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Monday, July 31, 2006


A beggar in the classroom

A funny thing happened during my monks' class one day last week that wouldn't happen in Australia. A guy appeared at the door. He looked a bit scruffy but clean and was carrying a briefcase. I didn't talk to him because I knew he wouldn't understand me. (My Khmer is still almost nonexistent.) He stood there for a minute, I'm trying to ignore him but waiting, expecting him to interrupt. Then he took a step inside got down on his knees and started bowing to the monks. He was begging. He must have very low expectations as the monks are committed to a life of poverty. A couple of them gave him a little money and then he left. That's life in Cambodia.


Changes, changes

I had seriously considered moving on from Kompong Chhnang and Cambodia and perhaps in a month or two I might. However, in the mean time I have decided to make some changes to see if that will make me want to stay longer. I feel there is a lot I can do here, just need to get my act together.

As of Friday, just passed, I have given up teaching at Wat Xam. This week I intend to move into a house which I am renting on a monthly basis. I have decided to make the priority for my time to learn to speak Khmer. After a week or two I will consider if I can also teach one or two classes in English. If so, the house I am renting has a small classroom underneath. I will teach there. There is a small group of students who work hard and are keen to work with me some more. I will have no trouble getting a small class or two together.

Watch this space for more on the changes in my lifestyle.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Another grandson

My daughter, Melanie had her baby one week late this time. (Izmaillah was three months premature.) Isaac was born at 9.26 pm on July 26 in Katoomba. He weighed 3.76 kg—hey, for once they are not giving the weight in pounds. For those of you who still think of babies in pounds, that's about 8 lb 4 oz, according to my calculator. A little more than his big brother weighed at birth. (Izmaillah was 1.1 kg but is now a healthy five year old : ) )

Everything went well. Both Mel and Isaac are well. Isaac likes to be close to his Mummy at all times. I got to hear him cry over the phone but he was pacified when Mel put him to her breast. So far, Izmaillah is coping well with not being the centre of attention. He thinks it's quite exciting.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Child abuse by government

Last week when I wrote my blog about bor bor and other cereals. I wanted a photo to go with it. So one morning, instead of cooking my own oatmeal, I went to the bor bor bar down the corner for breakfast. A guy sat next to me and started chatting. He is a pharmacist in a government health centre and about forty years old. After we chatted for a while he began to open up and talked about growing up during the time of Pol Pot. He talked about three of his brothers being killed. He talked about the mental health problems of people who lived through this regime. I could feel his pain and realized that he was an abused child. Many children in Western countries suffer abuse from parents, neighbours and friends—physical, sexual and emotional. No child should have to go through this. It seems to me to be even more terrible for the children of the Pol Pot era, living with the constant fear that they might be the next one to be tortured or killed.

I believe that the main issue with child abuse is trust. A child needs people in their life who they can trust and when a person with that responsibility harms a child it is the trust that is shattered. I realize now that people of my new friend's age had their trust shattered not by parents, neighbours or friends, but by their government. And in a most horrific way.

Any Cambodian now aged between 26 and 48 was a child during the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. Most families in the country were affected by the torture and killing that took place. It is reasonable to consider that anyone of that age suffered child abuse. It is also reasonable to consider that most people younger than this are the children of abused children and have suffered indirectly.

I have been living in this country now for five months. I would think that people who have been through such trauma would find it hard to trust. Yet ironically, I find these people to be about the most friendly and trusting that I have met anywhere. However there are other sides of their personalities that I have had difficulty coming to terms with. Samet's story helps me to gain new insight into the psyche of the Cambodian people and hopefully leads me to better understanding.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Not bor bor again Mum

Teachers here often come to me to ask both pronunciation and meaning of English words before they teach them to their classes. Before I came, they guessed, and apparently spoke with an authoritative voice as if they really knew. 'My teacher told me,' a student will say as if that made it right.

'Well, sometimes I make mistakes—even with English. And sometimes your teacher makes mistakes too. But I have never heard anyone in any English speaking country pronounce this word like that.'

I'm pleased to say the situation has improved since the teachers have been coming to me for advice. When I leave let's hope they have learned some better skills for finding correct meaning and pronunciation. And let's hope they present their interpretations a little less arrogantly to their students.

La came to me recently with a long list of words he needed to understand, one of which was 'cereal'.

I explained that cereal was a grain that is eaten for its carbohydrate and protein. I gave examples that he was familiar with, rice, corn, wheat and added that there were other grains like oats that people grow and eat for this nutritional purpose.

But this did not fully explain the meanings he was finding in his reading.

I went on to explain that the word is used for products manufactured from these grains. This was outside his experience. Here in Cambodia many kids are given rice porridge (bor bor) as a cereal for breakfast every day. The rice probably came from their parents' field. Whether they like it or not is not a consideration for them. They are hungry. That is all there is. Of course they like it. To ensure that it doesn't become boring various different ingredients might be added from day to day.

Compared to this, kids in Western countries are spoiled. They have so much to eat that if they don't like something they won't eat it. Parents have to cater to their tastes if they want them to get their essential carbohydrate and protein to give them energy and build their bodies. Cereal manufacturers come to the rescue with a myriad of products to appeal to reluctant young taste buds. All sorts of additives are included with the basic cereal to make it appealing. There are so many different products. Most bear little resemblance to the original grain. Supermarkets are huge. I gestured to the school block. A supermarket might be as long as the school. And one whole aisle might be filled with all the different varieties of cereal.

Each kid might have different tastes. If there are four kids in the family, perhaps the parents put four different boxes of cereal on the table so there is something for everyone.

Yes, my friend, develop your country and you too can enjoy such wonders as this.


The kids who get to eat bor bor each day might be better off than some in this country. In my grandchildren's blog this week I have put a picture of a kid who is collecting recyclable materials from the streets of Phnom Penh. He could be a street kid but I doubt it. He looks too clean. Many kids have to do such work to get the money to pay for school each day. Teachers' salaries are so low that the students are levied by the teacher on a daily basis. Corruption? Let's say they are making their job pay enough to live on. This is the way people live here. You pay a little to an underpaid government official to get the service that we in the west take for granted. We pay in our taxes. They pay directly for the services they need.

Phnom Penh is home to many street kids. I've seen them sleeping on the footpath in a group when I've stayed overnight in a guesthouse and left by the back entrance.

Recently I noticed three kids behind a service station sniffing glue. At least, that's what I assume they were doing. It is not something I have any previous experience of. They each had a plastic bag with some liquid in it. They would blow into the bag and then put it to their noses and take a deep breath. One had already passed out. The other two seemed to be having a good time of it. I would estimate the youngest was about eight. I had never noticed this before but perhaps I'd just not been aware. The next morning I saw another group of young kids doing the same thing in one of the main streets. Perhaps it's more common than I had realized. Later the same day when I was at the bus station I saw the youngest of those kids from the previous day. He was going from person to person politely begging. I wonder if his contributors knew what he would spend their donations on.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


How much you pay?—shopping in Cambodia

I bought a durian in the market recently. I picked one myself by the method I had been taught in Thailand—it rattled. The guy wouldn't let me have that one. I assumed he was trying to do me a favour and I figured he'd know better than me. I couldn't understand what he was saying of course. I just went with the flow. He picked another one for me that he seemed to be saying was OK. He was more interested in the way the spikes bent. When I brought it home and cut it open it was quite bland. Durian have a reputation for their really strong flavour and smell. Many Westerners can't handle it. If this was my first durian I would have been wondering what all the fuss was about. I still don't know if the guy set me up to take an inferior durian or perhaps he knows less than me about choosing durian.

My experience is that people here are basically honest, so long as you understand they way they tick. Many Cambodians will try to get the best price they can for something they are selling. If you are silly enough to pay the price, they will be glad to take your money. Last time I stayed in Phnom Penh I went to buy a bottle of water. There was a young girl on the stall and I was about to hand her 500 reil when an older woman said 'one thousand reil'.

'You are kidding!' I replied and turned to walk away.

She laughed. '500 reil' she said. She was trying me out. A tourist would have just paid it. When I first arrived in the country the guest house was charging me 2,000 reil for each bottle of water. That is not considered to be dishonest. You can always buy somewhere else.

Here in Kompong Chhnang one morning Ah Mung was not on her stall. I usually buy tofu from her. Her mother has a stall nearby with similar products but she was also absent. I was pointed to another stall where the woman did her best to rip me off. I usually pay 300 reil for a small cake of tofu. It's a standard price anywhere in Psar Leuh. This woman tried to charge me 800 reil. When I pointed out that I usually pay 300 she agreed and then tried to short change me. It's the first time (that I'm aware) this has happened in almost five months in Cambodia.

Many times I have accidently given a vendor a 10,000 reil note instead of 1,000 (It's easy to do.) Invariably they give the extra money back. They will not rip you off in this way. Once a price is agreed they will not try to get extra money out of you even if you are stupid enough to give them the wrong money.

Most people at Psar Leuh charge me the local price. I don't bargain. I just pay what they ask. It is never much. If I think they are having a go at me then I don't go back. I bought four limes a few days ago from a stall that I don't usually shop from and she charged me 400 reil. Later I saw a local man buy four limes from another stall and he was charged 400 reil. As I said, they usually charge me the local price. My vegetables for each day rarely cost more than $2, often less than $1.

And even if they charge me a foreigners' price—I got a pair of trousers cut down into shorts. The woman charged me 1,000 reil. My friend said the standard price is 500 reil—1,000 reil is about 30 Australian cents. I'm not complaining.


I got some prints made from those photos I took of the market vendors a few weeks back. Word got out that I had them. Sunah & Seinee could not wait until I brought them in. They came with a friend to visit me in my room. The following morning I was surrounded by smiling faces as soon as I got off my bike. Such excitement—so many happy faces. I think I was the most popular man in the market that morning. I guess few, if any, of these people own a camera. To be given a photo of themselves is a really big thrill.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Teaching in provincial Cambodia

I arrived early for my monks' English class. Yim was carrying his robe across his face to protect himself from the smell of smoke in the air. 'They are burning ...' I did not hear the last word but I had to agree that whatever was being burned really smelled off. He gestured in a particular direction. My eyes followed to see where the smelly smoke was coming from. 'Funeral' he said. And then I realised there was a body being cremated in the Wat Xam crematorium. We sat with that smoky smell right through our lesson.


After one of the monks' classes a group of us were chatting, Sokchea said 'You are like our father.' Then he thought about it, smiled and added. 'But our noses are not like yours. We will have to have an operation to get noses like yours and then you will look like our father.' He was not being cheeky. People here admire my nose. To them a nose like mine would be far better than the rather flat one that many of them are blessed with.


'When was the last time you went to the cinema?' was the question in our course book. The students (not the monks) had to answer it in relation to themselves. They all gave the same answer. 100% of my students have never been to the cinema.


This is typical of the books published for students of English as a foreign language. Most assume that the student's culture will be similar to that of English speakers. That is, that most students will have been to the movies. Publishers are interested in markets where students buy legitimate copies of the book—developed countries—not places like Cambodia where pirate copies are all that can be afforded. They sell for a fraction of the price of the original. And so, much of the material is completely out of the understanding of these students. How do you explain the English when they have no idea of the concept in their own language? Almost every day teachers from other classes come to me for an explanation of something in their course book as well as a guide to pronunciation.

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