Meet The New Urban Cambodian Woman And Blogger: Keo Kalyan

In a country where long-time respected traditions dominate the way of life of the people, the role of women in education, social work and general lifestyle is still limited compared to men. “Women are supposed to stay at home, and always behave quietly and sweetly,” stated the Women’s Code of Conduct (Chbab Srey in Khmer) – a rhyming poem from 1848 that instructed women how to behave in their married life, within their family, and in the community.

In Cambodia, for every three boys, only one girl attends secondary school. In most parent's minds, for some reasons, this discrepancy in thinking exists because families consider education of a boy to be more economically rewarding. They think that over-education of a girl can be a handicap to her marriage prospects, and that the liability of a girl getting abducted while commuting to secondary school is great. Many cannot afford to keep their daughters in school, and as cultural gender biases favor the education of boys over girls, many young girls in Cambodia drop out of school after grade 6.

“Nowadays, younger generations have access to a better lifestyle. There are more opportunities for them in areas such as education as more scholarships are being offered. However, I can see only a few of them realise this and are trying hard to grab these opportunities,” said young graduate Keo Kalyan.

However, with the success of more women, in particular many graduates from abroad, a turning point is about to happen. They are not going to change the old tradition, but to shape it for this new millennium.

At age 22, Keo Kalyan is a trend-setter. Born in Kandal, a province that shares border with Phnom Penh, she moved to the Cambodian capital city with her parents, where she was raised and schooled. Kalyan now lives a more fashionable life than those living in rural areas. Like the vast majority of Cambodians, Kalyan is friendly and wears a smile – not something one would expect from citizens of a country recovering from decades of war and conflict.

Keo Kalyan in her classroom
A new generation of Cambodia: Keo Kalyan

Unilke most young women of her age who are at home doing housework, Kalyan, both studies and works hard to fill her hunger of knowledge and experience. She holds two Bachelor degrees, one in Business Administration from National University of Management, and the other in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from Institute of Foreign in Language. Currently, the determined graduate works as a teacher of English at a private language school, and is actively involved in several social work projects, one of which is advocating young people to realize open communication using the available basic digital technology: blogging. The need of dialogues between people is vital to the development of the nation although debate is still something new to this country.

“By having this blog, I can share my daily activities and thoughts with my friends and with other people around the world.”

As an admirer of Angelina Jolie, an American film actress and a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, Kalyan, also known by her nick name Vanilla, knows what she can contribute to her home country that was torn apart by several decades of armed conflict. Believing that her home country should be more active in diplomatic relations on the international stage, she is thrilled to be part of the early stage of rebuilding.

Having recently passed a preliminary test for the Fulbright scholarship, Kalyan hopes to set off for the United States to major in a public administration masters degree.

I talked to Kalyan, asked her some questions to get more insights about her life, her Fulbright scholarship as well as her views on young people.

ThaRum: Would you please tell me more about yourself?
Kalyan: I was born in Ta Khmao, Kandal province; but I grew up and started school in Phnom Penh. My father works at the Ministry of Education, Youths and Sports and my mother is a seller. I am the only daughter and also the youngest one in the family as I have two elder brothers.

I finished high school in 2001, and at the same year I passed a scholarship to study BBA, majoring in Accounting, at the National University of Management (NUM). In 2002, I started another degree, B.Ed, majoring in TEFL, at Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL). In 2004, I was selected as one of the four Cambodian fellows to join the SIF-ASEAN Students Fellowship in Singapore for 20 weeks. During that time, I was also taking some Accounting courses at Singapore Management University (SMU). Two weeks upon my return from Singapore, I flew to Australia for an exchange study under the Peace Scholarship Trust, initiated by IDP Australia. I spent 2 semesters studying at University of Tasmania (UTAS) in Hobart, Tasmania. Recently, I have just graduated from IFL and NUM.

Beside academic study, I have also been very active in participating in a number of extracurricular activities, community services and voluntary work. I am one of the founders of the Volunteers Without Borders (VWB), established by the Cambodian Alumni of the Fellowship in Singapore. I am also a member of the Australian Alumni Association (AAA) in Cambodia. Currently, I am also a teacher at New World Institute (NWI).

ThaRum: Recently you have passed Fulbright scholarship’s preliminary exam, what have you done to prepare yourself for this?
Kalyan: To get a scholarship, it is important that your academic background, particularly your study records, must be outstanding. I have always been one of the top students since primary school. When I was little, I would always have an ambition to pass the scholarship to study abroad – the US, the UK or Australia. Thus, I told myself to study hard and paved my own way to get to my ambition. I knew that the first step was to enhance my English proficiency and accuracy. Then, beside strong academic background and English, I also had to broaden my general knowledge and being active in participating in any extra-curricular activities in schools and in any community services or voluntary work in the community. And finally and foremostly is to improve my personalities and communicational skills. To get the scholarship you need to be interviewed and during the interview, personality is one of the crucial criteria in judgment.

ThaRum: Any thoughts and advices for younger Cambodians to prepare for such a significant advancement?
Kalyan: As mentioned in the previous question, academic background is very important because they will ask for a submission of your transcripts. Thus, if you aim to get a scholarship, as I have already mentioned, you need to study hard and be an outstanding student. Also, it is important to start early! I mean shape your path to your aim very early. You need to know what you want and then try to find ways how to achieve what you want. Draw a milestone for your future.

Beside strong academic background, you need to be very active in helping the community by participating any extra-curricular activities or voluntary work in the community. This also helps build your communicational skills and personality, especially in teamwork.

One more thing is that you need to be knowledgeable in various issues in the world. Being an outstanding student, it doesn’t mean that you should only focus on one issue that is your major or specialization without caring to know other issues associated with or even not associated with. It is important to broaden your general knowledge, especially about the outside world and more importantly widen your network.

ThaRum: What is your opinion about the younger generation of Cambodia?
Kalyan: Nowadays, young generation can access to better lifestyles, in particular there are more opportunities for them such as better education and more scholarships being offered. However, I can see only a few of them realise are trying hard to grab these opportunities. On the other hand, most of them are being too much entertained by the pop cultures and pay less attention to school work. I have observed so far that the quality of education among the young generation has significantly decreased. However, I am still optimistic that the future is not going to be worse. I believe that those young people are very bright, creative and enthusiastic. They have more access to new technologies, better health care and resources. I hope that one day they will change their attitudes and realise the opportunities they can grab for their future.

ThaRum: Coming to blogging, you started to blog back in March 2005, why did you start having your own weblog?
Kalyan: At first I was introduced to weblog by my friends in Singapore, and that was back in 2004. However, at the time I was not very interested in blogging as I was at the time also designing my own website using frontpage and flash media with the help from my senior in Singapore. Besides, I was busy with the fellowship program. However, when I was in Australia, I was getting a bit bored, so I usually went online and browsed through this and that. I came across a few nice blogs of Cambodian students overseas, so I got interested and also my website was not hosted yet as I couldn’t find any free web hosting for my website. By finding out that blog is just like a website and it’s very easy to post and upload pic, so I decided to give it a try. Since then, I forget bout my website and I have developed my blog and it’s been very popular. ;-)

By having this blog, I can share my daily activities and thoughts with my friends and with other people around the world.


  • jordan

    hello t! i was interested in your interview here…the young lady you interviewed is quite ambitious however, it wasn’t clear how much influence her family had in helping her succeed. the main idea of the article seems to be that women are not encouraged to advance and realize their potential…but Keo “Vanilla” didn’t really say if her family was helpful — she seemed to put an emphasis on the individual effort…

    i am very interested in issues surrounding the family…not only because i am part of one myself, but also because i see family as an enabler of its members — family can either help or hinder its young members…how much of cambodian culture is influenced by confucian philosophy?

    i woudl be interested to hear keo’s opinion abotu how much her family has helped and why is her family different than others?

    stay in contact, from poland, jordan

  • HI Jordan,

    Thanks for your interest in this article. To answer your question, I would say YES my family has so far encouraged me to what I have achieved. My parents never say No to what I want and they always try their best to support me both financially and emotionally.

  • Dear Kalyan:
    I will be a speaker at the 3rd Annual CAMTESOL conference FEb 23-24 in Phnom Penh. I read your blog and I would love to meet and talk about the use of the internet in education in your country.
    I am writing a book on the Khmer posted at
    Hope to hear from you,
    Willard Van De Bogart
    Currently I teach at the ELS language center at Dominican University in San Rafael, California USA just a little north of San Francisco.

  • Dear Willard,

    I am happy to meet you. Please e-mail me once you are here so that we can arrange the time to meet up.



  • tina

    I do agree with what Jordan has said above. Although individuals have to put their own efforts in order to achieve what they want, family plays an integral role in children achievement. Without family support, financially, physically, and emotionally- with the help of push and pull, I don’t think it would be possible. More particularly in a country such as Cambodia, you have to be lucky to be able to study up to that level, which is then work for your as a bridge to cross over to the next level (individuals). What I meant in terms of “Being lucky” is that people sometimes can’t even study or go to that far for what they really want, and that is because of financial issue, for instance.
    I’ve got no issue here at all, in stead, I’d like to say ” Congratulation, and well done”. Somehow, you’ve gotta be fair and consistent to the contributed/related parties ;-)

    All the best lady

  • Kalan It was good to see you answered. What is your email address? I can’t seem to find it so I can email you when I arrive. Here is the link to the conference organizers. Maybe you know some of these people in your city. Let me know.

  • HI Willard,

    my e-mail is

    E-mail me once you are here.



  • san thomas

    I am proud of your accomplishments in Cambodia, especially with all that has happen their. I was born in Cambodia during the Veitnam War but my family was lucky to get sponsor by a church to come to a America, so I have been in the state since I was 4 and don’t remember much of Cambodia, and bearly speak the language only to parents cause they still don’t speak English.I have 3 sisters and a bother, and all my sisters have accomplish something, degree in crimnal justice, other one double major in accounting and english, and the other successful in her job as for me I’m in the Army and excelerating in the ranks, so I’m doing well, as for my brother he’s not doing well.
    My parents expected alot from my brother because he was the only boy but at the same time was not that strict with him, traditional Asian culture. It is true that you do have to work hard to achieve what you want and I feel that alot of Cambodians here in America take the easy way in life, I grew up living in a Cambodian community and alot fall into the pattern of life that surrounds them. I went to school with alot of Cambodian students who were more smarter than me and stuck to the books but once they graduated they end up going backwards instead of forward, you can keep Asian culture and tradition without setting yourself back, alot are married not legally, have kids and are on welfare,and don’t expect anything else when they have all the resources their, but if they were in Cambodia they would be working harder to make something of themselves. My parents still go back and forth to Cambodia, I have never gone back,I would love to but fear that I would not fit in, I can bearly speak the language, and don’t know much about the History, my parents pushed us to succeed more than teach us of our culture, I am married to an American, and have two kids, its hard for me to teach them the culture and language cause I don’t speak it that well, and being in the Army I am not around alot of Cambodian people so I’m slowly losing it.I would love to visit Cambodia one day with my family, and teach them the culture, I wanted to write because it was so good to see an email from somebody from Cambodia, so I hope we can continue to email and hopefully one day we will meet.

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