Going public

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.

You know you’ve lived in Cambodia when…

My girlfriend and I were listing things that show you’ve lived in Cambodia. We reached 110 different aspects of Cambodian life. If you’ve lived in Cambodia, check to see how many you have scored or if we have missed anything. If you don’t live in Cambodia, it might give you a humorous insight into daily life here.

Food and diet

  1. You think the most appropriate knife for any job is the biggest meat cleaver you own.
  2. Dinner for breakfast isn’t weird.
  3. You’ve knowingly eaten/drank bugs because you can’t be bothered to fish it out.
  4. You’ve knowingly eaten bugs because they were meant to be in your food.
  5. You’ve eaten soup from a bag.
  6. You’ve eaten the ear and rear of a pig and everything in between.
  7. You’ve had a dessert ruined by durian contamination.
  8. You’ve got something in your fridge people at home would never dream of keeping there.
  9. You’ve had to explain that you’re full even though you haven’t eaten rice today.
  10. You’ve eaten a chicken/duck that was alive when you arrived.
  11. The variety of food available amazes you.
  12. You only know the names of some fruits, vegetables or herbs in Khmer because you don’t have them where you live.
  13. You’ve eaten organs of animals you didn’t even know they had.
  14. Your order at a restaurant has been based on how many days you have available to recover if things go wrong.
  15. You’ve judged someone for not ordering ice in their drinks.

Transport

  1. You’ve had to drive through a herd of cows, past a truck and round children on bicycles at the same time.
  2. You’ve seen a whole house being driven down the road.
  3. You’ve driven through a field because it has less potholes than the road.
  4. You don’t even blink when someone is driving directly towards you the wrong way on the sidewalk anymore.
  5. You’ve thought, “dang it, I should’ve taken the sidewalk” when driving.
  6. You don’t even blink when you’re down the wrong side of the road anyone.
  7. You treat traffic lights like helpful advice.
  8. You’ve wondered what the road markings are actually for.
  9. You’ve driven through a tent.
  10. You’ve had your motorbike/car blocked in by a tent.
  11. You have been in a tuk tuk with more than 8 people.
  12. You have been on a motorbike with more than two people.
  13. You have carried something enormous or unwieldy on a motorbike, whilst driving.
  14. You have fallen asleep in a tuk tuk.
  15. A tuk tuk driver took you back to your house without you telling him where you live because he remembers you.
  16. You don’t think it’s weird to park your car or motorbike in your living room.
  17. You’ve transported furniture on the roof of a tuk tuk.
  18. You’ve had someone else push your motorbike by riding theirs and putting their foot on the back footrest.
  19. You know how difficult it is to push a motorbike with a flat.
  20. You know how to kickstart a motorbike.

Health, hygiene and safety

  1. You’ve woken yourself up with your own B.O.
  2. Your tolerance of getting dust in your eye has risen 1000%.
  3. You have stuck to multiple surfaces because of sweat or had multiple things stick to you.
  4. You worried more about eating that salad than the piece of food you dropped on the floor.
  5. You freak out when people drink from the taps in movies.
  6. You’ve sprayed yourself in the mouth/eyes with DEET on at least 10 occasions (one of which was just to get rid of the taste of durian).
  7. You’ve washed your raw chicken because you’re worried it’s been sprayed with insect repellent.
  8. On a really hot day, you’ve gone into a shower wetter than when you came out.
  9. You prefer cold showers over hot showers.
  10. You’ve pulled a wet money note or receipt out of your pocket and it’s not because you’ve been near water.
  11. You take Imodium before travelling just in case.
  12. You wondered “is that pee or water??” while using a squatty potty.
  13. You have slipped up on wet tiles.
  14. You have burnt your leg on a hot exhaust at least once.
  15. You’ve fallen off your motorbike while it stationary.

Wildlife and nature

  1. A herd of goats or cows are outside your house and you think nothing of it.
  2. Used a cockroach like a hockey puck.
  3. You saw a rat in a restaurant, said “hey there’s a rat in the restaurant” and kept eating.
  4. You have killed a rat.
  5. You appreciate the phrase “look like a drowned rat” even more after the rainy season.
  6. You’ve had to decide which to stand closest to: the fighting dogs or the rat in the bin.
  7. The main reason something goes in the fridge is to keep the ants away.
  8. You’ve frozen a bag of rice or cereal before.
  9. You killed more than 40 mosquitoes in 10 minutes.
  10. You had an ant/mosquito in your motorbike helmet whilst driving.
  11. You had some animal fall on you/run over your foot/hide in your shoe.
  12. You stepped over an escaping animal (fish/crab) in a market.
  13. You realised it’s better to be able to see a cockroach that to have seen a cockroach than not be able to see that cockroach.
  14. You’ve accidentally smuggled a dead animal back to your passport country in your luggage.
  15. You’ve been chased by a dog.

Daily life

  1. You regularly think “I nearly died”.
  2. You’ve slept on the floor during a power cut because it’s cooler than your bed.
  3. You’ve had to wear xxl clothes because you’re in Asia
  4. You’ve put your washing in and closed all the windows when the wind picked up.
  5. The water ran out while you still had shampoo in your hair.
  6. You had to change/shower again within an hour of changing/showering because you moved away from a fan.
  7. You get up really early to do something while it is cool and realise it is already too late.
  8. The sound of a fan turning off gives you the heebie-jeebies.
  9. You’ve handed over too much or too little money because working out something in two currencies is too hard.
  10. You find it strange that it’s easier to sleep in the day when it’s hot than at night when it’s hot.
  11. You take a jumper to the mall/cafe/cinema.
  12. You don’t want to go back to your passport country because the internet / mobile data is more expensive and not as reliable.
  13. You got a tan / sunburnt because you stepped outside for two minutes.
  14. You have realised that making a plan for today was the first mistake in your plan.
  15. The tasks that take 5 minutes in your passport country take 2 hours here, but the tasks that take 2 hours in your passport country take 5 minutes here.

Culture

  1. You’ve not been sure how high to sompeah so it looks like you’re practicing a yoga move
  2. You’ve almost dropped everything trying to sompeah with your hands full.
  3. You’ve done the moonwalk of shame: you entered a house with shoes on and slowly walk backwards hoping no one has noticed.
  4. You’ve had to sit down outside a neighbours/stranger’s/friend-of-a-friend’s house because they invited you to take a seat.
  5. You got up to do something while at someone else’s house and they almost rugby tackle you back into your chair.
  6. You’ve just sat in a chair in the middle of a room while everyone stares/smiles at you.
  7. Been told you look like a white celebrity you most definitely do not look like.
  8. You’ve been told you’re fat, have a big nose and really pale in the same week (which are all compliments here).
  9. You’ve been to the wedding of a couple you’ve never met before.
  10. You’ve been to funeral of someone you’ve never met before.
  11. You’ve visited the mother and new born baby within hours of them giving birth
  12. You attempted something for two hours only for a Cambodian to do it in 2 minutes.
  13. You had a random Cambodian save you in your moment of need.
  14. You’ve had a Cambodian come and give you advice on keeping safe.
  15. You’ve had a Cambodian grab you by the shoulders and move you in the right direction/away from danger.
  16. Your Cambodia friend/house helper/colleague performs some miracle on a daily basis.
  17. You’ve had a Cambodian give you the sweetest and most heartfelt compliment you’ve ever received.
  18. Your tiny Cambodian friend performed a superhuman feat of strength without thinking anything of it.
  19. You’ve had a Cambodian “telling off”, which is, “oh please next time do [insert what you failed to do this time]” whilst smiling sweetly.
  20. You’ve been told to “look after yourself” at least once a day.
  21. You’ve offered a Cambodian a cup of coffee, only for them to suddenly make one for you.
  22. You scared a Cambodian when you’ve told them the current temperature in your passport country.
  23. You confused a Cambodian when you said that your passport country doesn’t have that food/fruit/tree/animal.
  24. You have been told to go have a nap at a stranger’s house and obliged.
  25. You’ve not known who the market seller/shop owner was and who’s just a friend/customer because they’re all helping you with your purchase.
  26. A stranger knew your name/where you live/where you work/where you’re from because they have a vague connection to someone you know.
  27. You’ve been given a surprise massage at the hairdressers or other places.
  28. You have had children wave and say “hey-lo” to you.
  29. These children suddenly became very shy when you replied in Khmer.
  30. A Khmer child has played a game with your flip-flops.

If you have lived in Cambodia, tally up your scores and add a comment.

  • Food and diet: __/15
  • Transport: __/20
  • Health, hygiene and safety: __/15
  • Wildlife and nature: __/15
  • Daily life: __/15
  • Culture: __/30
  • Total: __/110

If you haven’t lived in Cambodia, what statement surprised you the most?

Simple Khor Sach Chrouk (Cambodian caramelised pork)

Living with a Khmer family has it’s benefits, including trying some amazing, home cooked Cambodian food. I asked Sophy, the wife, to teach me a dish this week and I thought I would write it up.

Khor Sach Chrouk is a really hearty, comfort-food that can easily be customised to your taste. It’s simply caramelised pork belly and it’s really, really delicious but incredibly simple. It’s not spicy but if you do want to add some warmth, put in some ginger. It usually comes with boiled eggs too, but if can’t be bothered with that fuss, don’t worry. We’re only really here for the sticky, sweet, soft pork anyway. What’s also great about this version is that it uses things you probably have around anyway. No special trips to the Asian grocer store necessary!

Cambodians usually will serve more than one dish at a meal. So this is often accompanied by cucumbers, long beans, lettuce or other refreshing vegetables, just to balance out the rich sweetness of the sauce. Again, that’s optional.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6 people

  • 1 kg of pork belly, chopped into rough cubes
  • 4 tablespoons soft brown sugar (palm sugar is great, but just use what you have)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons of chicken stock powder (or probably 1 chicken stock cube and dissolve it in the water)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 500 ml water
  • 4 hard boiled eggs with their shells removed (optional)

Method

  1. Add about 3 tablespoons of the water to the pan and add the sugar. Bring to a vigorous simmer and stir until you have created a sticky syrup.
  2. Add the garlic and ginger (if using) to the syrup and cook until fragrant.
  3. Add the pork belly, the stock powder and the salt. Stir until the belly is a light golden brown.
  4. Add the water and bring to a simmer.
  5. Add the eggs, if using.
  6. Simmer until the sauce is reduced to a thick syrup.
  7. Serve with hot jasmine rice and sliced cucumbers.

Add your own twist

This doesn’t have to be done with pork belly, but the fatty part of the meat just adds that extra richness. You can use a leaner cut such as the shoulder, or even use chicken. You can also add additional spices in with the garlic or ginger including a stick of cinnamon or some star anise. Or if you want to add copious amounts of black pepper, go for it.

You can substitute the salt for a teaspoon of fish sauce. Some people also add bamboo shoots with the eggs.

Poems I Penhed

As an English teacher, I inevitably have to teach poetry. I mainly teach to analyse it, but sometimes I teach to write it too. And when you ask the students to do something, usually you have to provide an example.

So, I taught my students about accentual verse (where it has a similar number of stressed syllables in each line) and poetic metre. I also taught them about using metaphors, and used the structure of the opening three lines of The Highwayman‘s as an example. It has a metaphor that consists of two nouns, and each noun is modified by another noun or adjective. So these are the examples I created for the students in order to show them how to write it.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 1

The wires were twisted jungle vines hanging from ancient jungle trees;
The ruined roads were racing rapids of motos weaving and winding with ease;
The food carts were bubbling cauldrons sending scented smoke high into the sky;
The houses were rain-stained sentinels watching the noisy traffic rush by.
The golden Wat was an open oasis, full of orange-robed men.
This is the city I live in: the beautiful Phnom Penh.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 2

Plastic stools sit around street side stands
Selling baguettes, fruits, meats, condensed milk from cans.
Tuk tuks with curtains and tireless fans whirring.
Smoke from the incense swirling and curling.
Tires wrapped in gold foil at repair stores;
Motos hitched up on black oil-stained floors.
Children spill from school like the tide at the shore.
Ice-cream yellow. Shuttered windows. Dirty whiteboards.
Sudden side streets at jaunty angles.
Shops with a single lightbulb that dangles.
Grandmothers in brown, black patterned skirts swaying,
Wearing white blouses, returning from praying.
The heat of the day switches to the dark of the night
And its still humid air with the dark moths in flight.

It was also important to me to teach poetic forms from various cultures, including the traditional Cambodian Pathya Vat form. It’s a really hard form to copy into English, as Khmer generally consists of shorter words. The form is each stanza has four lines, each line has four syllables. The last line of one stanza rhymes with the second and third line of the subsequent stanza. (So an ABBC DCCE FEEG pattern.)

Again, I wrote an example.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat stands
A silhouette
Its towers set
Before the sun

Rising golden
The night is done
Monkeys among
Ruins, birds take flight

An orange globe
It’s yellow light
Reveals the might
Now set in stone

Ancient battles
Myths, gods all shown
Carved by unknown
Hands, this Wonder

A thousand years
For us to honour
As we ponder
On Angkor Wat

Now, I’m under no illusion that these are works of literary merit. They will need a couple of redrafts or rejections before I would be satisfied with them. But they did the job they were meant to do and I hope you enjoy them somewhat.

Useless barang…

One of the most humbling things about moving to Cambodia is how useless I often feel. Being a barang (the slang word for foreigner), I watch Khmer people and how resourceful and competent they are. There seems to be a few reasons for why I feel Khmer people .

  • I simply don’t understand the culture or ways things are done. Sometimes, the way things happen are extremely different to that in the UK, from sourcing things you want to buy, paperwork or cutting obscure tropical fruit.
  • Cambodians have had to be resourceful. They can use what they have to get the job done. In the UK, we often rely on specialist tools such as mandolins for thinly sliced fruits or specific saws with specific frames for specific tasks. They’ll just use a normal knife and a saw blade for most of what they have to do. Sometimes it takes extra effort or care, but they’re content to put the work in.
  • A sense of confidence in their abilities. Khmer people are very humble and very down-to-earth people. But sometimes, they seem blissfully unaware that sometimes they shouldn’t be good at something. We seem to have a mindset in British culture that this is the realm you are good at and this is what you aren’t good at. However, Cambodians seem to just assume they might be able to do it. It’s probably because in the UK we are able to outsource things we couldn’t do. We even had to come up with a name for when you did it yourself (DIY), because that wasn’t perhaps the norm. But in Cambodia, you tend to try to fix it yourself.
  • Certain skills are highly legislated. In the UK, if you were not confident you could plumb or wire something in correctly and to exact specifications, you wouldn’t even think of doing it. Here, there is less emphasis on this, but for the most part it does seem to work.

As a result of these things, I’m often in awe of the speed and ability of Khmer people to do what they need to do. I’m often not at all confident in doing things, such as DIY or even some cooking tasks, so I will often leave it to the Khmer people to do it. And even when I do have a go, what often will have taken me ages to just attempt is done in a fraction of the time by a Khmer person.

One day, I hope I will be more confident in my abilities to negotiate Cambodia and all the challenges it has for me. But until then, I’ll just be another useless barang.

My favourite things about Cambodians

In my previous post I spoke about cultural clashes. I want to remind you that they are not reasons I look down on Khmer people, but rather where our cultural values conflict. Neither is right or wrong; it’s dependent on whose perspective you see it from. Also, there’s a propensity to see only the differences, and more often than not, the negative ones. I love Cambodia and its people. Yes, there are times when that’s tested more than usual, but I still try and celebrate Cambodians and enjoy living here. So here are things I love about Cambodian culture.

The joy

Cambodians are famous for their friendliness, their laughter, their smiles. Their parties are loud and exuberant. Things are colourful. Their chatter playful. They love games and silliness, even as adults.

The word for play is leng /leːŋ/ លេង. It’s often attached to other words to suggest an element of fun or relaxation:

  • daer leng /ɗaᵊ leːŋ/- to go out for fun (to walk + to play)
  • niyiey leng /niʔjiᵊj leːŋ/- to joke or tease (to speak + to play)
  • angkoy leng /ɑŋkoj leːŋ/ -to sit and relax (to sit + to play)
  • keng leng /keːŋ leːŋ/- to nap (to sleep + to play)

Celebrations, such as weddings and other festivals, are bright, loud affairs. There are games and food and drinks. Cambodians love to laugh and joke and play.

The hospitality

Hospitality in the UK and hospitality in Cambodia is somewhat different. (If you want to see how this difference caused me reverse culture shock read my post melamine plates.) It’s slightly more relaxed (those not used to it would say chaotic) than in the UK. It’s far more easy-come easy-go (like much of Cambodian life, it seems). There’s a vague arrival time and people turn up and plates of food appear.

The welcome is always warm (although sometimes a bit shy and nervous around foreigners) and the beer is always on ice. The cheers “juol muoy!” happens regularly. Basically, any time someone goes to have a swig of beer, you have to clink glasses with everyone then every takes a good swig of their glass, often drain it entirely.

There seems to be an endless conveyor belt of food. There are multiple dishes, ranging from soups, seafood, snails, bbq meat, stir fried greens and, of course, rice. It’s a relaxed affair and you just sit eating. This can go on all day. During this time, neighbours, friends, family, passing acquaintances will be invited in or appear and eat then go. There’s a lot of greeting and farewelling or others popping to the nearby store to pick up another case of beers.

There can be (very loud) music and karaoke and children playing.

This hospitality is more casual than in the UK. There are no napkins (maybe some tissues to wipe your fingers), you can use fingers or lettuce leaves or chopsticks or spoons to eat with, there are few manners to worry about. The karaoke doesn’t matter on the prowess of your singing voice. (This can make it entertaining for all sorts of reasons.) This is the type of hospitality I love. Hospitality that is devoid of social barriers such as etiquette (etiquette is always designed to divide people between social status, so think about that when you next tell your child to take their elbows off the table) and special talents. You come, you eat, you sing. It is hospitality designed to welcome.

The bonds

Cambodians can be naturally shy and a bit hesitant with foreigners, but once you are in, you are very much in.

Social networks are important in Cambodia, and often the connections made can be long lasting and strong. Also, when you’ve made a strong friendship with others, you adopt many of their connections as well. There’s a concept of bong-p’oun. This little means older and younger siblings, but it really refers to your circle of close friendships and family members. There’s a sense of responsibility to care and look out for those in this circle. It’s a tight, reciprocal bond.

I’ve been seen grateful for the connections and friendships I’ve been able to make. There’s a definite sense that I have a collection of people who have my back and will care for me whatever happens.

What do you find hardest about Cambodian culture?

When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.

However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.

For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.

British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.

I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.

However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.

As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.

Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.

I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.

One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.

Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)

If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.

I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.

This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.

The Cambodia Bucket List

Cambodia is such an amazing country. I’m so privileged to live here and there’s so much to experience. I’ve achieved so much already.

These are the things I’ve managed to achieve so far:

  • Visit Angkor National park
    • See Angkor Wat
    • See the Elephant Terrace
    • Go to Angkor Thom
    • Find the dinosaur at Ta Prom
  • Visit the floating villages on the Tonle Sap
  • Visit the Koh Ker Temples
  • Visit Preah Vihear
  • Visit Oudong Mountain
  • Go to Mondulkiri
    • See Bousra Waterfall
  • Go to Kampot
  • Go to Rabbit Island
  • Eat at the crab market in Kep
  • Eat taurantula
  • Eat prahok
  • Celebrate Khmer New Year at Angkor Was and Pub Street
  • Go rice planting
  • Explore a lot of Phnom Penh, including
    • Eat dessert at Phsar Toul Tompong
    • Eat lunch at Phsar Thmei
    • Shop at Phsar Orussey
    • Go to the night market
    • Head to Bassac Lane
    • Have a cocktail on the top of Phnom Penh tower
    • Ridden a ride on Diamond Island
  • Go to Tuol Sleng and Chhoeung Ek
  • Go to the Royal Palace
  • Go on 3 boat trips on the Mekong
  • Visit Silk Island
  • Go to 8 weddings
  • (I’ve also been to two funerals, but I don’t really count them as achievements as people had to die for that to happen.)
  • Watch the Cambodian football team play at the Olympic Stadium

However, there is still a lot I want to do:

  • Do a Khmer cooking class
  • Take part in a Khmer music class
  • Have a lesson on how to do the monkey dance or the coconut dance (I’m under no illusion I will be good at it)
  • Watch a puppet show
  • Visit Kulen Mountain
  • Visit Kirirom Mountain
  • Go to the islands near Sihanoukville
  • Visit Battambang
    • Go to the bat caves
    • Ride the bamboo train
  • See the dolphins at Kratie
  • Go to Rattanakiri
  • Stay in the Cardamom Mountains and go nature spotting.
  • Find local Khmer restaurants that do the best food.

What else do you suggest? What things have I not included in my list?

Khmer Sing-Along – ព្រះចាត់បុត្រា – God Sent His Son

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

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

ព្រះចាត់បុត្រា – God Sent His Son

Khmer and English

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



Chorus

ដោយព្រោះទ្រង់រស់ ខ្ញុំមិនខ្លាចទេថ្ងៃស្អែក
ដោយព្រោះទ្រង់រស់ ក្តីខ្លាចរលាយ
ដោយខ្ញុំដឹងថាដឹងថា ទ្រង់ជ្រាបអនាគត
ឯជីវិតខ្ញុំមានតំលៃ ព្រោះតែទ្រង់នៅរស់


 

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

Chorus

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

Romanisation and IPA

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

Chorus

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

Chorus

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

Get the pdf version here!

A Cambodian Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply, Jesus came because God’s heart broke.

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

And so he sent his son.

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

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

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

So I wish you all a happy Cambodian Christmas.