where she grows her own organic food (Prevention begins with Education, 2019),

Love Without Boundaries

Love Without Boundaries (LWB) is no exception to holding education at its highest value.  In fact, they have built two Believe in Me schools in Cambodian villages where children would normally have no transportation or the resources needed to attend school.  One of the schools has added a sibling school, a safe daycare program for infants and toddlers.  Many of the parents cross over to Thailand to work, leaving the children at home. Typically, the older siblings are left to care for the younger ones.  This allows the older siblings to attend school and their siblings are cared for.

In one of the villages over 75% of the children suffer from malnutrition, and without proper intervention will not make it past primary school.  Access to medical services and clean water are difficult in rural areas. Illiteracy and child trafficking are common.  Besides building schools LWB also offers daily hot lunch programs for students, foster care for children that have been orphaned or are victims of human trafficking, delivers medical services, and offer higher education opportunities to teens (LWB Education Program, 2019).


Every child, no matter their economic status, family life, or dwelling deserves an education and a chance at a better future.  Mr. Hartanto’s Community Learning Center, The Freedom Story, and Love Without Boundaries are just three NGOs working to provide education in hopes of making better opportunities for the children at-risk for human trafficking.  Each NGO has its own personality and ways of reaching their children, but one overwhelming factor that cannot be unnoticed is the part education plays in prevention.

I will leave you with the story of Peter.  Peter is 18 years old, and lives with his single mother and 2 sisters.  He lives in a poor rural community in Cambodia where it is common for students to work instead of going to school.  LWB encouraged Peter to stay in school and assured him education was the surest way out of poverty.  Peter stayed committed despite the hour long walk to school every day, lengthy nights of studying, and 5 am wake up calls to do odd jobs to help make money for his family.  Peter is now a first year university student at the University of Management and Economics. He was the first from his town to pass the college entrance exam and is inspiring others around him to do the same (LWB Education Program, 2019).


Boivin, N. (2016, May 19). Non-formal education and Literacy. Retrieved June 19, 2019, from

LWB Education Program. (2019). Retrieved June 21, 2019, from

Prevention begins with Education. (2019). Retrieved June 20, 2019, from The Freedom Story:



Traveling abroad will make you a better teacher

America is a nation built on diversity and prides itself on being a country where everyone is welcome. One ability of an effective teacher is being able to connect with students from a wide range of backgrounds. Traveling abroad and experiencing different cultures can help you appreciate the differences among cultures and in turn make you a better teacher.  What an amazing opportunity to be able to connect lessons in the classroom to your own experiences and open a world of compassion to your students.   By doing this you never know who or what you will inspire.

Take Regina Yorkgitis for instance, she recalls sitting in her seventh-grade classroom listening to her teacher share about her global adventures like paragliding in the Alps, and studying falconry in New Zealand, then connecting those stories to what they were learning in the classroom.  These stories inspired Regina to become a teacher herself.  She now spends her days standing in front of 13-year-olds teaching them science.  She has also taken many opportunities to travel abroad and feels these experiences are just as enriching as professional development.  Some people may fear traveling abroad because of the language barrier, or cultural differences, but Regina says, “I reminisce about times when I’ve shared a laugh with someone whose language was different than mine. When I remember that, I’m reminded that no matter our differences, kindness is universal” (Yorkgitis, 2018).

Kindness and compassion can go a long way in the classroom.  It is difficult to understand a student’s needs when you do not grasp their customs or culture.  Although teachers should not be expected to travel everywhere, one can gain a whole new perspective on those that live and that are born outside of the United States when traveling abroad.  Small differences like how people greet one another, the food they eat, or how they treat their elders.  This can be extremely helpful when teaching all students but especially English Language Learners (ELL) who may not be able to communicate with you in English but try to in other ways.  Your eagerness to work with them and respect for their unique vocabulary can go a long way.

My Travel Abroad Experience

I have just returned from a short-term study abroad trip in Thailand and Cambodia.  Both countries were intriguing and the experience as a whole was enlightening.  I had the privilege of traveling with five other students from my university (University of Richmond), and two professors.  I did things I would have never dreamed of doing like visiting the Tomb Raider where the actual movie with Angelina Jolie was filmed, riding an elephant through the mountains of Chiang Rai, Thailand, and watching the sunrise over the beautiful temple of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I realize I have done things some will never have the opportunity to do, and I am so grateful. One of the biggest eye-openers while I was on the trip was learning about human trafficking.  A lot of children that are victimized by human trafficking live in poverty and or homelessness.  As I reflect back on my trip I am reminded of the homes I saw as I was riding on the canal boat, in Bangkok, some barely held together, or the landfill we drove past where some of the children live with their families that attend Love Without Boundaries school in Cambodia. These families do not have adequate resources like food, clean water, and electricity.  As I saw these things, I could not help but think about the poverty that is prevalent in my own country, but I am embarrassed to say that I did not know much about human trafficking before going on this trip, and did not realize how vast and widespread it is world-wide, including in America.  In fact, the United States has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world.  According to Unitas (Human Trafficking 101, 2019)in 2017, the Nation-wide FBI-led anti-trafficking Operation Cross Country (OCC) raid reported the average age of sex trafficking victims in October 2017 was 15 years old, but the youngest children who would have been victimized were a two-year-old and a three-month-old.  So, no matter what grade you teach, the chances of children dealing with this and or issues related to poverty in your classroom is very high.    Figure 1shows the severity and breakdown of human trafficking among gender and those that are most at-risk in the United States. 

What Can I do as a teacher?

I believe the best thing we can do as teachers is to educate ourselves and if we are able to, travel.  Experiencing how families and children live their lives in other countries will broaden our understanding and compassion to whole new levels.  In addition to traveling, try to get to know the community your students live and play in.  Go to their basketball and baseball games, dance recitals, talk to their parents and guardians, spend some time getting to know the student as a person, not just another child in your classroom.

At the same time, we must know ourselves.  We come to the classroom with our own backgrounds and sets of beliefs. We must work hard to embrace our differences with our students and see life from their eye-level.


We live in what I would consider an unbalanced world.  Some of us are born into poverty, while others are born into affluent families, some are abandoned at birth, others have middle-class working parents.  Whatever circumstance or background a child is born into, it was not their choice. Until they become adults, they do not control the resources that are available to them, and just like us, they bring their experiences to the classroom with them.  I plan to use the insight I gained from my time in Cambodia and Thailand as a way to open more doors to all children.  To share my travel thoughts like how to say hello in Thai, meditation, Buddhism, and the beautiful temples I had the privilege of visiting.

Children are naturally accepting and warm-hearted and do not know hate and discrimination until it is taught to them.  My hope is to build a classroom that feels like home to every child that walks through my door no matter what race, religion, or socioeconomic background they come from.  A perfect place where they are free to be themselves, free from judgement with lots of room for imperfection, where we realize we are all perfectly imperfect.  All are welcome.


Human Trafficking 101. (2019). Retrieved July 28, 2019, from Unitas:

Yorkgitis, R. (2018, June 19). Rustic Pathways.Retrieved from