2018- the overview

Wow, 2018 has been quite a year. It’s had two British royal weddings; a FIFA World Cup in Russia; the Commonwealth Games in Australia; Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress; 4 UK citizens were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichock killing one; the northern white rhinoceros became extinct; Indonesia was hit by both an earthquake and a few months later a tsunami, together leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured; and a children’s football team and their coach were rescued from caves in Thailand. When considered next to this global perspective, my life is not nearly as significant or dramatic, but 2018 was an important year for me, just the same.

It’s also really difficult to look back on: not emotionally but in terms of ordering and placing certain events that happened. My brain did this weird thing when I arrived back in Cambodia. The previous year in Cambodia and the subsequent year back in the UK seem to have gone through this strange cognitive shift. My brain seems to have arranged them so that UK life and Cambodia life maintain a contiguous narrative. So thinking about early 2018 is really hard, because I have to make a mental effort to tell my brain those events did happen at that point in time. I’ve currently got a Facebook poll going to see if anyone relates to this. If I’m on my own, I’ll let you know.

Seeing as this blog is as much about recording memories for me as it is about sharing them with you all, I thought I would try to sum up the whirlwind that was my life.

January

In December 2017, I applied for a position at HOPE International School in Cambodia. On 11th January, I was offered an interview. This would be a Skype interview at 6.00 am on a Wednesday, before I went to work. The interview was a success and I was offered a job two days later. I was returning to Cambodia. However, at this point, I did not know whether I was going to be living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. HOPE has two campuses and there was a suitable position at both. I had told the school I did not mind which one I went worked at so had to wait for their decision.

February

I turned 30! I’m not really a huge birthday person (my own, that is- I get more excited about other people’s), but with some reluctance I arranged a celebration. I had to endure the cake being bought in by waitresses singing and shaking tambourines. It was awful. My friends delighted in how terrible I found the experience. The cake was great, though!

I also found out that I would be in Phnom Penh, teaching International Baccalaureate and iGCSE English and English literature. There was a little bit of grieving for the future I would not have in Siem Reap. However, I loved Phnom Penh (I still do), and I reminded myself that I would love it just as much.

March

It started snowing at the end of February, but eventually got deep enough to have a couple of snow days.

I enjoyed the snow, but I decided I definitely had enough to last me for the next two years in Cambodia. I remember the winter of 2017-2018 as very long, dark and cold. It may be because I had skipped the winter of 2016-17, so I was less prepared, but I remember driving home each day after school and it being very bleak.

I booked my plane tickets: Heathrow to Bangkok (with a change at Moscow); and then Bangkok to Phnom Penh a day later. However, because of the Russian involvement in the US elections, and heightened tension between the UK and Russia due to the recent poisonings in nearby Salisbury, my mother did not approve of my route and airline choice (Aeroflot). However, I was more than happy to exploit the post-World Cup plane prices.

April

My mum turned 60. I created a “old ladies starter kit” for her. She was overwhelmingly pleased with the gifts, which was concerning as the aim was to buy useless, unwanted presents. The only thing she was particularly horrified by was the pearl chain for her glasses.

April, as it was the holidays, was also a time to start sorting out a lot of my stuff. Most of my belongings went to charity shops.

I also made some បបរ (babar, or Cambodian rice porridge) and Cambodian styled coffee.

May

“Go to dentist” was one of the first things on my “Return to Cambodia to do list”. I finally ticked it off! I was needlessly anxious about needing more fillings, and I was problem free. (Well, at least my teeth were.)

I remember May was a particularly beautiful month. The sun seemed to shine a lot and it reminded me how beautiful Britain was.

May saw the royal wedding. I baked a lemon and elderflower cake, as that was what Harry and Meghan were having. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever baked.

There are perils of nice weather and living in the New Forest. The excursions into the countryside bought me too close to the local wildlife, and I got my third tick since returning from Cambodia.

The hot weather did bring some spectacular storms, which I hated driving in. However, I braved it, and drove to a hill in an open area of heathland to get a panoramic view of the lightening. Unfortunately, storms don’t film well on iPhones, so what I captured didn’t do it justice.

June

I drove to Cornwall and back to visit the Bemrose family. It nearly killed my car and I remember there being sand everywhere. It was a great time. It was also a blessing going to the Bemrose’s church and people offering to pray for me.

I also went on a zombie-run with my work bestie. I found out I was no-nonsense and a bit cut-throat in survival situations.

There was a heatwave and everyone seemed to lose their mind. However, it reminded me very much of teaching in Cambodia. I was able to implement some of my hot weather tricks (including wearing t-shirts under you shirt, which everyone thought was crazy, but it isn’t).

The end of the month saw the year 11 prom. I love proms, possibly more than the kids.

Prom selfie!

I find out that I would not be teaching the International Baccalaureate. This is simultaneously frustrating (I had bought and begun reading the set texts) and a relief as I had little previous knowledge of the system and it was causing me some anxiety.

On the last day of June, I drove up to Coventry and back, for the Bagg-Lowe wedding. It was great to see them get married and to catch up with some old friends!

July

This was the last month I had to prepare for leaving to Cambodia, as I was leaving on the last Monday of July. So, I intentionally left it quiet. There was only my dad’s massive 60th birthday party, my farewell party, a church goodbye, cooking a Cambodian meal for my church small group, and the various end-of-year goodbyes at school; as well as trying to pack within my baggage allowance. So, July, was in fact, a crazily busy month. I think that was useful in a way, because I just had to get on with it and not think about what was happening.

The last day of school was emotionally charged. A lot of the kids cried. Some of them only came in because it was my last day (missing the last day of school is quite common…). They filled my car with balloons (they spied an opportunity when I was returning somethings from my car to my classroom and hadn’t locked it again). They also designed and bought me a horrible, garish t-shirt and it remains one of my very favourites.

After this whirlwind, I finally packed and was ready to leave…

Early on Monday 23rd July, I headed off towards Heathrow Airport on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. At last, I was heading back to Cambodia.

I enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Bangkok (except the part when they tried to sell me expensive jewellery and suits). Bangkok had enough that was familiar to make me feel I was definitely getting close to my goal, but there were enough differences to know I was not quite there yet. Perhaps its because I wasn’t seeing the familiar sights and didn’t have a sense of my bearings, like I do when in Cambodia. The temple tours were fun, though. You definitely get the sense that Thailand (then Siam) was a grander nation than Cambodia in the last few centuries.

After 24 hours in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Phnom Penh. I was already excited in the airport when I realised, whilst queuing for security, that I was in a line with a group of Cambodians. Then at the departure gate, there were more Cambodians. I did debate for a while whether to try and strike up a conversation, but I think that jet-lag would have made it too hard.

After about an hour, the plane turned and tilted, revealing the meandering Mekong River. I could see Koh Dach (Silk Island) in the centre. Then I could see Chaktomuk (the four faces). Its where the Tonlé Sap river, the Mekong and the distributary Tonlé Bassac all join; the centre of Phnom Penh lies on the banks of this 1 km stretch of water.

We swooped over the north of Phnom Penh. Comparing Bangkok and Phnom Penh as you flew over them, you definitely saw how Phnom Penh was smaller and less dense than the other capital. However, as I saw the familiar grid pattern and boreys (neighbourhoods), I definitely knew which I had the emotional connection to. I did manage not to cry.

I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, a bit dazed and tired. A new colleague took me to my new apartment for the first time. It looked great, but a little bare. I had about a week to sort myself out.

Of course, one of the highlights was being reunited with my Cambodian brother, Vitou.

August

In the week I had to sort myself, I squeezed in a visit to Siem Reap. I left 11pm on 31st July, to arrive in the town I used to live on 1st August. I had breakfast at my friends’ house, then attended a team prayer meeting, visited the school I worked at and (I think, shared lunch with them), then had another team meeting then went for dinner. The next morning, I was heading back to Phnom Penh. It was definitely a whirlwind. It felt good to be back, but it didn’t make me regret the fact I was now in Phnom Penh.

I started at my new school. The first few weeks were a confusing barrage of alien acronyms and systems. I begun teaching my new classes and it quickly became clear that the students at HOPE has as much life and personality as the ones in Sholing (although it manifests in slightly different ways).

There were also humorous incidents (getting a new gas bottle; being chased by a dog; etc.). I also have a placement test for Khmer classes at G2K. I was tired, somewhat stressed and anxious. They advised I entered at level 3.

I also visited Takeo province for the first time, to visit the Good Neighbours team. They are a part of my sending organisation, WEC, and they run a pre-school and a church in the village. I really enjoyed my time here.

September

In September, Vitou’s family grew. His wife gave birth to a lovely baby girl!

September was a time of getting into new routines and settling into the new life at HOPE school and north Phnom Penh. I started attending Vitou’s church, which was conveniently right down the road to where I live. I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.

I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.

A friend visited from Malaysia with another of her friends. I took them on a brief tour of Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom and Central Market.

On the last weekend of September, the new staff had a boat trip along the Tonle Sap and Mekong. It was a great way to see Phnom Penh. On the Saturday, a group of us also went up Phnom Penh Tower, to see the view at the top. With all these night-time photos, they don’t do it justice.

October

This was again quite a busy month. I was continuing with my Khmer lessons. I also watched a Cambodia vs Singapore football match (Cambodia lost). It was the Pchum Ben holiday. I taught at the rural villages for the first time.

It was also Vitou’s wife’s birthday, so there was a party.

November

November was Vitou’s birthday, so another party. I had also introduced him and his family to Carl’s Jr. Vitou also began tutoring me Khmer. So, I was doing Khmer at G2K on Mondays and Wednesdays and with Vitou on Tuesday and Thursdays. This did mean that a lot of time on Saturdays was spent retreating to a cafe and tackling the marking and planning I had to do.

Vitou, his whole family and I attempted a trip to Kirirom mountain. We didn’t make it that far as the car broke down. I spent most of the day at Vitou’s dad’s house and then in a car getting towed back to Phnom Penh. Despite not arriving at our intended destination, it was still quite a fun adventure.

December

The end of November and December were quite stressful and this meant I lost some sleep. This is because it’s marking and reporting deadline time and also I had my Khmer assessment. There were various events going on, and I was often double booked as a result. Also, there’s a difference in western style planning and Khmer style planning for events which often are at odds. However, it was still a really enjoyable month.

It was Vitou’s twin’s birthday. So, again another party. (Next year there will be a party every month from September-December in Vitou’s family.)

There was also the wonderful wedding of my friend, Jonathan. It was great, as I was invited to both the morning and the afternoon session. It was really fun and interesting to see a Christian Khmer wedding ceremony. (I’ll try to blog about it later.)

The wedding procession.

There was another boat cruise, this time with my WEC team.

I passed my level 3 assessment. I still need to work on some aspects of my pronunciation. I’m going to write myself a plan of action and each week focus on a particular set of sounds. (Sounds geeky, doesn’t it.)

Of course, then there were the various Christmas celebrations. Again, on Christmas Eve I had to negotiate being in two places at once. However, it went without too much problems.

Wow, I’ve been busy

Looking back at it all, I’ve been really busy. 2018 has been a crazy year. The events at the beginning seem a different life-time away. 2019 might be a little bit calmer, but I’m not so sure.

Khmer Sing-Along – ព្រះចាត់បុត្រា – God Sent His Son

I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.

Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.

ព្រះចាត់បុត្រា – God Sent His Son

Khmer and English

ព្រះចាត់បុត្រា នាមថាព្រះយេស៊ូវ
យាងមកស្រលាញ់ ប្រោះ និង អត់ទោស
ទ្រង់រស់ និង ស្លាប់ ដើម្បីលោះបាបខ្ញុំ
ឯផ្នូរទទេ នោះបញ្ជាក់ថា ព្រះខ្ញុំទ្រង់រស់



Chorus

ដោយព្រោះទ្រង់រស់ ខ្ញុំមិនខ្លាចទេថ្ងៃស្អែក
ដោយព្រោះទ្រង់រស់ ក្តីខ្លាចរលាយ
ដោយខ្ញុំដឹងថាដឹងថា ទ្រង់ជ្រាបអនាគត
ឯជីវិតខ្ញុំមានតំលៃ ព្រោះតែទ្រង់នៅរស់


 

God sent his son,
They call Him Jesus,
He came to love,
heal and forgive,
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there
to prove my Saviour lives.

Chorus

And because He lived, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives all fear is gone,
Because I know, I know,
He holds the future,
And life is worth the living
just because He lives.

Romanisation and IPA

Preah chat botra niam tha Preah Yesu
Yeang mok sralanh braoh ning attouh
Troeung roeuh ning slab
    daeumbe luoh bab knhom
Ae phnuo tote nuoh banhcheak tha
    preah knhom troeung roeuh

Chorus

Daoy pruoh troeung roeuh
    knhom min khlach te thngey saek
Daoy pruoh troeung roeuh
    ktei khlach roleay
Daoy knhom doeng tha doeng tha
    troeung chreab aneakot
Ae cheivet knhom mean tamley
    pruoh tae troeung novroeuh
preah cat ɓotra niəm tha Preah Jesu
jiəŋ mɔk srɑlaɲ ɓrɑh niŋ aʔtoh
troəŋ roəh niŋ slap
    ɗaəmɓəj luəh ɓap khɲom
ʔae phnu tɔte nueh ɓɑɲciək tha
    preah kɲom troəŋ roəh

Chorus

ɗaoj pruəh troəŋ roəh 
    kʰɲom min kʰlac te tʰŋɨj sʔajk
ɗaoj pruəh troəŋ roəh
    kʰdəj kʰlac rɔliəj
ɗaoj kʰɲom ɗəŋ tʰa ɗəŋ tʰa
    troəŋ criəp ɑniəkɔt
ʔae ciʋit kʰɲom miən tɑmlɛ
    pruəh taj troəŋ nɨwroəh

Get the pdf version here!

Your choices come from privilege

My Facebook feed is full of videos about plastic or vegan meal recipes or how one industry of the other is causing waste. From single use plastic or how meat consumption destroys the planet, there are a lot ways that we are told we should be better stewards of the planet. These posts almost exclusively come from my British friends and not my Cambodian ones. There may be something cultural about it: perhaps British people love animals and the environment more than Cambodians. (The respective heritages of Christian and Buddhist faiths may have something to do with this.) However, there is a more plausible and obvious reason: the choices of my British friends are born out of privilege.

Cambodia has a massive rubbish problem. Every street side or empty plot of land with be filled with stinking bags of rubbish. Plastic clogs streams and covers fields. Everything is served in polystyrene cups or boxes or little plastic bags tied up with elastic bands. Single-use straws are common and popular. Most plates or cups or spoons are plastic and often disposable. Cambodians use them, probably without a second thought on its long-term environmental impact, despite how blatantly obvious the impact actually is.

You may judge the Cambodians for the limited understanding or their dismissive attitude or their simplicity. However, Cambodian’s do not have the same opportunities to make good choices. First, pragmatically and practically, their opportunities are limited. However, psychologically, they may not be equipped to make such long-term decisions. Good choices often come from a position of privilege, not from a position of greater intellect or superior morality.

First, practically, plastic is the obvious choice in the life of an everyday Cambodian. It is affordable, available, easy, disposable and hygienic. The single use polystyrene boxes are cheap. If you make a comparison on the affordability of more environmentally-friendly options, there is a clear winner. Small Cambodian cafes or street-side stalls simply cannot cover these costs. Many Cambodians will earn a couple of dollars a day, therefore, cheapest is always best. Also, the plastic options are readily available. The environmentally friendly ones are only available in a few places and that would only be in large cities that are developed to cater for Western sensibilities.

Secondly, no Cambodian really wants to be think about storing multiple reusable bags or Tupperware boxes. When your home is one room, with only one bed for the whole family, a small gas stove and very little other furniture, they just seem like a waste of space. At home, people have whole cupboard dedicated to miss-matched plastic tups and lids, and another dedicated to piles of lifelong bags from Waitrose. When you have a single cupboard, that’s not really an option. Cambodians are going to want an option that is easy to get rid of and won’t clutter their small homes. Plastic is perfect for that.

In a tropical country that is dusty and dirty, plastic provides convenient hygienic options. One reason that Cambodians like straws is because cans are often dusty. Something only has to be sat in the same place for a day or two here for a thick film to have covered it. Plastic is clean and therefore substatiaatially better than not using straws or disposable items.

Therefore, plastic use is huge in Cambodia. But, of course, Cambodia is still a developing nation. The resources need to deal with such waste has not been able to match it. Recycling and efficient waste-disposal is costly and requires good infrastructure and government funding. This simply isn’t there. The Cambodian people cannot even afford clean water systems, schools, road system, healthcare, de-mining programmes, electricity infrastructure or crime prevention. Many visitors are offended by the waste and the pollution, but there are so many other issues that Cambodia needs to address first. Also, visitors have not seen the massive developments and progress that Cambodia has also made.

So, feel free to post your videos about plastic waste or environmental issues on Facebook. However, as you do it don’t feel indignant or smug. Just a remember, these choices come from privilege.

A Cambodian Christmas

It’s 30˚C, it’s hot, it’s sticky, but it’s also Christmas. This time of year, I feel a little bit disorientated. The calendars say it’s December but the weather outside is not exactly frightful. I actually enjoy Christmas here in a way. Apart from shops having some decorations, it passes without too much attention. There’s no pressure to cook the perfect turkey, to buy the perfect presents and to make sure that you’ve sent out cards before the last post. Ironically, the lack of celebration perhaps allows more focus on what the story of Christmas is about.

After my Khmer lessons in the evening, I will often drive (well, get driven) down a long road that passes behind the international airport. It’s called Street 2004. In the day, it seems to be mostly metal workshops. However, when the evening comes, the metal workshops are mostly closed and the street is transformed. Karaoke bars turn on their bright lights and restaurants start blaring music.  There must be at least twenty karaoke bars along this street. It’s amazing that the workshops seem to wholly disappear (they are just tucked away in the darkness) and that the bars were there all along during the day.

Karaoke seems like an innocent enough past time. However, these bars often act as brothels or at least where girls get paid to entertain and host men. Each bar has a row of chairs outside, seating about a dozen girls, all in glamorous dresses and makeup, just waiting. Sometimes, these are school girls, pressured by family members – even their own parents – to earn extra money by selling themselves. Abject poverty can lead to terrible choices. Sometimes the eldest daughter, for the sake of her siblings or perhaps someone struggling in the family, is forced into prostitution. There is no free NHS, there is no social welfare, there is no bursary to fall back on. There is only sexual trafficking, petty crime or begging in order to survive.

So, at least twice a week, I am confronted by the brokenness of this country and the sin of this world. Cambodia provides a lot of opportunity for this type of wakeup call: the victims of mines begging at tourist sites, young children pulling rubbish carts and collecting cans and wires and anything that can be stripped and sold for a few riel. Cambodia’s beauty and vibrance is also mixed with sadness and hardship. Sometimes they are so intermingled its hard to know where one ends and the other starts.

My heart breaks to see the rows of girls; or the begging children; or the trash collectors sitting in among bags of rubbish searching for scraps; or the victims of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge still forty years on. Where is God in all this? Where can I find the Merry Christmas, or joyful tidings or season’s greetings in the dirt, destitution and degradation? It’s near impossible to reconcile a Cambodian Christmas with the picturesque Victorian images of Christmas the UK has inherited: a plump baby Jesus asleep in the serene manger, while the silent stars looked on over a quiet, orderly and clean Bethlehem. It seems so wrong and confusing.

But I think that the Cambodian Christmas is more akin to what actually happened in first century Palestine.

Jesus came to this damaged world. He didn’t arrive to live a life of cozy Christmas cards, tacky tinsel and steaming stuffing. Nor did he come to reject the poor, condemn the prostitute (or even the pimp) or to hang out with the rich and powerful. Nor did he, perhaps which is most confusing to us, come to wave a magical omnipotent wand and clean up the mess. That would just be sanitising the world, much like our cute version of the nativity does.

No, instead, Jesus (who had, for eternity, been dwelling in heavenly bliss) stepped down into the hurt and pain and hardship of this world. He visited the dead and dying, he invited the rejected, he blessed the outcasts. Jesus – the refugee, the carpenter, the rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee, the trouble-maker – had came to heal, to transform and to restore. Jesus, that little baby, had come to die so that a world reeking with death and decay could come alive once more. 

Simply, Jesus came because God’s heart broke.

God saw the pain and suffering far more than my fleeting glimpses as my tuk-tuk trundles along Street 2004. God knows everything from time’s beginning to time’s end. He sees the whole of humanity’s pain. God knows it and God’s love for his children and his creation surpasses anything that we could ever reach. 

And so he sent his son.

And because of Jesus, everything changed. We live in a changed and new world.

We live in the promise that we can be reconciled to God, our Father and creator. We live in the promise that Jesus can indwell within us and can provide us with the peace and the strength and the wisdom to navigate the hardships of this world. We now live in the promise that one day all tears will be gone and the world will be renewed.

This is the gift of Christmas. This is the good news. This is the news available for all, those at home and those in Cambodia. The priest, the prostitute, the pimp can all receive this gift. Not one person is too far gone or too broken or too unsightly that God’s love cannot reach them. For, the Bible tells us, whoever calls on the name of the Lord, can be saved. 

So I wish you all a happy Cambodian Christmas.

Cook perfect rice

My love of rice has definitely grown since moving to Asia. I will happily eat a bowl of well-cooked, jasmine rice on its own.

Most people in Cambodia use a rice cooker. I’ve got one that I haven’t used. But it’s really easy to get decent rice without one. At home we used to boil it in a starchy soup and then drain it. This stops it getting fluffy and evenly cooked.

You will need

  • A saucepan with a tight fitting lid (this is important);
  • A timer (your phone will do)
  • Bravery and patience

Step 1

Measure out your rice and give it a good rinse. I usually use half a mug per person.

Step 2

Add your rice to the saucepan. Add twice the amount of water. (Preferably filtered drinkable water for those in Cambodia.) Season with salt.

Step 3

Put the lid on. This will be the last time you see your rice until its ready to eat.

Bring your rice to the boil. Meanwhile, set your timer to ten minutes.

Step 4

Once your rice is at a boil (you’ll hear it rattling and it may start spitting a bit), turn on your timer.

Do not lift the lid at any point.

This is where you need to be brave and patient. You can turn the heat down if you’re worried it’s boiling away too wildly.

Step 5

Whenever you hear whatever ringtone you set it to, turn off the heat.

Step 6

Reset your timer and leave the saucepan for another 10 minutes.

Step 7

You can take the lid off! Fluff up and serve.

Step 8

Enjoy.

Pchum Ben 2018

Pchum Ben is a three-day national holiday in Cambodia that happens in October each year. It is a part of the Cambodian Buddhist calendar, and it is a time when Cambodians believe that the gates of hell have opened. Therefore, they spend time visiting Wats and giving offerings to the feeding of dead ancestors that have found themselves suffering in hell. (Finding yourself in Buddhist hell is a very different process to the Western popular beliefs of hell- it doesn’t necessarily depend on what you have done. Sort of.) This is a part of Pchum Ben I didn’t get to see up close. I saw the throngs of people going in and out of Wats and heard the chants and smelled the incense, but didn’t actually go inside the temple gates. However, I did experience some major components of Cambodian festivities: food, family, friends and karaoke.

The first Saturday, I went with some of my Khmer colleagues to Kandal province. It’s the province that surrounds Phnom Penh. I rode on the back of a motorbike driven by Dara, our IT technician. I was one of two foreigners invited. We went to the house of one of the Khmer teaching assistants. Her parents have a house in a village, and they have chickens and trees in the garden.

We hung out and ate food. We had banh chao (បាញ់ឆែវ), which are similar to the yellow Vietnamese pancakes. Cooking often happens outside, especially in rural areas, over what looks like a ceramic bucket. This is fuelled with wood and charcoal. The woks were oiled, spread by the crushed stems of banana leaf stems. You can see the banana leaves being used to hold the cooked pancakes. The pancake mix was made in a reused tub of household plaster, which apparently with anti-fungal properties. I love the fact that you can see the ingenuity of the Khmer every dish they serve. The pancakes were served with pork mince and an assortment of leafy vegetables and herbs.

We also had chicken cooked two ways: one was spatchcocked and barbecued. The other was seared then cooked in coca cola. This seems to be a really popular way to prepare chicken in Cambodia. The chicken was very fresh. It was somewhat amusing watching three guys chase the chickens to catch then cook them. Westerners are a bit more detached now from the reality of where their food comes from. Although a lit bit disturbing at first, I think it makes the cooking and eating process feel a bit more natural. I certainly knew where my food had come from.

It was was such a nice day, just hanging out with my Khmer friends and eating delicious food.

We even had our own musician. Over holidays, Khmer people can drink quite a bit. A man who had his fair share (I thought it was a neighbour, but maybe even an uncle of the TA whose house it was), came over strumming a horrendously out-of-tune guitar. My friend Setna was brilliant at keeping him entertained, until the man grabbed Setna’s head and kissed him on the forehead.

I went to leave and say goodbye to everyone. At which, the speedy, albeit inebriated man, grabbed hold of my hand and wiped the back of it across his face (I’m not sure why). Then he grabbed by head. I tried to resist, but drunk Khmer men are pretty strong, if not just tenacious, and he managed to kiss my forehead too, much to the delight of my friends. 

The Sunday was pretty uneventful, although I did take a picture of a sunset down my road.

Monday, I went with Vitou and his family in his white rickshaw. First we headed south to Kandal province (same province as the Saturday time but in the opposite direction). We stayed at his aunt’s house, so I met his grandmother and quite a few of his cousins. I even met two waiters (one I think was the head waiter) of the very exclusive Raffles Hotel. I was even drunkenly offered a 50% discount.

When we got there, I was offered snails (they were a bit rubbery) and then we had the main brunch. We had prawns and other dishes.

Whilst we were there, there were various guests coming and going. There were a lot of cans of Cambodia larger drunk. I worked out that around 264 cans were consumed. I sat among some of the older men. The uncle (you call all older men uncle) to my left was trying to get me to down each glass of beer. I had to resort to the empty can technique (pretending to open a new can, whilst disguising the fact that you’re just holding an empty can).

The man to my right became strangely obsessed with my nose. As the bridge of it is somewhat more pronounced than a typical Asian’s nose, they seem to think mine is particularly attractive. I, however, am pretty certain it is not my best feature. This uncle kept pointing at his nose and saying “jramoh klei” (short nose), then pointing towards mine saying, “jramoh veng”. A few more Cambodia larger cans in, and he leant forward, slowly raised his hand, extended his index finger and poked my nose. “Jramoh veng.” Then, just as slowly, he grabbed my index finger, drew it up to his face and then rested my finger tip against the tip of his nose.

There were some attempts at karaoke, but the internet signal meant that songs couldn’t be played for too long.

We then had dinner (more prawns). Then everyone got ready for bed. In Cambodia, especially during holidays, everyone sleeps together in the same room and share mattresses or straw mats on the floor. However, as the barang (this literally means “a French person”, but is extended to anyone not Khmer), I’m usually given a place of honour, and a real mattress. It’s quite embarrassing, but I think it would mortify the host if I refuse. (I accidentally started helping tidying up and everyone looked slightly horrified, as if I was suggesting that they weren’t doing a good job. I just smiled as said the food was lovely.) This occasion was not to be an exception.

I got my own mattress. Vitou said something about his boys and sharing, so I thought Vitou, I and his two seven year old twins would share the bed. I was a little uneasy, but it is the Khmer style (there were people, kids and adults alike, sprawled over various mattresses next door). One twin appeared. The other didn’t but one of them is a bit more shy, so that’s fine. I assumed Vitou would come along shortly. He didn’t. So I was sharing a bed in a room on my own with a seven year old.

This was a child protection obsessed Brit’s safeguarding nightmare.

(However, the door was open and there were people coming and going and getting clothes, etc. throughout the night. There seemed to be a constant stream of people moving even at ridiculous hours of the morning. I also made sure that he was one one side of the double mattress, and I was on the other.)

There was one moment when I thought I kicked the boy in my sleep when stretching out my leg. However, I thought about it and he was about a foot away. I moved my leg again, and then suddenly whatever was on the bed swiped at me. It was a cat. I picked it up and moved it away from the bed.

The early morning did get a bit chilly, so I did put a blanket over Vitou’s son and, in English, he sleepily said, “Thank you”. Vitou’s boys are really sweet.

Dawn just about broke at 4:30 am and everyone was up.

We had breakfast prawns. My dad loves prawns, but I am pretty sure that I ate more prawns in those three days than my dad ever has.

I watched the women prepare the daily offerings for the house shrine (cups of tea) and then we headed to our next province, Kampong Speu, to Vitou’s dad’s and step-mother’s house. Kampong Speu is to the north-east of Phnom Penh. This mean our journey took us back to Phnom Penh, then back into Kandal province (but to the east), then into Kampong Speu.

In Vitou’s little three-seater rickshaw (4, counting Vitou), we had me, Vitou, his wife, his two boys, his month-old daughter, another girl and another very cute but fidgety boy, as well as my bag, Vitou’s family’s possessions, and between four to six boxes of beer cans. It was pretty cramped and I was getting pretty sweaty.

When we arrived into Phnom Penh, we off-loaded the two extra children onto the backs of motorbikes. Then about another hour-and-a-half later, as we were going through Kandal province (again), we met up with another family member who was driving by car. Everyone else decided to go in the car. I thought, however, that car was probably now pretty crowded, so I opted to stay in the rickshaw.

We eventually made it to the house in Kampong Speu. I’ve been there before for Vitou’s sister’s wedding. It was nice to be there again. The house is lovely, and they have a garden area, with a pond that overlooks fields.

It’s truly peaceful. Until, people try to sing karaoke of course! Khmer people love karaoke. They love it to be really loud, to the point that you think you’ve gone deaf in the moment of silence as the track changes.

We also had food plenty of food (coca cola chicken and curry with baguettes) and more drink.

Then, in the afternoon, we went back home. Vitou probably would have stayed longer, but he said I looked exhausted. It was nice to sleep in my own bed again.

The following day, Vitou picked me up again, and we had more food at his in-law’s house. (They live two doors down from Vitou.) This time there was crab, all the way from Kampot.

Then, of course, came the karaoke. They managed to coerce me into singing. My first choice was ‘My Way’, but Frank Sinatra. I don’t agree with the song on a philosophical level, and feel it encourages hedonism and selfishness, but it’s relatively repetitive so easy to sing.

Uh oh…

It was horrible to think that my voice could be heard for probably a kilometre radius in every direction.

Thankfully, you couldn’t hear it where you are.

Although this holiday often seems spooky and strange to Westerners, for me it was fun and filled with friendship and somewhat strange moments. It was only a few days, and very little planning or effort went into it on my part. But it was definitely one of the most memorable few days of my life and my time in Cambodia.