Brother from another motherland

Today is Vitou’s birthday! Our friendship goes back for more than five years and has been a really important and central part to my time here in Cambodia. He is a pretty amazing guy, so I thought I would give you a picture of how great he is and tell some of the stories of our friendship.

We first met outside a cafe called Jars of Clay, in the south of the city. That particular restaurant isn’t there due to COVID (but they have another site which is still running). He was a tuk tuk driver there. What I am going to say I mean literally: he was a godsend. If it wasn’t for Vitou, I think my arrival in Cambodia would have been extremely difficult. However, whenever I needed to find somewhere or something, I would ask Vitou. Two examples of how it would have been if I hadn’t found Vitou were etched on my mind.

The first is the attempt to find the office of the organisation I work with. I was, at that point, down some back alley in a confusing part of the city. I had a pin of the office’s location, however, the Google maps for Phnom Penh at that point was not particularly accurate (it has improved a little). It did not reflect the layout of the smaller side streets where the office was. However, I did not know this. So I tried to go there for a lunch that had been organised for a member of staff. It was close to where I was so I decided I could walk. It was in the middle of the day so that was a really stupid idea in the first place. But when it became apparent that I would not find the office and I could not find any shade in the heat, I realised the stupidity of the plan. My hands were so sweaty, I could no longer use my phone as I was just smearing the screen and my taps were not being registered. I had to flag a tuk tuk driver down to take me home before I passed out. After that, I had Vitou take me to the office. He phoned up the Khmer admin assistant that worked there, got the directions and we found it. (It was also reassuring that even after this, he still found it difficult to find it the first time and had to make a number of calls.) Every time I needed to go to the office, I would have to ask Vitou. To this day, I could still not tell you where it was, despite having been there a number of times.

Every year around September or October there is a festival called Pchum Ben, and during this time, Phnom Penh empties. Everyone goes to visit family in the provinces. This included Vitou. He was away for about three days, and during that time my life was so much harder. I was taken to the wrong locations at least twice, once on the complete opposite side of the city: I wanted to go to the south-west of the city and I was taken to the north-east of the city. Without Vitou, I imagine my first few months in Cambodia could have been a bit like that. Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh were very geared to take foreigners to tourist places, but sometimes struggled with helping foreigners with normal day-to-day living. Vitou’s English is very good (despite what he says to the contrary) and any task was made 100 times easier with him around.

He was also really protective of me during those first few months. He made sure I was okay in most situations. In Khmer culture, you call your friends older brother/younger brother depending on their age. Although I’m 9 months older than Vitou, I still call him older brother because of the way he looked after me during that time. One funny aspect of our relationship that has changed is that he refused to take me to places where Khmer people would normally eat. He was worried I’d fall ill. So, whenever I asked to go somewhere Cambodian, he would just stop outside a restaurant for foreigners and suggest I eat there. Some of my best memories during my first few months involve Vitou (including the incident where I nearly got a Cambodian girlfriend).

I moved to Siem Reap, but we still managed to maintain our friendship. This included going to his sister’s wedding in the province, which was a massive cultural experience. (It also included the bathroom incident in Savanna Mall). One of my favourite memories of the wedding was how Vitou’s two boys decided they liked me. They couldn’t speak any English then and I could barely speak Khmer. The way we communicated was the fist bump from Big Hero 6: they’d come up to me, give me a fist bump and I would do the “Balalalala” and they’d fall into hysterics.

Dressed up for a wedding.

Whenever I had to go to Phnom Penh during that time, he would be the first to know. He would pick me up and drop me off at the bus terminal, take me to where I needed to be and look after me. I even stayed at his family’s house a few times whilst I was here.

When my parents came to visit me in 2017, Vitou was the one that took us around. There was a few days when they were in Phnom Penh on their own and Vitou was their guide. He even introduced them to my aforementioned Cambodian not-girlfriend.

Vitou looking cool at Angkor Wat

During April is Khmer New Year. Vitou came to Siem Reap and stayed with me. We saw the temples at sunrise and enjoyed the festivities in Siem Reap together. It was really great having him with me. He said he was really scared to come to a city he didn’t know, but after a few days, he knew his way around it better than I did. (Vitou has an extremely good memory for places and routes and numbers, which is a very good thing for a tuk tuk driver.)

When I left Cambodia in 2017, not sure if or when I would be coming back, saying goodbye to Vitou was really hard. He gave me a photo of us at Angkor Wat to take home. (Funnily enough, a few years later a Chinese student that was staying at my parents’ house for Christmas asked if that was a photo of me and my twin.)

But I did return! I was really excited to see Vitou and his family again. I can remember arriving back in Phnom Penh and feeling like I was returning home. However, I quickly became frustrated. Previously, all my experience of Phnom Penh had been in the south: all the places I knew, all the memories were a 30-45 minute drive away. I felt like I was starting again in some ways. Little did I know that Vitou, his family and all his in-laws lived within a 10 minute drive of where I was living. Furthermore, his church (that his brother-in-law is the pastor of) was 3 minutes down the road.

This also meant that when his baby girl was born, I met her the very next day! So, over the last few years, I’ve been able to see her grow up.

I asked Vitou to give me some Khmer lessons and other days I gave him English lessons. With going to the same church, I probably saw him 4 days a week. Of course, when I had to be somewhere, he was the man I asked. He also installed my washing machine and helped me move any furniture and just generally looked after me. I remember him turning up to my door at 6:30 am to give me a birthday cake. We also went to Mondulkiri on holiday together, and this was one of my favourite holiday experiences ever. It was just easy and relaxing.

Vitou’s housing situation was getting a little bit crowded. In one house there were seven adults and five children, including two children under two. I could tell this situation was a bit difficult for everyone, which is understandable. So, I suggested the idea that we move in together. I would rent a whole house (which was relatively cheap), and Vitou and his family would provide me with free language and culture lessons and meals in return. It was also really helpful for my relationship with Kristi. In Khmer culture it would have been very inappropriate to invite Kristi over when I lived alone. However, living with a family provided an excuse. It was also great because Kristi got to experience the joy and blessing of knowing Vitou’s family like I did. (In fact, before Kristi knew them she thought I was a little too over-the-top in how I expressed how great they were. Once she got to know them, she realised I had actually be rather reserved about it.)

I loved living in that house with them. I loved seeing the children each day, and spending time with the family in the evenings, eating meals together. I learnt so much about Cambodian culture and about myself. That time also confirmed how generous, patient, kind, forgiving, caring and accepting Vitou and his family are. Anything that needed doing, any help I needed, Vitou was there for me. Bed bugs, illnesses, the death of my granddad, Vitou always was at my side. When it was my granddad’s funeral, which I had to watch online, Vitou stayed up and watched it with me so I wouldn’t feel alone. He always went out of his way to make sure that everything was good for me.

I previously had a suspicion that Vitou actually has superpowers but one incident confirmed it for me. Our house had a rat problem (as does a lot of houses here in Phnom Penh). I spotted one in the kitchen one evening. Vitou grabbed an oven glove, crouched by the fridge and waited. When the rat ran out, he grabbed it and knocked it against the wall. I did have to point out it wasn’t dead yet, so he just gave it another quick bash and the job was done. It was probably (compared to other methods I’ve used) a very humane way to dispatch of it. The fact that he did it with nothing but an oven glove amazed me.

One benefit of me paying the rent was that Vitou was able to start putting money towards building his own house. An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 was that a lot of builders were struggling for work, so he was able to start on it and finish it a lot sooner than we expected. My original plan was that he would get his house and I would find somewhere else to live. That was until he announced to me one day, “I have decided that you live with us.” So that was that.

I went to the UK for four months and we spoke most weeks. When I came back, I moved into Vitou’s new house. I love Vitou’s house and his family has that innate ability of making anyone that comes feel comfortable and welcome. We even had a few parties there (COVID-19 permitting) and inviting people to the house was easy.

Then, something crazy happened: I got engaged and then married within the space of about 5 months. This meant that I had to find a new house and prepare for the wedding. Who, of course, did I call on to help? My Cambodian brother, Vitou. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a new house. With Vitou’s help, we found the perfect house for us (with air con and washing machine to boot). Every time I needed to buy some new things for the house, Vitou was there helping us barter prices, or agree arrangements or stick it on the top of his tuk tuk (or in the back of his brother-in-law’s truck).

My wedding suit, our three-piece living room suit, our crockery cabinet, the crockery, all came about with Vitou’s help.

The online wedding (with 5 guests!) The actual main ceremony was 2 weeks later.

Of course, when it came to asking someone to be my best man at my wedding, who was I going to ask? Vitou! However, disaster struck. Sadly, Vitou came into contact with someone with COVID-19. He had to self isolate. It was a big disappointment for us both. Fortunately, he was able to isolate away from his family, so they all made it to the wedding.

Now, and throughout my time here in Cambodia, Vitou has been a source of encouragement, wisdom and advice. He has gently guided me through Khmer culture and introduced me to different parts of the country, events and celebrations. He’s allowed me to sit back and observe or participate as much as I wanted. He’s been patient when my British culture manifested at inappropriate moments and gently answered questions or corrected my misunderstanding. I’m very fortunate to have found a brother like Vitou here in Cambodia. So, have a very happy birthday.

Language differences

I love learning Khmer. I’m getting to the point where I know some really random words but some normal words pass me by. (I know how to say “circumcised” thanks to reading the Bible in Khmer but I still don’t know how to say “different types of” very well.) One of the biggest struggles is where the definition of a word doesn’t fit neatly with an English definition, so I end up writing an insanely long definition to clarify. So this post is about some of the conceptual differences between Khmer and English. This is of course the same with all languages, but I feel that Khmer has rather stark differences in cases (perhaps by virtue of it not being derived from Proto-Indo-European but in a separate language family – but I’m no linguist). It also makes speaking Khmer harder because you have to remember these nuances rather than just directly translating.


When you’re learning languages at first you learn some basic translations: red = this, blue = that. However, you learn that perceptions of colours are not always the same. Khmer uses colours in ways that English wouldn’t. For example, what we would describe as verdant greens, especially when occurring naturally, Khmer would describe as kheav ខៀវ which is often translated to mean blue.

When you fry meat, you don’t fry it until it is “golden brown” as in English, but until it is “red”. Browny-blond hair (such as mine) is often described as red (which red-heads might see as something sacrilegious or a victory). Dark woods are often red as well.

The pinky sandstone of the temple Banteay Srei is sometimes referred to as gold.

Falling in Cambodia

There are different ways to fall in both English and Khmer. We have different words such as fall (which is mostly general), to tip over, to collapse, etc. The three main ones that give me difficulty are the distinctions between ធ្លាក់ tleak /tleak/, ដួល duol /duəl/, and ជ្រុះ jroh /croh/. Tleak is to fall from a height downwards; to descend. So a waterfall is ទឹកធ្លាក់ (tuk tleak), which is the same as in English.

Duol essentially means to tip over. If you or an object have contact with the ground or a surface, but then find yourself less upright than before, this is the one to use. So if you trip over, you use duol. If you are riding your motorbike, but it slips in the mud, you duol. If, however, you are sitting on the back of a motorbike and not driving it, but fall from it and the motorbike continues, you use tleak.

Jroh is for when something is attached or kept in place and then detaches and falls. So you use this for leaves and fruit falling from trees. Also, if something is in place in your pocket then falls out, this is the version to use.

Hold on tight!

This is where my vocabulary fails and I know there is a distinction between the words but I don’t know what they are yet. Khmer has a different word for carry/hold depending on how you do it. Carrying it on your head, shoulders, back, cradling it in your arms, holding it in your hands, or carrying goods using a bar across your shoulders all have different words. I found this out when reading the Book of Ruth in the Bible. In a part of it, she carries some grain. The translation I was reading told us she was carrying it in a bundle on her head. The English version doesn’t specify this as far as I remember.

You asked for it

One that I always get wrong and my teacher always corrects me on is the word to ask. There is a difference in Khmer between the word to ask a question in order to get information and to ask someone to do something. Because English has no distinction in day-to-day speech (we do in more formal, literary circumstances: to question and to request, etc.), I always use the wrong one.

The struggle

So learning Khmer can be a real struggle. It has alphabet with the most characters in the the world (over 100); there are really difficult sounds and sound combinations; lots of writing and reading rules; and now these differences I have to remember and get used to.

However, this is of course true for any language. And the more I teach English, the more I think I’d rather be learning Khmer.

Cambodia Online

A lot of life now takes place online, especially so after the pandemic. And that means multiple social-media accounts and detailing your life on Facebook. Some people will just happily post a status and engage in a care-free manner. But why do that when you can overthink everything?

I think very carefully about my posts and what I put up and what I don’t. (I’m not always happy with what goes up even after that.) I have thousands of photographs and videos of Cambodia on my camera reel but most of those never see the light of social media. This is because I am very aware of what it can portray and the messages that I’m giving out.

White saviour

I try very hard not to come across as the white saviour. Therefore, I can be reluctant to discuss negative experiences and also to portray what I do as anything incredible. (It really isn’t. I am not winning any prizes anytime soon.) It is also something that I have to really battle with personally. I could write a whole book about this and why I still do what I do and what I hope is achieved (note, not what I achieve) through the redistribution of experience and education. There are also very long books that have already been written that define poverty, but this is not the place to go into that.

To put it succinctly, I am not special, clever or a hero. The only difference is that I, through my birth, had been dealt a set of cards that gave me access to more opportunities. I know many Cambodians who, given the same opportunities that I have, would have got firsts at Oxford or been Hollywood movie stars or something amazing. And yet they did not have those opportunities. Two of the opportunities that I have had is easy access to higher education and the ability to speak fluently in English, both of which have currency. Teaching English is a relatively easy (although arguably not the most effective) way to redistribute some of this currency. (That is a very poor way to explain it, but there you go.)

Therefore, I don’t like to post photos up of me actually doing things. First of all, most English teachers will not put photos up of their job because it is, let’s be honest, rather dull. You won’t really see a tweet or instagram post saying “Here is my board of future continuous sentence examples! #teacherlife #adrenalinejunkie”. Secondly, it’s really hard not to do that and make yourself the hero of that story. Not all heroes wear capes. But often, those who don’t wear capes aren’t heroes.

White person’s playground

South East Asia is not a playground for white people. It’s not a place for us to go and party, try drugs, do adventure sports, have spiritual experiences and find ourselves. So, I’m not really up for posed photos on Angkor Wat or markets or villages. These are people’s countries and homes and lives. They are not to be objectified and made into curios for our consumption. There are times when I do, indeed, take photos of people living their normal life. And it often doesn’t sit easy with me. But I will try and do it in a way where some sort of judgment isn’t implied. Unfortunately, when anyone takes anyone’s photograph and posts it to social media (especially without permission), there is always an imbalance of power. There has to be a sensitivity to that.

Poverty porn

Before you get too upset by the use of the word porn, it’s actually a technical term. I used it class with some grade 8s when discussing this issue. However, while many focus on its use in the charity sector. My argument is that you are reducing someone’s humanity and whole existence to just their experience of poverty, you’re creating poverty porn. It’s deeply patronising and unfair. Furthermore, the narrative about Cambodia is generally just genocide and terrible poverty. The narrative of Cambodia and the lives of individual Cambodians are so much richer, bolder, nuanced, tragic, joyful, deeper than any photograph of them in poverty could ever show. My social media feed is by no means just affluent Phnom Penh, but I try to either have a balance or do it in a way that avoids judgement.

This also goes for phrases such as “They’re so poor yet they’re so happy.” It’s demeaning and again reduces their live to a romanticised view of the situation they are in. Their stories, their lives, their experiences are not yours to tell or to interpret on their behalf. If you want to write or convey something, use their words and attribute it to them. They don’t need some white person going around narrating their lives when they know next to nothing about it. Furthermore, if you’re making their poverty the defining feature of their lives, once again, you’re reducing them and their lived experiences to just one rather demeaning word. And yes, they may seem happy in front of you, a complete stranger. But what about the times you are not there? Even if you were trying to be humble and think about it from the perspective of learning to be grateful, that’s still bad. Only you benefit from that experience. Their situation doesn’t change. They’re still poor. You just feel better about your life and wealth and comfort and are more thankful for what you have. You’ve used their lives to make you feel good about yours.

Questions to ask yourself

Obviously, I try to think long and hard about what I put on social media and on the internet. It is sometimes the reason I don’t blog as much as I would like. I often have mixed feelings about what I do write. I also am aware that often, it’s not my story to tell. However, here are some ideas about how you can be critically reflexive about what you post.

  1. Who benefits from this image/post?
  2. If the person in the picture or a Cambodian person in general was to see what you posted, how would they feel?
  3. What narrative does this post tell about the subject/Cambodia?
  4. What narrative does this post tell about you?
  5. Am I reinforcing or perpetuating harmful or shameful stereotypes and narratives?
  6. Is there an imbalance of power? Can it be addressed?

Other posts I wrote

  • Answers to questions… where I discuss ideas about voluntourism, and why I never post photos of children (unless I have the parents’ permission or using natural censorship (i.e. they are facing away from me or obscured by an object).
  • A single story of Cambodia reflects on an amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how narratives are often reduced.
  • Being a good guest discusses how we should talk about and view a country we call home but isn’t ours.
  • The Mother-in-Law’s hat explains why there are some aspects of Cambodia I will never discuss online.

Loving Cambodia

Many years ago, someone said to me that you haven’t truly settled in a country until you can talk about what is wrong about it. Now, this person has probably forgotten they said this by now. But I remember it because I remember my strong reaction to it. My exact immediate thoughts would be too strong to write here. Fortunately, I managed to hide my feelings somewhat. (I’ve actually written about this incident on the blog already, so 10 stars if you can find out where it’s mentioned before!)

Also, I sometimes find it hard to be around expats. This is because expats like to moan and complain and I hate it. I have actually had to walk away from a group of people because of what they said about Cambodia. Also, I was quite blunt with someone when they said that they didn’t get the sense of recipes being passed down through the centuries when eating Khmer food. I did point out that a genocide may have been a contributing factor. (It’s also really not true; if you actually go to eat nice Khmer food, you’ll realise it’s really nice.)

This frustration around criticising Cambodia is because of a simple reason. God called me to love Cambodia. “Well, you can still love Cambodia and find it hard!” you might cry. This is true. I often find it hard and I will be honest about it. But that, most of the time, it isn’t Cambodia’s fault. It’s just life. And it isn’t an excuse for a critical attitude. It is easy to become cynical and weary, especially when you’re sweaty, hot and tired. But, as I like to say, cynicism is just a Poundland version of wisdom. It’s cheap, easy, and worth very little.

There’s also a very clear Biblical passage on what love is meant to look like. It’s often now used for weddings, but its use was not isolated to just that.

Love is patient with Cambodia and Cambodians; love is kind (in thought, word and deed) to this country.
Love does not become jealous with Cambodians' ease in this country.
Love does not boast about its own customs or country. Love does not think itself better than Cambodia.
Love is not rude to Cambodians. It does not demand that it's own needs, culture and customs be respected above that of the Cambodians.
Love does not keep a record of the wrongs of Cambodia and discuss them endlessly.
Love does not delight in the injustice of global wealth and poverty and rejoice in our own unfair opportunities and privileges.
Love delights when the truth of God's love and justice wins out in this nation.
Love does not give up on Cambodia; love never loses faith in the gospel in Cambodia, is hopeful for transformation, and endures through every circumstance Cambodia throws at it.

Prophecy and speaking Khmer and Mnong and Kraol and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever.
How can you not love a country with sunsets like this?

Podcast: Phnom Penh in Lockdown

I have a new project (which will probably be short-lived)! A podcast. I chose this format because I have done videos in the past but trying to do them when you’re not sweaty and gross has been hard. Podcasts are easier as you only have to worry about the microphone and not what you look like.

I had a few problems with getting WordPress to agree to this (it’s still on-going – it decided to change the embed code to a random link). This is about attempt number 6 to get it to publish here, so rather than embed it, just follow the link below!

(Just a note, this was recorded when the COVID-19 cases were somewhat lower than they are now.)

Quarantine: A Day in the Life

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.

Wednesday’s food. I got cake!


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.

The views

The Royal Palace sits near the riverside where the Mekong and Tonle Sap meets.
The hotel is aboyt 100m from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Here, they preserve some of the unique cultural arts of Cambodia. Behind it, is the National Museum. You can also just about make out the Foreign Correspondants Club (FCC). The large white hotel in the distance, behind the museum, sits where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. This is the site of the boat races and fireworks during Water Festival. Wat Ounalom, to the left, is quite important. It is sort of the Canterbury Cathedral of Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is where the name if the city comes from. You can just about see it here. It’s the white stupa- a sort of cone shaped structure. Vattannac Tower isn’t famous as such, just very distinctive with the curved front and the large balcony. You can’t see Central Market, which is close by.

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.

COVID in 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.

Rapid tracing

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).

Cultural aspects

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.

Ready to go!

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.

The cost

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.

Ask a Missionary: Host Culture

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.

I thought I was doing well! Then I asked for corrections…

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.

Ask a Missionary: Out and about

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.

Continue reading “Ask a Missionary: Out and about”

Ask a missionary: some answers

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).

Phnom Penh Thmei

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.

Continue reading “Ask a missionary: some answers”