Unless you’ve missed my recent posts, facebook updates and instagram pictures, you’re probably aware that I am currently in Cambodia. If you want to know about my somewhat tumultuous return, read here. I’m about halfway through my quarantine. I want to point out that my quarantine experience has not been the same as everyone else’s. I have been very fortunate in the hotel I have ended up at. The food is pretty good and the location is amazing. The room is comfortable and I can’t complain really. So this is a day in the life of someone in a rather comfortable quarantine.
My alarm will go off. Depending on how kind the jet lag was to me and how well I slept, I might get up then. I might hit the snooze button a few times (by a few times, I might mean six times). Then I get ready for breakfast to arrive.
Sometime between those times, I will get a knock on the door and I will receive breakfast. This has been a wide range of things: fried rice, fried noodles, noodle soup, toast, omelette, boiled eggs, fruit. I even got two slices of cake with my breakfast one day! (I had the first slice for morning tea, then the next slice as a reward for not sleeping during the day.)
The time varies, but what can be guaranteed is this. If I’m not showered and ready early, the breakfast will come early and I’ll have to scramble to make myself presentable enough to answer the door. If I am up bright and early, I will have to wait for my breakfast.
Somewhen after breakfast, a little bag of coffee sachets, tea bags, bin liners and bottles of water will be hung on our door handles. It’s like waiting to open the gifts in your Christmas stockings.
I will probably chat with Kristi some point before the next part of the day at ten.
I have to go to the hotel lobby, with my mask on, for temperature checks. It’s quite good that we can actually wonder the hotel during the day. The lobby has a little shop, with snacks, a little coffee bar and wine. Usually I will take the ten flights of stairs down and up for a little bit of exercise.
10:00 – 12:00
Lunch will arrive. Again, there will be a knock on the door and the calls of “Hey-lo! Hey-lo!” You take your food and sign the clipboard. Lunch is usually quite substantial. Normally, there is a lot of rice. Then there are three dishes, often one being all veg, one veg and egg, one meat. You might get a soup or a sauce with it. Stir-fried cucumbers have been a particularly regular occurrence. You also get some fruit, watermelon, papaya or dragonfruit. I have probably eaten more fruit and vegetables in the last week than I did in the whole of 2020.
This time is pretty much your own. There is a Skybar on the roof with great views, so I’ve gone up there to take photos a few times. I’ve mostly kept myself to myself, though. I’ve been getting on with MA work mostly, sat on my little balcony. Sometimes I will just watch Phnom Penh go by. There is a very small backstreet opposite my balcony, which leads to a school. It’s funny watching the kids come and go – especially watching some of the boys annoy the other students. There’s also a Wat and the Royal University of Fine Arts. It’s great to just watch people come and go.
When I first arrived, the early afternoon was when the drowsiness really kicked in. However, I think I’ve managed to break that cycle a little bit.
Dinner will arrive! It is very similar to lunch in size and make-up. There have been a few days which have been more Western, with pasta or potatoes. But for the most part it’s been Asian.
Again, this is my free time and once dinner has arrived, there’s nothing else for me to wait for or worry about. I might have another wonder around the hotel, or might just watch a movie and relax.
There have been times when I’ve been really bored. I think it was the mix of jet lag and just being stuck inside. There are points during the day when you have no energy and your brain is a fog. But you know you have to stay up. When no one seems to be online or your internet is intermittent and can be a bit frustrating. Apart from this, I have quite enjoyed my little (but somewhat expensive) hotel break.
I’m currently on day 3 of 14-15 days of quarantine at a hotel in Phnom Penh. This means that I am back in the Kingdom of Wonders! It did take quite a bit of effort (from various people including my long-suffering parents) to get me here.
Pretty much as soon as arrived in the UK in September, I booked flights back to Cambodia. This flight was taking the relatively simple and common route of Heathrow to Seoul, Seoul to Phnom Penh. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. There were all the other obstacles that prevented returning to Cambodia that needed to be sorted, chiefly the PCR swab test and having the results in the appropriate format. However, I got that all booked and sorted. That was reassuring.
Then December came and the UK started going into stricter lockdowns. This obviously caused some anxiety. However, because I was travelling for medical appointments and work, I still had legal reasons to leave my house and go to London. So, it seemed that it would be fine.
Then, it was announced that the UK had it’s own variant of COVID-19. Countries started closing their borders to the UK. First Europe, then, the kicker: Korea. This meant that my flight to Seoul was cancelled. However, because France had only shut its borders for a set duration, I would possibly be able to fly through Paris after this. So, my flights were changed to transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I packed and sorted all my things. I reached London, staying a few nights to sort out my tests. However, it was announced that there would be restrictions to entering France even after opening their border. I wasn’t sure what this meant and whether it applied to those who were transiting through France. I would phone the airline. They said it was fine but I should check with the embassy. I rang the French Embassy in the UK and the UK embassy in France, to be put onto an automated system telling me to check the government website. I looked up the government website. The government website said check with your airline. I was on a never-ending loop. After searching through pages on various websites, and opposite to the reassurances of the airline that I could fly, I decided to cancel the ticket. Basically, UK citizens could only enter France if they had a reason to be in the EU. I wasn’t looking to go to the EU, so I couldn’t enter.
So, whilst also taking my COVID test and only having a few days to go, I had to search through all the possible ways to get to Cambodia. When I found a potential route, I then had to check the entry requirements for each country. Various countries were not possible (Singapore being the main hindrance) and others had transit visas and other hurdles. I finally found one through Doha and Kuala Lumpur. It meant a massive lay-over in Kuala Lumpur. We then discovered an airside hotel in the terminal building! That problem was sorted, so I booked a room in that.
Then, the day before I was due to fly, I got an email. The flight between Malaysia and Cambodia was cancelled. There were no other options, it was too late to go through the process again and the prices had risen prohibitively. The only option was to turn around, head home and start again.
With the potential of Korea opening up to direct flights from the UK, I booked another direct plane to Korea. This seemed to be going smoothly, until two days before, I went onto the airline’s website. There was a small ticker going across the top with a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it notification saying flights from London had been suspended. I phoned up the booking company to ask if this was the case. I explained that I was having a second rather expensive COVID test the next day and I needed to know in the next hour whether I should postpone the test or not. I asked them to check three times and they assured me that the flight was still running. We checked the Heathrow website and that suggested the flight was still going ahead.
At three o’clock in the morning, I was dozing in between sleep and wakefulness. I managed to form the thought that, because of the time difference, Korea would be beginning its day about now. If the airline had indeed cancelled its flight, I would have received an email by now. So I checked my phone. And there it was: the cancellation email. I knew there was little I could do at this point so I tried to go back to sleep. That effort was as successful as all my previous flight bookings.
At about 7:30 that morning, I had to leave for my COVID test. I had that drunken feeling after not sleeping well for a few nights. We drove the clinic through the grey, wintery, frost and fog. I arrived and the clinic was empty except the doctor doing my test. It was all done in about five minutes. The doctor even congratulated me on how well I did the test. (He didn’t know that internally I was screaming, “Oh God, please help me! Please, Lord, get me through this!”) I did struggle to use the card machine, mainly because I was still so tired.
Once I had arrived home and had a strong coffee in my hands, I started looking at potential flights. Now, in-between attempted flight number one the week previous and this second attempt, something significant had happened: Brexit. This meant that some routes previously available were no longer an option (mainly any through the Netherlands). That was another country to add to the ever-growing list of ‘places that don’t allow Brits’. After about an hour of searching, I finally purchased a new ticket. This was through Dubai, Seoul then to Phnom Penh.
It was Saturday and the day of the flight had come. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. My dad drove for the third time in two weeks to London and back trying to get me back to Cambodia. The roads towards London were mostly empty due to lockdown. It seemed too good to be true.
Heathrow was surprisingly full. There seemed to be a lot of travellers milling about, a lot looking confused and somewhat stressed. Quite a few people were trying to print various pieces of paperwork (such a health declaration forms) at a small shop in the corner of the main atrium. There were queues for some desks, but there were very few people waiting at mine. I went through the check-in process, which is more arduous now due to restrictions. “Do you have your test certificate? Do you have the correct visa? Which visa type is that? Do you have the receipt for your medical insurance?” I managed to get through all those. It seemed as if this was actually going to happen and it was going to be pain free!
“I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can check in your luggage all the way to your destination.” What? Apparently, because I was flying with two airlines, I couldn’t get the boarding passes for all parts of the journey or the luggage label all the way to Phnom Penh. Due to regulations, I wouldn’t be able to leave the airside part of any of my transit airports to pick up the luggage and check it in again. I was considering just throwing my luggage in the bin at that point and buying everything again when I arrived in Phnom Penh. However, after a bit of waiting and speaking to the flight supervisor, it was sorted. The check-in attendant told me that it was quite a stressful time and she had to deal with a lot of crying passengers. I didn’t tell her that if it hadn’t worked out, I may have been another one.
I still only had the boarding passes up to Korea. So, at this point my baggage was more likely to reach Phnom Penh than I was. It was progress and in the right direction. A few hours later, I got on my first flight.
The next bits of the flights were actually relatively easy. Apart from long queues for the health screening in Korea, both airports in Dubai and Seoul were pleasant. The cafés were open and you could wonder about without fearing COVID too much. I found the transfer desk in Seoul easily. I did have to get all the paperwork out again, answer all the questions and hand over a large wad of money to be counted and checked. All was in order. I got on my plane and was on my way to Cambodia.
The Cambodian side involved very long queues and was naturally a bit chaotic. However, as I had all the paperwork sorted together, whenever I got to the desks, I was done in about 2 minutes every time. Then there was the queue for the tests. This again was relatively simple. The test was done. All I had to do was get to my hotel. I was practically there. No more problems. No more difficulties. No more confusions. So I thought.
As soon as I had my test done, a young Khmer man came and told me to follow him. He took my photo on his iPhone then dragged me through the crowds queuing for the bus. He seated me on my own, on the front of an empty bus. He did not explain why I was there, where I was going and why I was on my own. Staff outside the bus were obviously talking about me but I can’t lip read in English, let alone Khmer. I sent a few anxious messages to my parents before my phone battery died.
I was reassured when other foreigners started getting on the bus too. The bus was full; suddenly, I heard the word, “Come.” I was taken off this bus and just left to stand by the side of the airport while I watched it drive away. I was then taken to another bus and sat there, once again on my own. I was very tired and very confused. However, the driver said, “Your hotel is far from the other one. This one goes closer.” So, apparently, I was going to a hotel on my own.
After ten minutes of waiting in an empty bus, thirteen other passengers all boarded. They were all Khmer. Now, to some people this may have made them even more worried. However, all of a sudden I definitely realised I was in Cambodia. The Khmer were all chattering among themselves. Cambodians can quickly form bonds with others they haven’t met before and are often quite happy to chat with strangers. One of the staff in head-to-toe PPE came with a clipboard and asked the driver, in Khmer, how many people he had on board. The driver responded, in Khmer, “Thirteen Khmer, one barang.” Barang technically means ‘French’ but is used as word for foreigner. The man with head-to-toe PPE was standing right in front of me. Despite this, he asked (again in Khmer), where is the foreigner. To this I put my hand up. All the Khmer people laughed and it was now obvious I understood the conversation.
By the time we left the airport it was 2 am. The drive to the hotel was very Cambodian. The driver asked the passengers if they wanted food before the hotel (the food isn’t nice there, he told them). They ordered 6 packs of fried rice from a stall. The first attempt to park was thwarted by there not being enough room. The driver honked his horn a few times to no avail. We continued down the three lane road to do a u-turn, heading back up toward the airport. Upon nearly reaching the airport, we did another u-turn back down the road. More honking (despite the time of night) but we managed to stop. The fried rice was passed through the driver’s window and then handed to me. I then handed it to one of the Khmer passengers who distributed it to those who wanted it. There was one spare, so they let me have it for free.
The driver was chatting away, driving through red lights whilst honking his horn to show that he had no intention to stop. I was completely unfazed by this and just chuckled to myself. I arrived at my hotel (called Okay Boutique). I had another photo taken on the driver’s iPhone. And then I went to reception. All the instructions were given to me in Khmer. I understood all of it but forgot some details by the time I got to my room. I finally sat down, with my fried rice, relieved by the fact that I had finally made it back to Cambodia.
I was in Cambodia at the start of the pandemic, and I’ve been in the UK for three months now (as well as watching the two countries from afar). Therefore, I have a fairly good idea of what the response has been in both countries. I keep getting asked, “What is the COVID situation like in Cambodia?” I think the expected response is that it has been terrible, hospitals have been overrun, people are dead on the streets and there is no Cambodia for me to go back to.
This is not the case. Recently, there has been an outbreak of COVID cases in Phnom Penh. My dad told me he think the situation was about to get serious as about 300 people were found with it. I had to tell him that the figure was for the year. As of Wednesday 6th January, Cambodia has had 382 cases and 0 deaths. (The UK has had over 7000 times that amount; the US has had around 55,000 times that, for a little perspective.)
So why is it that Cambodia has not had as many cases? Or is it that COVID is actually rampant in the country and just not being reported? In the first few months I thought that might have been the case. Apparently, the British government did too, as it took until October for the country to be put on the safe corridors list. However, after a few months since we were first aware of the virus, the expected signs of an outbreak were absent. First, there was no massive uptick in funerals. Seeing as funerals are outdoors and very loud, it’d be hard to miss a pandemic. Also, there were no overwhelmed hospitals. I ended up going to various hospitals during the pandemic (mainly to visit newly born babies and their parents). They were mostly empty. The missionary community, working in vulnerable, poor areas and having networks throughout the country, heard nothing out of the ordinary. (Well, there were rumours, of course, but that didn’t reflect the actual truth.)
So, why is the situation so different in Cambodia than in the UK?
Closing schools and other public buildings
A single case of COVID-19 was discovered in Siem Reap, a tourist city towards the north of the country. Within days (or even hours), every school in the city was closed, as were cinemas, karaoke bars, sports centres and gyms. Again, after a case was discovered in Phnom Penh, all the schools in the country were closed. In this case, it was the headteacher of an international school who had just come back from a conference who had the virus. The entire school was disinfected and shut off from being accessed.
When a November community outbreak occurred, any affected business or public building (including a whole governmental department) was closed. Aeon 1, one of the largest malls in the city, was shut. Two clothing stores were closed. These have all since been reopened after being thoroughly cleaned.
Schools have been intermittently closed and reopened throughout the year. Private schools were some of the first to fully open. In order to do so, they had to pass an inspection by the Ministry of Education. The minister himself visited HOPE school and gave various recommendations. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, essentially said that what happens in schools happens in the community.
When the few community outbreaks have occurred, the individuals involved are extensively interviewed. Their movements are traced and everyone that seemed to be in contact with them are tested. When the November community outbreak occurred, hundreds of people were tested. There were also hundreds of tests done in response to the visit by an infected Hungarian minister. As a result, the outbreaks are usually contained relatively quickly.
This was not done through a world-beating app or other system. Nor was it done on an Excel spreadsheet. It was done in person, using the tradition methods, and has been relatively effective.
Quarantining and closed borders
Once a positive case is detected, the person is immediately hospitalised. This possibly accounts for the low death rate as well. At about 1%, you could have expected that around 3 people of the 382 people infected to have died. Obviously, it’s slightly more complex than that, as many of those who had it were travelling into the country and therefore fit enough to travel. This means they were unlikely to be elderly. In many cases, people around those who tested positive, such as family or colleagues were forced to quarantine.
Cambodia also shut its borders to various countries and cities for a few months. (Surprisingly, UK and China were not on the list. This may be due to the importance of the countries in terms of trade. I’m looking at you, Marks and Spencers.) The land borders between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos were completely shut for months.
When the borders did finally open, quarantining and testing measures were extensive. You had to be tested before you flew, once you arrived and fourteen days later. After that, you had the all clear. Initially, if anyone on your plane tested positive, you had to be quarantined in a hotel. Otherwise you’d quarantine at home. However, as someone breached the at-home quarantine, everyone who arrives in the country has to quarantine in a hotel (unless you’re a dignitary).
South-East Asia is well known for its mask wearing. It’s something that has been seen as a practical part of life. You might wear a mask because the roads are dusty, or you have a cold. So, when the news stories started in January, masks were seen everywhere. This wasn’t seen as oppressive or a breach of human rights.
Another important factor in Cambodia is the amount of fear of the virus. Cambodia is well aware of its limited health infrastructure, its poverty and the vulnerability of its citizens. Therefore, the fear of the virus is high. When only a few cases had been reported, people were terrified of it. One impact of this is that alcohol gel, face masks and even visors were in the shops pretty much instantly. You could get them at bookstores, stalls on the side of the street and at the entrance to malls. The amount of PPE available was actually quite extreme, especially considering that the NHS had a shortage. The UK did actually end up buying PPE from Cambodia, which wasn’t a surprise.
Businesses were very proactive too. Many shops or restaurants put perspex screens up in front of the counters, as well as implementing temperature checks for customers as they entered (which is how the community outbreak was discovered), cleaning shopping trolleys, adjusting seating. A lot of businesses chose to shut during the first months and use it as an opportunity for refurbishments and training. A lot of this was not mandated, but strongly advised. Many businesses went above and beyond what was actually required of them.
There are other cultural aspects that have perhaps prevented the spread of COVID-19. Cambodians love to be outside. Celebrations such as weddings and funerals are outside in tents. People tend to eat outside if they can. Even if they are inside, the doors and windows are probably open, providing ventilation. During the rainy season, this is less frequent. However, the outbreaks coincided, fortunately, when the rains were less common. (In fact, during the first four months of 2020 it rained about five times in total.) A lot of shopping is done in outside markets, again mitigating against the spread of the virus in closed spaces.
There has, of course, been a huge cost due to the pandemic. The economy heavily depends on tourism, especially in Siem Reap. A lot of businesses have been decimated as a result. The informal economy of tuk tuk drivers, market vendors, souvenir sellers, tour guides has also been heavily impacted. Students have missed out on months of face-to-face schooling.
The government has been criticised, of course. A lot of the measures seemed unwarranted an oppressive. In order to prevent further community transmission, names were published of those infected. Also, misinformation via Facebook and social media has been cracked-down on . A lot of human rights watchdogs and charities have been critical of these moves.
However, it could easily be argued that the most important human right is the right to life, which Cambodia has secured for its citizens through its stringent measures. The quick, decisive (albeit excessive in some people’s opinion) actions are in stark contrast to that of the UK. The UK, a year in, is finally suggesting the restriction of entry at its borders and tighter quarantine measures. That horse may have bolted long ago. Furthermore, only this week have schools been declared a vector of transmission by the British government.
It is possibly Cambodia’s vulnerability and humility that has protected it so far. There has always been a realisation that the pandemic will cause huge problems for the country in many ways, but mostly through a significant death toll if it was allowed to spread. The Cambodians are a resilient people and I am confident the country will recover. Like most Cambodians, however, I am still cautious and apprehensive about what the pandemic could mean, especially if an outbreak did occur.
I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.
What is the predominant host culture?
Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.
Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture.
I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.
What do you like most about your host culture?
Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.
What has surprised you most about your host culture?
How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)
What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture?
Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomed in, you’re set.
How is your own culture and the host culture similar?
I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.
What differences have you found it easy to adjust to?
The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.
How integrated do you feel with your host culture?
I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien. Of course, that sounds obvious but when I’m a stranger in Cambodia I tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture?
There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.
Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it?
I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.
What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture?
I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.
Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?
My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. “Gift-giving and relationship building” is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?
Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture?
The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)
What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values?
I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.
Which language / languages are you having to learn?
Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).
How is language learning going?
It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which English keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various wacky combinations of keys.
What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey?
I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.
What challenges have you faced in language learning?
The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.
How do you feel about language learning?
I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.
In January, I wrote a blog post with a series of questions called Ask a missionary. It was essentially for anyone who knows a missionary and isn’t sure what to talk about. It goes through a couple of topics, and I answered the one about where I live. I will tell you a bit about what I do when I get out and about.
How do you travel about?
My two main modes of transport are motorbike and tuk tuk. I use a motorbike for short or easy journeys, especially if I’m not carrying much. Tuk tuks are for long journeys, when I’m shopping, when I’m lazy, when it is raining or for more than one person.
Back in January, I wrote a blog post called Ask a missionary. Basically, it was a series of different questions that someone could ask a missionary as ice-breakers. I did create a video answering this first set of questions, but it was a while ago and it’s somewhere buried on my facebook page. I am currently in the UK, but this is only temporary, so the answers are still valid.
Where do you live?
I live in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I live quite far in the north of the city, in an area called Phnom Penh Thmei (New Phnom Penh).
How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area?
I live in a borey, or a gated community. Basically, it is a set of uniform houses and there are guards the man the entrance and exit, especially at night. The houses are typical phteah lveng, or town houses. There are mango trees lining the roads, shops and cafes in this borey and it is just lovely. (Except the smelly stream through the middle and the rats.)
Phnom Penh Thmei is great but a bit far from the rest of the city. Phnom Penh city centre is vibrant, exciting, often chaotic, but also filled with oases of calm. I love the city. I feel so privileged that I get to call it my home.
Last year, when the world was a simpler, less diseased place, I wrote a post called a million questions. It basically goes through 260 questions that give a rough overview of a country and its population. Some of the questions can be answered with a single figure, some of them in a whole book. However, as I’m soon starting an MA and currently reading up on basics of anthropology, I thought I would my “fieldworker” hat on and write what I have currently observed.
Today, I’ll only be noting down some of the basic facts about the country.
1. The basics
What is the name of the country?
English: The Kingdom of Cambodia Khmer: ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា IPA: preah riəciənaːcaʔ kampuciə Romanisation: preah reacheanachak kampuchea
What is Cambodia’s motto and national anthem?
The country’s motto is Nation, Religion, King and it’s national anthem is “Nokor Reach” or “Majestic Kingdom”.
Who leads the country?
King Norodom Sihamoni is the head of state; Hun Sen in the prime minister and head of government.
What type of government is it?
It is a constitutional monarchy – so there is a monarch that exercises their powers within the limits of a constitution. In Cambodia, the monarch is decided by the Royal Council of the Throne, rather than through a line of succession. (Think of how the next Pope is decided.)
The Prime Minister is the head of government.
It is a parliamentary representative democracy and is a unitary state.
The parliament consists of two chambers. The upper house is the Senate and the lower house is the National Assembly.
Hun Sen has been prime minister 1985.
The dominant party of Cambodia is the Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled since 1979.
Who are Cambodia’s nearest neighbours?
Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It is also a part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. There is also the ASEAN plus three group, which adds China, South Korea and Japan to the list.
What are its major languages?
Khmer (IPA: kʰmae; English rhymes Khmer with pear, but in Khmer it nearly rhymes with pie) is the official language of Cambodia. There are around 19 minority languages spoken. Various forms of Chinese and Vietnamese is commonly heard in Phnom Penh, and a lot of market workers or traders are of Chinese descent. English and French are widely taught in schools, and many Cambodia families in Phnom Penh choose to speak English among themselves as well.
My goodness, my brain has just melted. I have just had a culture lesson as a part of my language course on terms of address within the family. I knew Khmer terms of address was complicated, but I knew nothing.
So terms of address are what we call each other (Mr, Miss, buddy, sweetheart…) etc., with various levels of formality. In British culture we do change the terms of address in relation to the context. These terms of address can also refer to the person you are addressing or yourself. For example
Your humble servant asks your majesty to close the window.
The “Your humble servant” part refers to you as the speaker, and “your majesty” is the person you are addressing, in this case, the queen.
One of the most noticeable contexts we switch from terms of address is within a school. Students also refer to a teacher by their surname and a title (Mr, Mrs, Miss) or by Sir/Miss when not using their name. Teachers refer to other staff by their first name, unless when talking to or in front of the students.
Whilst in the classroom: “Mrs Smith, can I borrow your red whiteboard pen?”
“Jimmy, can you return this to Mrs Smith?”
In the staffroom: “Debbie, thanks for lending me the pen earlier.”
Parents and usually visitors will also use the polite form of the name when addressing or referring to a teacher. (This might not be so much the case in America and I have had visitors refer to me by my first name to a student, much to the student’s horror.)
We also do it within the family:
Sweetie, can you find mommy the sticky tape?
Come give granny a big cuddle and a kiss!
However, in Khmer, these terms are generally used instead of other personal pronouns. So you don’t use អ្នក (neak) which means you that often or even ខ្ញុំ (knhom / kʰɲom), for I, that often.
So you would say for a word-by-word translation:
“Big Brother well and healthy?”
“Mum go where?”
“Grandmother [I] will give Granddad [you] 20 dollars for the market.”
“What is wife cooking?”
These all come with varying levels of formality. Furthermore there are other specific examples, for example a grandfather can call his oldest child father (as long as he is actually now a father), to show his status within the family:
“How much did Father Suon [you- Suon is a name] pay for that motorbike?
I’m not sure if Suon would respond with dad or granddad at this point.
And this is just within the family. You’ve got to change the Is and yous to different words when addressing teachers, staff, managers, very close friends, monks, strangers, those of a higher status than you, kings and gods. You also might have to change the verbs you use as well.
I’ve started creating a table for this and will sit down with Vitou and make him help me fill it out. I expect it to be rather tear-stained before it’s finished. But I’m going to persevere!
Okay, so you’re going to need to hear me out on this. I think Khmer people descend from a race of superheroes. Even if it’s not true, it’d make for a brilliant comic book series. (Copyright ThomasinCambodia.com 2020 – because we all know that’s how copyright works). I did read somewhere (I’m not entirely sure where) that there are legends about how during the Khmer Empire, its soldiers had superhuman strength. This was something to do with magic strings around the arm or herbal tea poured over stone phalluses (you think I’m joking – I will probably take the magic string option in my comic book). Then somehow, during the Cambodian dark ages, these superpowers disappeared. Perhaps the powers were like some sort of natural resource, that was over used? Like the mystery of why the great Empire itself fell, why did the superpowers disappear?
But, today there are still signs of these once incredible superpowers. Like today, I was being driven by another tuk tuk friend. (I have a cold and I don’t fancy getting caught in a rainstorm.) Near my local market, a child lost control of his skateboard, he jumped off and the skateboard shot out into the road. My tuk tuk driver friend expertly weaved his tuk tuk so the skateboard glided between all three wheels. This happened in a split second. See, superpowers.
Any foreigner living in Cambodia will have their own examples of Cambodian superpowers.
However, maybe in a comic book series, these superpowers will start emerging, maybe in a group of young university students. They will have to navigate life in Phnom Penh, study, the discovery of their sudden abilities and fighting a band of evil witchdoctors… Then Hollywood will buy the rights to the story, and having learnt the lessons of its past, cast all Asian (preferably Cambodian) actors and film it all in Asia, thus boosting the COVID-19 stricken tourist industry of the region. (Well, in that case, maybe this comic book story will have its own superpower.)
One of the interesting aspects of living in a foreign country, especially doing the job I do, is that you often become very image conscious. This affects your life in a number of ways: the way you dress, your social media and even how you relate to those around you. You’re very aware of how you conduct yourself in public and what message you’re trying to put across.
So, for example, I would probably wear trousers (and maybe even a shirt) when going to the mall or someone else’s house. It also means you have to be conscious of what photos you are posed in on Facebook, etc. As I work in a Cambodian setting, I have to be aware of what behaviours would suggest in Cambodian culture. Furthermore, Cambodians are very social and very curious. This means that the Cambodians in your neighbourhood know everything about you.
I went to a Bible study for those who lived in my area of Phnom Penh. One lady who went lived a few streets down from me. Obviously, it would make sense if we travelled back together. However, because of what her neighbours would say if she was seen in a tuk tuk with a man, we would often travel separately. She had a tuk tuk driver she trusted and she knew he was safe, so she would often ask him to pick her up and she would go back alone. If he was busy, though, we would travel together, but she would be dropped off on the corner so none of her neighbours would see I was also in the tuk tuk.
Another occasion, I had to pick something up from the house of one of branch leaders when I lived in Siem Reap. The two branch leaders are a couple, and only the wife was home. We chatted for a bit, and the conversation ended with, “Anyway, my neighbours are watching, so I will see you later.” This is quite common, especially as Cambodians do a lot more outside than we would (prepare food, cook, wash up, for instance). So, you are far more visible than you would be in the UK.
In my previous apartment, I don’t think I was ever alone with a female for more than 5 minutes. That was usually only because we were waiting for someone else to arrive. One of the reasons I moved in with Vitou and his wife is so that I could invite people more freely as I’d always have a “chaperone”, so to speak.
In social occasions, too, you don’t hang out with those of the same gender. At a Khmer party, the women all usually sit together and the men sit together, sometimes on separate tables. The order of deciding who sits where goes in order of Khmer/foreigner (i.e. the Khmer sit with Khmer, the foreigners with the foreigners), then split again by gender. The children do their own thing entirely. If you’re a foreign couple with a group of Khmer people you often act as the bridge between the male/female split. You’d sit together, and the female Khmer would sit next to the woman and the male Khmer would sit next to the man.
This can be seen in my social media posts. If you’re my friend on facebook, you can look through my photos and see how often I’ll be photographed with a group of guys or a group of females. Also, if there are both genders present, look how they are arranged. It’s more likely that the men are all sat together. There are some wedding photos where there is a large group. The Khmer will be together; the foreigners will be together. There is very little mention of anyone, other than my mother, on Facebook who is not a guy and there will be very few photos of me alone with a female (even if we happen to be dating). Furthermore, any couple photos in Cambodia are basically announcements of intentions to be married. Even the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are more akin to “fiancé”, but just at the stage when you haven’t set a date.
All this does mean that I am very careful. I want to have a good reputation here in Cambodia. Therefore, if you were to suddenly discover I had been dating someone for nine months and hadn’t announced it, this would be why.