A Cambodian Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply, Jesus came because God’s heart broke.

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

And so he sent his son.

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

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

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

So I wish you all a happy Cambodian Christmas.

Cook perfect rice

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

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

You will need

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

Step 1

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

Step 2

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

Step 3

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

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

Step 4

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

Do not lift the lid at any point.

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

Step 5

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

Step 6

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

Step 7

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

Step 8

Enjoy.

Pchum Ben 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh oh…

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

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

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

If it’s super saver, it’s for a reason

I bought a box of super saver toothpaste. It had two tubes and I thought this would be great and save me having to think about it again for a while.

As it’s in Thai, I pretty much ignored any of the text. Then, I used it and regretted not looking more carefully.

It was disgusting. It’s salty. I accidentally got a mouthful of water when I swam in the Dead Sea. That was less salty. I think a block of salt would be less salty.

If in three days my teeth aren’t whiter than the crispy tops of Alpine summits during the heights of ski season, I’m buying some new stuff.

I survived: a typical journey in a PassApp

A Cambodian rickshaw is a three seater vehicle, slighly smaller than a TukTuk. We tend to just call them PassApps, which is the Uber equivalent. The following images took place on a 20 minute journey.

The junction we didn’t stop at…

I’m pretty sure my PassApp driver skipped a red light at a busy junction. Apart from some honking, we made it through!

I love the fluidity of Cambodian traffic. For most of the time it works. Of course, there are times it doesn’t. I think Phnom Penh is probably often safer than the provinces. Usually, traffic in central Phnom Penh is too crowded and busy during the day for anything too crazy to happen. No one can pick up any real speed. Night time is a bit riskier.

There’s a whole book of photographs about people carrying things on motorbikes in Cambodia. Pretty much every journey, you’ll see something genius. The other week, I saw a whole bamboo gazebo (a bit like the one in my blog heading image) on a flatbed truck.

Here’s a man carrying his dogs on his moto. There were two, but you can only see one. Whilst waiting for the lights to turn, he was flicking their ears. They didn’t seem to care.

Then, of course, there are the other animals in the road. Near where I live you might see cows, goats or horses. (One day I think I saw all three.) Just one skinny looking horse, this time.

It’s great that every journey in Cambodia is an adventure. PassApps seem relatively safe (although, they can tip on their side).

Motorbike and traffic accidents do make up a large proportion of deaths. However, drink is often involved or it might be because someone isn’t wearing a helmet (in most likelihood, it’s both). Whenever I get on a motorbike I say the same prayer: “God, keep me safe or make it quick.”  So far, it’s been the former.

Village teaching

Once a month (okay, it’s been twice in two months), I’ve been going with some Khmer friends to teach English in two villages in rural Cambodia. My friends visit most Saturdays in the month, providing various programmes from youth fellowship evenings to hygiene information for young girls. They often teach English themselves but they asked me to go along to provide some supplementary teaching as an actual qualified teacher and fluent English speaker.

The settings in the various villages are interesting to say the least. First, we are not actually in a classroom. The first ‘classroom’ is the area underneath the typical stilted house you find in the countryside here. There is very little headroom as you can see by the picture below. There are rows of desks crammed together, where the children gather to learn. The second site is outside a larger, more modern house, which is far more roomy, but there are no desks.

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So there are some obvious challenges:

  • It’s really hot. I sweat to a disgusting extent (as well as learning which shirts are breathable and which are not);
  • Banging my head/ cobwebs in my hair;
  • Slipping in the muddy patch just by the whiteboard;
  • Lack of time (20 to 45 minutes);
  • Pressure to finish the class (the first class usually has more time than the second, so often I end up only teaching half the stuff I do in the first village for the second village);
  • Lack of frequency (once a month);
  • Lack of resources (when you google how to teach with a lack of resources, there is still an assumption that there are exercise books and desks);
  • Lack of preparation time;
  • Large classes (27-50 small people crammed into that space);
  • A range of abilities and ages (probably 4-18 year olds, although I think the youngest ones are just there to be babysat);
  • Over dependence on Khmer translation (the lack of time means that I haven’t built certain routines and taught teaching commands, also I need to plan and communicate better what I want translated and what I don’t).

So, it has got me asking a few questions:

  • Is there any point? I can teach very little, I can’t really follow it up and are they actually benefiting from me being there? Are they just listening to the Khmer?
  • What should I teach? How do I create fun, meaningful lessons with so few resources and in such strange conditions?
  • How do I do it in the best way possible?

First, I set out to create a mobile classroom kit.

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Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary. I’m no pedagogical hero. But this what my classroom-in-a-bag consists of:

  • plastic display sleeves- these are great. My lessons basically consist of me showing vocabulary cue cards and saying it or getting them to do something with it. Paper and card would be too flimsy (have I mentioned, I don’t have a classroom), so slipping the sheets in these really helps. If you just have white paper inside, it makes a great whiteboard. I still write some of the key ideas down, because the words can get rubbed of easily.
  • paddle whiteboards– I’m not sure if they are worth the expense (they aren’t particularly costly, mind). If you just wanted to buy the plastic sleeves and slip paper inside that would probably do. However, they add an element of whimsy that the students seem to appreciate. Furthermore, they are just slightly more robust. The sets I bought came with a pen and a rubber lid, which makes things helpful too.

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Advert or protest? Who can tell?

  • soft balls– they are good for call and response games or things in a sequence, like numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, etc.
  • Kroma/scarves– these are useful as blindfolds or for other games. I haven’t used it yet, and probably won’t in the first setting, but in the second setting I probably will sometime.
  • plastic fruit and flash cards– only buy them if you are actually teaching that topic (or colours, or likes or dislikes, etc). I feel a bit ridiculous being a 30 year old man with toy fruit and vegetables in my house. I intentionally keep them very much with the rest of the supplies, so that it somehow validates the purchase choice.

Of course, my little mobile teaching kit is a work in progress. But I have been amazed at what is able to be accomplished and how much time I am able to take up (because that is the aim, isn’t it), with so few resources. I will write another post where I delve a little further into what I actually do with these resources, what I’ve been teaching, what benefits I have seen from me coming and what I would like to improve in how I do things.

Also, if you have any great ideas or tools or tips, let me know. I’m desperate.

Melamine plates

Short plastic stools sat tucked under fold-out metal tables, with the early evening as dark as pitch yet still warm. A naked bulb hanging from a sagging wire lit the roadside stand to illuminate the giant wok over a flame cooking beef and onions, sauce from a sachet, rice from a large cauldron kept to the side. These naked bulbs from sagging wires lined the streets and lit up the market opposite. Motorbikes weaved; the tuk-tuks with their canopies and the flame red frames and brown leather seats trundled along; pale trucks with families sat on the backs crept past. The river, a still, broad band of black glass, reflected the lights from either side. Then came the food served on scratched melamine plates along with little pots of pepper and lime and two chopsticks stuck together in a plastic wrapper. Moths fluttered and cats wandered.

Months later and back in England, the early evening was slowly darkening and chilling. I had invited people over for some Cambodian cuisine, an exotic luxury. The polished pine floors and polished pine Welsh-dresser with ceramic ornaments and the polished upright piano against the wall flanked the pine dining table. My mum had laid out the table-cloth, bought in Phnom Penh: rich blue with Angkor Wat running down the middle. Covering the cloth were Marks and Spencer placemats and John Lewis cutlery; crystal wine glasses, which my mum had filled with serviettes. (She was proud of them; she had bought them in Provence.) The glasses were later filled with something from the Sunday Times Wine Club.

The cloth and the recipes were Cambodian, but the melamine plates were six thousand miles away.

 

Sounds strange…

Khmer is quite a difficult language to master. It has a variety of vowel and consonant sounds that we don’t have in English. Some of the differences seem unnoticeable to us because we didn’t grow up learning the distinction between them. However, Khmer people tend to easily hear the differences, therefore it can cause problems in understanding.

Furthermore, your brain has a habit of filling in gaps. This can be handy, as it helps you maintain a grasp of what is going on around you. But throw in an unfamiliar language, then it can result in errors and confusion. I find that while listening to the recordings of my Khmer wordlists without the written version, I can sometimes hear something that is wildly different to what is actually being said. Without the visual cues of facial expressions, lip reading or it being written down, it can be really hard to understand what is being sounds are being made. Speaking with drivers who are sitting with their backs to you can be really difficult and it somewhat accounts for the failed telephone call when ordering a gas bottle.

Of course, this mishearing and problems can happen in English too. Here’s a rather humorous video of where you can mishear something to quite a surprising degree.

Of course, Songs of Praise did not allow this to be sung in a cathedral to be aired on the BBC on a Sunday afternoon. The lyrics of this hymn, Blessed city, heavenly Salem, actually go like this:

Blessèd city, heavenly Salem,
vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded
in the height of heaven above,
and with angel hosts encircled,
as a bride dost earthward move!

From celestial realms descending,
bridal glory round thee shed,
meet for him whose love espoused thee,
to thy Lord shalt thou be led;
all thy streets and all thy bulwarks
of pure gold are fashioned.

Try watching the video whilst flitting back and forth between the two sets of words. It really messes with you.

This video also shows how your native language and your place of birth can affect how you hear different tones and chords.

Another video for good measure:

 

Discovering this is slightly reassuring. Given that your brain actually makes pianos talk and sounds change, then why am I so surprised when I realise I’ve been saying that word wrong for all this time? However, it also makes me feel a little fed-up and resigned to the fact that there are going to be mistakes and embarrassments and cringe-inducing moments when learning another language. Especially when that language is so different from English like Khmer.