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.

6:30

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.

7.00-8:30

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!

10:00

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.

Afternoon

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.

5:00-7:00

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.

Evening

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.

The Return

I’m currently on day 3 of 14-15 days of quarantine at a hotel in Phnom Penh. This means that I am back in the Kingdom of Wonders! It did take quite a bit of effort (from various people including my long-suffering parents) to get me here.

Pretty much as soon as arrived in the UK in September, I booked flights back to Cambodia. This flight was taking the relatively simple and common route of Heathrow to Seoul, Seoul to Phnom Penh. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. There were all the other obstacles that prevented returning to Cambodia that needed to be sorted, chiefly the PCR swab test and having the results in the appropriate format. However, I got that all booked and sorted. That was reassuring.

Then December came and the UK started going into stricter lockdowns. This obviously caused some anxiety. However, because I was travelling for medical appointments and work, I still had legal reasons to leave my house and go to London. So, it seemed that it would be fine.

Then, it was announced that the UK had it’s own variant of COVID-19. Countries started closing their borders to the UK. First Europe, then, the kicker: Korea. This meant that my flight to Seoul was cancelled. However, because France had only shut its borders for a set duration, I would possibly be able to fly through Paris after this. So, my flights were changed to transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport.

All packed and ready to go!

I packed and sorted all my things. I reached London, staying a few nights to sort out my tests. However, it was announced that there would be restrictions to entering France even after opening their border. I wasn’t sure what this meant and whether it applied to those who were transiting through France. I would phone the airline. They said it was fine but I should check with the embassy. I rang the French Embassy in the UK and the UK embassy in France, to be put onto an automated system telling me to check the government website. I looked up the government website. The government website said check with your airline. I was on a never-ending loop. After searching through pages on various websites, and opposite to the reassurances of the airline that I could fly, I decided to cancel the ticket. Basically, UK citizens could only enter France if they had a reason to be in the EU. I wasn’t looking to go to the EU, so I couldn’t enter.

So, whilst also taking my COVID test and only having a few days to go, I had to search through all the possible ways to get to Cambodia. When I found a potential route, I then had to check the entry requirements for each country. Various countries were not possible (Singapore being the main hindrance) and others had transit visas and other hurdles. I finally found one through Doha and Kuala Lumpur. It meant a massive lay-over in Kuala Lumpur. We then discovered an airside hotel in the terminal building! That problem was sorted, so I booked a room in that.

Then, the day before I was due to fly, I got an email. The flight between Malaysia and Cambodia was cancelled. There were no other options, it was too late to go through the process again and the prices had risen prohibitively. The only option was to turn around, head home and start again.

Attempt one was not to be.

With the potential of Korea opening up to direct flights from the UK, I booked another direct plane to Korea. This seemed to be going smoothly, until two days before, I went onto the airline’s website. There was a small ticker going across the top with a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it notification saying flights from London had been suspended. I phoned up the booking company to ask if this was the case. I explained that I was having a second rather expensive COVID test the next day and I needed to know in the next hour whether I should postpone the test or not. I asked them to check three times and they assured me that the flight was still running. We checked the Heathrow website and that suggested the flight was still going ahead.

At three o’clock in the morning, I was dozing in between sleep and wakefulness. I managed to form the thought that, because of the time difference, Korea would be beginning its day about now. If the airline had indeed cancelled its flight, I would have received an email by now. So I checked my phone. And there it was: the cancellation email. I knew there was little I could do at this point so I tried to go back to sleep. That effort was as successful as all my previous flight bookings.

At about 7:30 that morning, I had to leave for my COVID test. I had that drunken feeling after not sleeping well for a few nights. We drove the clinic through the grey, wintery, frost and fog. I arrived and the clinic was empty except the doctor doing my test. It was all done in about five minutes. The doctor even congratulated me on how well I did the test. (He didn’t know that internally I was screaming, “Oh God, please help me! Please, Lord, get me through this!”) I did struggle to use the card machine, mainly because I was still so tired.

Once I had arrived home and had a strong coffee in my hands, I started looking at potential flights. Now, in-between attempted flight number one the week previous and this second attempt, something significant had happened: Brexit. This meant that some routes previously available were no longer an option (mainly any through the Netherlands). That was another country to add to the ever-growing list of ‘places that don’t allow Brits’. After about an hour of searching, I finally purchased a new ticket. This was through Dubai, Seoul then to Phnom Penh.

It was Saturday and the day of the flight had come. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. My dad drove for the third time in two weeks to London and back trying to get me back to Cambodia. The roads towards London were mostly empty due to lockdown. It seemed too good to be true.

Heathrow was surprisingly full. There seemed to be a lot of travellers milling about, a lot looking confused and somewhat stressed. Quite a few people were trying to print various pieces of paperwork (such a health declaration forms) at a small shop in the corner of the main atrium. There were queues for some desks, but there were very few people waiting at mine. I went through the check-in process, which is more arduous now due to restrictions. “Do you have your test certificate? Do you have the correct visa? Which visa type is that? Do you have the receipt for your medical insurance?” I managed to get through all those. It seemed as if this was actually going to happen and it was going to be pain free!

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can check in your luggage all the way to your destination.” What? Apparently, because I was flying with two airlines, I couldn’t get the boarding passes for all parts of the journey or the luggage label all the way to Phnom Penh. Due to regulations, I wouldn’t be able to leave the airside part of any of my transit airports to pick up the luggage and check it in again. I was considering just throwing my luggage in the bin at that point and buying everything again when I arrived in Phnom Penh. However, after a bit of waiting and speaking to the flight supervisor, it was sorted. The check-in attendant told me that it was quite a stressful time and she had to deal with a lot of crying passengers. I didn’t tell her that if it hadn’t worked out, I may have been another one.

I still only had the boarding passes up to Korea. So, at this point my baggage was more likely to reach Phnom Penh than I was. It was progress and in the right direction. A few hours later, I got on my first flight.

The next bits of the flights were actually relatively easy. Apart from long queues for the health screening in Korea, both airports in Dubai and Seoul were pleasant. The cafés were open and you could wonder about without fearing COVID too much. I found the transfer desk in Seoul easily. I did have to get all the paperwork out again, answer all the questions and hand over a large wad of money to be counted and checked. All was in order. I got on my plane and was on my way to Cambodia.

The Cambodian side involved very long queues and was naturally a bit chaotic. However, as I had all the paperwork sorted together, whenever I got to the desks, I was done in about 2 minutes every time. Then there was the queue for the tests. This again was relatively simple. The test was done. All I had to do was get to my hotel. I was practically there. No more problems. No more difficulties. No more confusions. So I thought.

As soon as I had my test done, a young Khmer man came and told me to follow him. He took my photo on his iPhone then dragged me through the crowds queuing for the bus. He seated me on my own, on the front of an empty bus. He did not explain why I was there, where I was going and why I was on my own. Staff outside the bus were obviously talking about me but I can’t lip read in English, let alone Khmer. I sent a few anxious messages to my parents before my phone battery died.

I was reassured when other foreigners started getting on the bus too. The bus was full; suddenly, I heard the word, “Come.” I was taken off this bus and just left to stand by the side of the airport while I watched it drive away. I was then taken to another bus and sat there, once again on my own. I was very tired and very confused. However, the driver said, “Your hotel is far from the other one. This one goes closer.” So, apparently, I was going to a hotel on my own.

After ten minutes of waiting in an empty bus, thirteen other passengers all boarded. They were all Khmer. Now, to some people this may have made them even more worried. However, all of a sudden I definitely realised I was in Cambodia. The Khmer were all chattering among themselves. Cambodians can quickly form bonds with others they haven’t met before and are often quite happy to chat with strangers. One of the staff in head-to-toe PPE came with a clipboard and asked the driver, in Khmer, how many people he had on board. The driver responded, in Khmer, “Thirteen Khmer, one barang.” Barang technically means ‘French’ but is used as word for foreigner. The man with head-to-toe PPE was standing right in front of me. Despite this, he asked (again in Khmer), where is the foreigner. To this I put my hand up. All the Khmer people laughed and it was now obvious I understood the conversation.

By the time we left the airport it was 2 am. The drive to the hotel was very Cambodian. The driver asked the passengers if they wanted food before the hotel (the food isn’t nice there, he told them). They ordered 6 packs of fried rice from a stall. The first attempt to park was thwarted by there not being enough room. The driver honked his horn a few times to no avail. We continued down the three lane road to do a u-turn, heading back up toward the airport. Upon nearly reaching the airport, we did another u-turn back down the road. More honking (despite the time of night) but we managed to stop. The fried rice was passed through the driver’s window and then handed to me. I then handed it to one of the Khmer passengers who distributed it to those who wanted it. There was one spare, so they let me have it for free.

The driver was chatting away, driving through red lights whilst honking his horn to show that he had no intention to stop. I was completely unfazed by this and just chuckled to myself. I arrived at my hotel (called Okay Boutique). I had another photo taken on the driver’s iPhone. And then I went to reception. All the instructions were given to me in Khmer. I understood all of it but forgot some details by the time I got to my room. I finally sat down, with my fried rice, relieved by the fact that I had finally made it back to Cambodia.

My room for 2 weeks.

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.

What am I up to?

Some of you may know that I have recently arrived into the UK. I am here until 30th December, when (assuming I don’t have COVID-19 and can get a fit-to-travel certificate) I will return to Cambodia. You may be wondering why I am here.

My study space

Well, first, because I was meant to come home in the summer. I finished my time at HOPE school and it seemed it would be a good time for a UK stop-over before I recommenced life over in Cambodia. However, coronavirus’ shenanigans meant there were questions about visas and self-isolation back in June which made a return unrealistic. So I stayed on until September. The organisation I work for has an annual conference, where the workers from across Cambodia meet up, spend time together, make important decisions, write minutes (that was my job!), and eat food. It was important for me to be there because I’m the only native English speaker in the team that is still in the country and the minutes have to be in English. Also, because one of the important decisions was about me.

Up until now, I have only been a part of my mission organisation in short-term roles (2016-17 as a TEFL teacher in Siem Reap; 2018-2020 as a middle school and IGCSE English and English literature teacher). If your roles are for no more than two years, you are a short-termer. However, I want to transition from a short-termer to a full-termer. (This means being a real missionary – I’ve ordered my pith hat and sandal-shoes combo.)

This takes two to three stages, which usually go in this order (because it’s the sensible way to do it).

First, conduct some training in your home country. This is to prepare you for life abroad and some of the problems you might encounter. During the 11-12 week course, you decide whether you do actually feel like you fit with the organisation or not and the organisation decides whether they agree.

Then, you go to the country you will work in and start a two-year stage as a new worker – again to see if the culture, country, work and language is a good fit. After that, you get accepted as a full time worker in the country.

Either before you start, or sometime within the first five years of being accepted as a worker in your home country, you need to do some theological training. It’s more common to have had this training before you start, but it’s getting increasingly flexible.

Well, of course, I’ve done everything in the opposite order. As I’ve already spent three years in Cambodia, the folks there decided it was apparent the county, culture, work and language was a good fit. So at the conference, one of the big decisions was to recognise that and appoint me as a full-term worker. This did take a bit of negotiation with the UK end, because it is the opposite way to how it usually happens. But it worked out, and I have started the 11 week course at the UK end to allow me to join the organisation. Due to coronavirus, it’s mostly on zoom and I was actually in Cambodia when it started.

As for the theological training, I’ve also started an MA in missiology (the study of mission). The college agreed to allow me to learn more flexibly for the next few weeks, rather than attending all the lectures “live” because of the other course I am on (again, this was the result of some negotiation and juggling). There is a lot of reading. In fact, these are the pdfs for the reading for the first two weeks. Fortunately, a lot of the theory side is familiar from my English degree, so old friends like Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault and Edward Said keep cropping up.

That’s quite a bit of reading.

If that overview is quite confusing, don’t worry I feel it too. It’s been a bit of a struggle fitting all the pieces together. If you are still unsure, here’s an overview:

  • I have been accepted as a full-time worker by the Cambodia team of my organisation;
  • I am taking the training course that allows me to be accepted by the UK team.
  • I have started a masters.
  • My life is currently conducted by Zoom and through reading pdfs.

If you have any questions, let me know! I’d be happy to answer them.

August

I know it’s nearly the end of September, but I’ve been busy, so please be nice.

The first week was just dedicated to my Gateway 2 Khmer assessment. I had some reading, writing, listening and a presentation. I might be a little bit obsessive when it comes to the presentations. That week was really intense so I purposely booked myself a staycation in the centre of Phnom Penh. I stayed at the White Mansion Hotel and just spent two days exploring the area and trying new places.

The next week was not so good. I attempted to do some training at HOPE, but unfortunately, none of the technology worked and it was a terrible shambles. It didn’t help that I had a very sleepless week. Then that weekend, I had a family bereavement back in the UK. It was one that I had emotionally prepared for in coming to Cambodia, it was more the sleepless nights that led to it that were causing problems.

However, on the day that I heard to news, Vitou arrived home very – er – merry. (As was pretty much 90% of the Cambodian population as it was a national holiday.) He was hilarious in his attempts to console me, so that was a welcome distraction. The Khmer New Year holidays had been postponed from April due to the pandemic, and therefore fell at when I needed them most. It was great to have a time to just relax and recuperate.

We went to the provinces a few times with Vitou and his extended family. First we went to the Phnom Baset on the Kandal Provice/Phnom Penh border.

The next day, we went to Vitou’s dad’s house in Kampong Speu.

I led some more training, which was far more successful (possibly because it was paper based and practical). This time it was at LEC, looking at techniques on how to teach pronunciation by breaking up the phonemes and all that good stuff.

The rest of the month was spent reading the material for my sending mission’s course and for my MA.

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”

Cambodia: the basics

Last year, when the world was a simpler, less diseased place, I wrote a post called a million questions. It basically goes through 260 questions that give a rough overview of a country and its population. Some of the questions can be answered with a single figure, some of them in a whole book. However, as I’m soon starting an MA and currently reading up on basics of anthropology, I thought I would my “fieldworker” hat on and write what I have currently observed.

Today, I’ll only be noting down some of the basic facts about the country.

1. The basics

What is the name of the country?

English: The Kingdom of Cambodia Khmer: ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា IPA: preah riəciənaːcaʔ kampuciə Romanisation: preah reacheanachak kampuchea

The flag of Cambodia

What is Cambodia’s motto and national anthem?

The country’s motto is Nation, Religion, King and it’s national anthem is “Nokor Reach” or “Majestic Kingdom”.

Who leads the country?

King Norodom Sihamoni is the head of state; Hun Sen in the prime minister and head of government.

What type of government is it?

  • It is a constitutional monarchy – so there is a monarch that exercises their powers within the limits of a constitution. In Cambodia, the monarch is decided by the Royal Council of the Throne, rather than through a line of succession. (Think of how the next Pope is decided.)
  • The Prime Minister is the head of government.
  • It is a parliamentary representative democracy and is a unitary state.
  • The parliament consists of two chambers. The upper house is the Senate and the lower house is the National Assembly.
  • Hun Sen has been prime minister 1985.

Hun Sen is the longest-serving non-royal head of government in South East Asia, and one of the longest in the world.

  • The dominant party of Cambodia is the Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled since 1979.

Who are Cambodia’s nearest neighbours?

Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It is also a part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which consists of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. There is also the ASEAN plus three group, which adds China, South Korea and Japan to the list.

What are its major languages?

Khmer (IPA: kʰmae; English rhymes Khmer with pear, but in Khmer it nearly rhymes with pie) is the official language of Cambodia. There are around 19 minority languages spoken. Various forms of Chinese and Vietnamese is commonly heard in Phnom Penh, and a lot of market workers or traders are of Chinese descent. English and French are widely taught in schools, and many Cambodia families in Phnom Penh choose to speak English among themselves as well.

Bad days

Sometimes, it’s easy to focus on all the fun and the great “adventure” that you’re having, but in the interest of balanced honest, I’m going to share some the harder things too. Fortunately, I have had a pretty good time so far, and I’m quite content to just plod along on my own. However, there are a few times when it went a bit wrong. One of these occurred last Friday.

The beginning of it went well and I had a nice day lined up. I was a bit tired from the day before, visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and the Choeung Ek “killing fields”, but I thought the activities wouldn’t be too exhausting and I had Saturday to rest. The day started with my usual routine. My alarm went off at 6am, so I could be ready to walk to my Khmer lesson that starts at 8am. (This part of the day usually includes some frantic revision of the previous days’ vocabulary.) Then I go on my exciting walk to my language school. I will dedicate a post and a video to this part of the day. However, I will probably have to post it after I have moved to Siem Reap. I don’t want to know what would happen if my mum sees the daily dangers I have to negotiate (potential industrial workplace hazards, dangling overhead cables-which probably aren’t live, or at least I didn’t get killed when I walked into one- and then there’s route 271 which I have to cross). But last Friday, I managed survived without a hitch.

My Khmer lesson went okay, if a little exhausting at the end of the week. So, I headed to my usual haunt (Jars of Clay), because I had a few hours to kill before a work lunch. Jars of Clay is quite dangerous, as the cakes are very good. After a good deal of internal debate, I eventually gave into temptation and bought a slice of ginger and carrot cake. (I’m glad I did, because I didn’t end up making it to lunch.)

I went to Angkor Mart next door to buy some chocolates for the lunch (there were three people leaving, so I thought I’d bring something along). The plan was then to find my tuk tuk driver friend and get a lift to the offices. I have not yet been to the offices, but on my first day here I was given a flying tour of the city by my housemate on the back of his moto and he showed me where it was. I also had the site pinned on Google Maps. With these two sources of knowledge I felt confident I would find the place.

So, I looked around for my tuk tuk driver, ignore the calls of “Tuk tuk?” from all the others at the corner of the street. He usually hangs out by Jars of Clay, but he wasn’t there. My British sense of loyalty and social guilt made me reconsider the plan to get a tuk tuk. I thought perhaps if I walked to the Russian Market, where I know a lot of tuk tuk drivers hang out, he might be there. In hindsight, the probability of finding a particular tuk tuk driver in a city where there are literally thousands of them is very slim. What makes this even more ridiculous is that I actually have his phone number. However, I forgot to write down his name, so I was worried about phoning and appearing rude because I had to miss out the necessary pleasantries. If you are not a Brit, this is an insight to the constant social anxiety that we all have to live with (okay, I am a rather extreme version).

I walked to the Russian Market and, unsurprisingly, I did not find my tuk tuk driver. I knew there was another spot near a Buddhist temple where I could catch a tuk tuk not far away. So I got there, and I carried on walking. By this time it was about quarter to twelve, and it was hot. I crossed a busy road. My reasoning was that I work out how to navigate places a lot better if I walk. This is true. When I’m being given a lift somewhere (like on a back of a moto or in a tuk tuk), my ability to keep track of directions completely disappears. I quickly become disoriented and confused. So I thought, if I walked to the offices, it would be a lot easier to find it next time. Also, it was getting to the point where paying for a tut tuk seemed ridiculous. I knew that they would probably charge me two dollars for an insignificant distance. So I walked. In the heat. With a bag full of chocolates. To a place I had never been before.

(Quite often with my students, after they have done something a little, well, stupid, we would go through what happened, stage by stage. After this, they usually say, “Now I can see how ridiculous my behaviour was.” Writing it out like in this post is one of those epiphany moments.)

So I walked, and I found the place where Google Maps indicated the offices would be. But I couldn’t see anything that suggested they were there. As the sun was directly overhead, there was no shade afforded by the surrounding buildings. I thought I would WhatsApp my colleagues about where it was (again, hindsight tells me I should do this before I arrive- which reminds me to find the address of somewhere I need to go this Friday). And I waited for a response. In the sun, I waited for five minutes. There was no answer. I walked up and down the road to see if I could find any clues of where to go. There wasn’t. So I waited another five minutes. This point I was sweating uncomfortably.

Then I remembered I had the office number on an email somewhere. Squinting at my phone, trying to shield it from the sun, I scrolled through my emails. After some more squinting and scrolling, I finally found it on the signature of one the administrator’s emails. I dialled it, cursing my Khmer phone for making this process so difficult (don’t ask me about when I have to tackle an automated switchboard system). Finally, I managed to ring the number. And it rang. And rang. No one was picking up.

“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve got some of my colleagues on WhatsApp. I can find their details from there. I thought it would be easy. However, my hands were so sticky at this point it quickly turned my screen into a blurry, glistening mess under the midday glare. In order to see what I was doing I had to wipe my screen around every 7-15 seconds. Also, WhatsApp, I presume in an attempt to force you to make in-app calls, makes it hard to copy numbers from your contacts. I’m sure there is a way but it’s not easy when you can barely see what you are doing.

I found a number, wrote it on my increasingly moist hands, dialled it and waited. It rang. And it rang. And rang. They didn’t pick up. Find another number. Dial it. It rang. And it rang. And rang. Okay, last attempt. Find a third number. Dial it. Ring it. And it rang. And rang. I hang up defeated.

I sigh. I am soaked in my own sweat. I’m feeling dizzy. I don’t even want to know how the chocolates are faring. It’s got to the stage where I don’t want to be seen by anyone, as I’m so disgusting, let alone have lunch with them. So I decide to abandon it.

I start walking towards Tuol Sleng where I know there’ll be tuk tuks waiting for tourists. As I get half-way there a driver passes, sees the sweaty berang (white person) and says hopefully, “Tuk tuk?”

I nod and, barely getting the sounds out of my dry throat, I pleadingly reply, “yes.”

He turns his tuk tuk around.

“You know 271?” I ask.

“2…”

“Two. Seven. One.”

“Yes,” his lips say; his eyes suggest otherwise.

“Ta Phon?”

“Yes,” he lies. It’s okay. I know how to shout left and right in Khmer, whilst waving my arms in the direction we need to turn.

So he heads off. He’s going in the correct direction; it’s a start. I slump back into the tuk tuk, exhausted and defeated.

I finally get a call from one of my colleagues. I explain how I probably won’t be going to the lunch after all as I was already halfway home.

We make it onto the 271. I can recognise it by the barrier with the yellow chevrons running down the centre. We need to turn around (a lot of the junctions meet the 271 where you cannot cross to turn left so you have to travel further up and do a U-turn). I manage to communicate this to my driver. I look out for the familiar landmarks that come before my turning. I must have missed them because we shoot past the road we needed to turn down. It’s fine, we can take the next right. I wait a bit. I get ready.

“Bat sadam!” I shout. “Bat sadam!” He hears; he turns. I grab onto the little rope acting as a hand rail. This road is rough and it quickly drops about three metres (this side of the 271 is a lot lower- the 271 is also known as the “dyke road” so it should give you a clue as to why).

“Bat sadam,” I say at the end of the road. I reach where I want to get off. “Chop chop!”

As I get off, I ask about the price.

“Six dollar,” he says.

“Six dollars?” I repeat. The driver looks a little unsure, so I obviously look unhappy.

“Six dollar,” he confirms. Today, my favourite tuk tuk driver charged me five dollars to go to the other side of Phnom Penh and back. That was probably five times the distance of what I travelled then. However, I was to exhausted to argue. I opened my wallet. I was confronted by about fifteen notes in both dollars and riel. My aching brain was finding it really hard to work out how much I needed, converting between the two currencies. I found a 20,000 riel note. How much was that again? Four or five dollars? 4,000 is one dollar. So that’s five dollars. I need 4,000 more.

At this point, he reached into my wallet. Never let anyone do this. (Next time you see me or my brother, ask about the time we got robbed by a heavily pregnant woman on the Champs-Élysées.) Fortunately, it didn’t end badly (for me or him); he took out two blue notes and four red ones (if they equal 4,000, work out how much each note is worth!). I nodded, said thank you despite not meaning it and trudged up the stairs to my apartment.

I kicked off my dusty flip-flops, whacked on the air-conditioning and go to sleep. Fortunately, I’m resilient enough to pick myself up and starting over. Your first years of teaching provide daily, if not hourly, practice of doing this.

When I woke up, I was starving. I looked in the fridge and all I saw bread, eggs and honey. Well, make do with what you get, I say. So I made French toast. So, I suppose it wasn’t too bad after all.


Other things I’m learning to live with

As this post is on the theme of struggles, I thought I would briefly tell you about some of the other things I’m adjusting to.

  1. Cold showers. The only way to get hot water is to use the kettle or to accidentally leave your bottle in the sun. I’ve got a reputation of taking a long time in the shower. I recently realised what the problem is: I don’t like the sensation of water on my head (yes, I’m that weird) so I often delay it as much as I can. It doesn’t help when you know it’s going to be icy water.
  2. Being the buffet table. All of Cambodia’s insects use my feet and legs like their own buffet table. I got bitten by this ridiculously tiny ant on the heel. My heel puffed up and went bright red. I daily have at least three large purple bumps added to my collection.
  3. Being sweaty. You don’t know how much roll on I use a day. If I know I’m out for a while, I’ve started packing a change of clothes.
  4. Dogs. Now I haven’t got my rabies vaccine because I thought, as I’m living in two major cities, how many dogs will there be? A lot is the answer. The risk of being bitten is not a major problem (until I meet the rabid one), but they fight throughout the night.
  5. Vertigo. This one isn’t because of having moved to Cambodia, but this year I’ve started suffering from dizzy spells. They’re worse when lying down, especially if I turn over quickly, and when I first get up. Hopefully, these spells will pass like the ones earlier in the year.

Like I said, I’m enjoying Cambodia. In a strange way these bad days make the whole experience richer and more rewarding. And I’ve still got the three boxes of chocolates to somehow get rid of. Now how will I manage that?

Thomas tries… deep fried tarantula


So, a friend, Michelle, and I went to Romdeng, which is a restaurant in Phnom Peng that seems to specialise in interesting food. The soul aim was to try deep fried tarantula. Michelle had tried to eat one before but chickened out at the last minute. We were both determined. We ordered it. At least one ended up in the bushes.

So did I eat it?

First, I was surprised by how much they looked like spiders. It sounds stupid but I had seen some in Siem Reap. They were battered so more resembled deep fried stars, like some novelty chicken nugget. However, as you can see, these look very much like tarantulas.

Then it’s what they felt like. They were oily, which wasn’t great. And they felt like, well spiders. Just a great big one. I was gagging before I even managed to put it in my mouth. I gritted my teeth and breathed deeply.


I found it really chewy and there were a lot of crispy bits. I managed to swallow some, but the cricket made me hesitant. I was afraid of something get stuck in my throat again. So quite a bit did end up in a paper napkin after about five minutes of chewing. 

People keep asking what it tasted like. I think pretty much like the lime and chilli sauce and oil. Otherwise there wasn’t much flavour to them. It was the texture I remember the most.

Michelle went for munch then swallow, which may have been the better way to do it.

However, as there were three we decided that we would ‘disappear’ the third. So, it ended up in the hedge.

We did have some rather nice rice wine with it for Dutch courage/ a palate cleanser. I did comment after that, “I’m not sure if my palate needs a cleanser, more like a baptism.”

Well, at least I tried it.

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

The most iconic image of Cambodia has to be Angkor Wat; it’s even on their national flag. So when I was in Siem Reap, I decided to visit it. Especially as I heard that they were going to double the price in the next few months (sorry parents, you’ll have to pay that when you come to visit me). I went with another colleague who was new to the country (she’d been in Cambodia three days longer than I had).

We asked our hotel to get a tuk tuk driver for us, and we tried to bargain on the price. I think we got it down to about $7-8. Seeing as he was going to be with us for at least two and half hours, it’s really a bargain. He took us through the short ride through the Siem Reap countryside to one of the ticket offices. These were more efficient than customs at Taipei, even though it felt the same. You were ushered to a desk.

“Stand here! Look here!” they told us pointing at a small camera. Startled and confused, I complied. Photo taken. “English? Twenty dollars.” Money handed exchanged hands, then I was passed my ticket, complete with yet another unflattering photograph. I will cherish it forever.


We mounted the tuk tuk carriage and continued our travels through the jungle. To our right there was a large body of water, and in the jungle I could just see glimpses of what seemed like silhouettes of tall structures. Slowly, out of the thick canopy and dense foliage emerged the walls that surrounded the Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, being a temple complex that is about 163 hectares. Built in the first half of the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to a Buddhist temple towards the end of that century. It has been in use as a Buddhist place of worship, in some way or another, almost continuously since being built. This is one of the reasons as to why it is better preserved than the other structures within the Angkor area.

It consists of a central structure, which is the temple mountain. It represents the Hindu home of the gods, the five-peaked Mount Meru. This is then surrounded by walls, galleries and moats, that represent the surrounding mountain ranges and the ocean. This moat also provided protection from the encroaching jungle, which helped preserve the site. In fact, a lot of the damage done to the site was in the later-half of the 20th century by art thieves.

The site is beautiful and the structure is ornate, with carvings apparently on most visible surfaces. The climb to the top of temple mountain was a steep one. Before you leave your hotel, make sure you are suitably dressed. It is a religious site, still in use today, so modest dress is required for visitors if they wish to get to the top. The general rule is no shoulders, no knees. So, no vests, strappy tops, short shorts or glittery hot pants. (This is true of other sites in Cambodia, including the Royal Palace. It is not requested at Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem or Choeung Ek but I would advise it just to be respectful.) Also, if you’re a woman, don’t touch the monks.


There is a market area in the outer enclosure, which I went to, but it’s probably worth avoiding. After getting very hot climbing the temple mountain, I found the stall-keepers’ passionate entreaties a bit overwhelming. My response was probably a bit rude: I refused to make eye-contact to the point of turning my head sharply so they couldn’t get my attention. (This was a trick I learnt from a girl from my church when she was younger. If she didn’t want your attention, you knew about it.)

We then took a trip to Angkor Thom, which was a capital city built to the north of Angkor. It featured in Tomb Raider and, if I’m honest, I preferred the site (or the little I saw of it) to Angkor Wat. First, you get driven over a bridge across the city’s moat, then through a gate in the walls. (Unfortunately, my recording of this wasn’t good enough to put on the little film.) As you drive up to the Bayan (the city’s temple), you sometimes see hints of crumbling structures in the jungle. The Bayan has not weathered the years so well, but that made it even more enthralling. I felt a bit like Indianna Jones exploring dangerous, unknown ruins (the other tourists, tuk tuk drivers and English signposts ruined it a little bit, but when you have the imagination of an English teacher…).

Also, the journey reminded me a little of being back home. As we were driving through the jungle, we saw a variety of animals wondering around, obstructing traffic or just content wallowing in muddy puddles ignoring the passing humans, much like they do back in the New Forest. We saw pigs, cows, ducks and monkeys. Okay, so maybe the last one was not quite like the New Forest. Same but different (different being no monkeys or spectacular ancient monuments).

We didn’t spend too long there and there is a wealth of other places to visit around the site. We didn’t see the famous Elephant Gallery or visit any of the other temples (of which there are many). Your pass lets you into all of them and if you have a tuk tuk driver for the day, they’ll happily take you around them. Just agree on prices before and make sure you are clear about what you expect.