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Monday, August 28, 2006


Married by the Khmer Rouge

Last week I made a mid-week visit to Phnom Penh. When I got on the bus to return home, a group of teenagers had already taken my usual spot on the back seat. I decided instead to sit right at the front behind the driver. There is some space behind the driver's seat which provides leg room. On a hot day the engine heat makes this spot unpleasant but it was overcast and therefore cooler than usual.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that it is easy to make friends in rural Cambodia. So before the bus had left the bus station, Sivtharin had sat next to me and we were getting to know each other.

She teaches English in Phnom Penh but had taken a few days off as her daughter had returned home from France. Sivtharin was on her way to the family home in Kompong Chhnang. She usually stays in a rented place in Phnom Penh.

Initially we just chatted, the usual stuff. In fact, I would say she was speaking but not listening. Because she had some knowledge of English I would offer a little extra information in answer to a question. If she asked, 'What do you do in Kompong Chhnang?' as well as answering that question I would add, 'I have been there six months.'

She would cut me off, saying 'yes' half way through my sentence. Then a few minutes later she would ask, 'How long have you been in Kompong Chhnang?'

I decided therefore to not contribute more to the conversation than was asked. Perhaps you could say I had written her off. Still we had 2 - 3 hours to spend together and we continued to chat on and off.

She said that she was 45. I add, as a matter of interest, that she is still quite attractive so had probably been quite a beautiful young woman in her time.

She is divorced and has three children, all daughters. She started to catch my attention again when she told me she was married by the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Apparently she had no say in the matter, it was like she was given to this man. She did have a choice—marry him or be shot. Thirty couples were married in the one ceremony.

She tells me that he beat her every day. She showed me scars on her forearms. She had three daughters within six years and then divorced him.

She raised her daughters by herself and then 'married them to foreigners'. She would not allow them to marry Cambodians. Her daughters have all gone to live in France and Sivtharin said, proudly I thought, that none of her grandchildren speak Khmer.

That night, when Vanna came to visit I talked to him about this. He said, that his parents too were married by the Khmer Rouge. Neither had a choice. They were given to each other and expected to make a go of it. His parents are in my age bracket and they are still together.

He also added that the Khmer Rouge would invite people who thought they might be a bit smarter to apply for special jobs. But his father had heard this was a trick. The intelligent were under suspicion as potential dissidents and were in danger of being shot. His father wisely acted dumb and survived.


Sarun has spent a few days in Phnom Penh which means I have had a few days alone in my home. When he returned today he told me that his daughter's husband has taken a job in another province. The husband will move to Kompong Thom but she will stay in her home about ten kilometers from us in Kompong Chhnang. Therefore Sarun will go to stay with her and I will have the place to myself from now on.

I had reservations about him staying on here when I first moved in but I now have no regrets. He is a kind, gentle and intelligent man. There are some idiosyncrasies about this place that I am glad I have had him around to guide me through. We have become good friends and I think he is now more relaxed about leaving his house in my hands.

I am actually feeling quite comfortable in my home. Yes, it has some challenges. But I like it and apart from the weddings, funerals and festivals that are held regularly within hearing distance my life is not too bad. I share my house with some interesting wildlife. If you look at my wildones flickr page you can see some of it. The latest is mice. I have invested in a Buddhist mousetrap that will allow me to transfer them into the bush. I hope they are not homing mice. I have not had much success for the first three nights of setting the trap. So far, the mice are proving to be smarter than me.

There is a classroom under the house next door—Sarun's relatives—and he has transferred his classes there. He will travel in from his daughter's house every day and stay from 7 am to 6 pm. It will be almost like he hasn't left. I am now teaching three classes a week. Which is as much as I want at the moment. I am spending most of my free time studying Khmer and I'm pleased to say that I can see myself improving every day—but I still have a long way to go.

Some friends have warned me to be careful of catching dengue fever. I had not thought about dengue. I had been trying to avoid malaria. But you can catch dengue almost anywhere. You can get it in North Queensland, Australia and one of my colleagues caught it in Mahasarakham, Thailand. The guide books stress simply to avoid being bitten at all costs. And I have to admit that I am a bit too casual about it. Unfortunately I think it is almost impossible to avoid being bitten. In Australia we also have mosquitos but they don't like me very much. The Cambodian ones are very fond of me. They must enjoy the flavour of exotic meat. My friends' email has motivated me to try a little harder. I brought some citronella oil and some massage oil with me from Australia. I put a few drops of citronella in the massage oil and spread it over my exposed areas. But it is a matter of remembering to put it on before the mosquitos find me. And I'm not sure what to do with the bath. It is a traditional SE Asian style bath, where you take water out of a tub and throw it over your body. It is down the back so there are always mosquitoes waiting there for me. The bathroom is their maternity ward. But there is no point putting any citronella on because I'm only going to wash it off. Help!!!

Before I moved in here I bought a rechargeable camping light and torch. They have proved to be useful as we have blackouts at least every second day. Apparently they're putting in some new equipment and until the installation is finished half the town is turned off during peak hours each day.

So, how's life going for you in the 'developed' world?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Getting the hang of it

I have mentioned before that I had considered leaving Cambodia and doing some travelling for a few months. I decided rather, to stay in Cambodia and make some changes in my life.

I have been living for three weeks now in this house and, let's face it, this is Cambodia—even though I have the best house in the street, and fairly much to myself, I am not exactly living in luxury. But then I didn't come to Cambodia to live in luxury, so I'm not complaining.

I get plenty of exercise going to the water pot outside—perhaps that's what's called running water. And I can count on the electricity being out for a few hours at least every second day. The house has no lining anywhere, so when there is a wild storm—often these days—I get a sprinkle of rain inside. My first reaction to that was that I couldn't stay, not with all my electronic technology. But I solved the problem by buying some large sheets of plastic to keep everything dry. Yes, there are challenges. I just need to work through them.

The other change was to drop my English classes at Wat Xam. I was teaching two classes a day. I have started some classes here in the existing classroom under my house. As of this week I will now teach three classes a week.

One is a vocabulary class for teachers. Most teachers here are only two steps ahead of their students. I like to think I'm helping them to take those steps in the right direction.

We have another class that I call a discussion group. We take an article that might be of interest to the group and work our way through it. The articles usually relate to Buddhism.

The third class starts this week and in it we plan to work our way through the Dalai Lama's book, The Compassionate Life. I get a lot from this book each time I read it and I'm sure my students will too. I believe it will also give them a slightly different perspective on Buddhism than the one they're used to.

One of my frustrations here was my inability, after six months now, to speak the language with any fluency. I am happy to report that while I have not achieved fluency, I am starting to get the hang of it. (An idiom that came up in today's teachers class)

It is common here—almost a daily occurrence—that as I ride my bicycle to the market, someone, usually a stranger, will ride alongside and chat. Some just want to spend some time with an exotic creature (me), others want to practise English. Today, a teenage girl came alongside of me and said 'hello'.

I decided it was my turn to practise this time, I said 'Neak doh na?' (Where are you going?)

'Psar' (the market), she replied.

'Ting ai?' (What are you going to buy?)

'Ting ma hope' (buy food), she answered.

The conversation went on from there and at times I got out of my depth, but I was pleased that we managed to stay engaged in Khmer until it was time for her to turn off.

Like I said, I'm getting the hang of it. BTW, if you are wondering why I asked those questions—this is a normal conversation in Cambodia.

If you'd like to see photos of my new home and other aspects of my life in Cambodia, any of the flickr links on the sidebar should take you to something interesting.

Leah howee

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Income tax free paradise?

It seems to be quite commonplace among Australians to do anything in their power to reduce their income tax. But have you ever considered what life would be like without it?

A few weeks ago I sat on the bus next to a man who is active in the Sam Rainsy Party, the opposition party in Cambodian politics. I might add that being active with this party is a commitment. Members sometimes find it necessary to leave the country to avoid prosecution on dubious charges.

We chatted about what is needed for Cambodia to develop. I said that I believed that Cambodia needed to gain independence from aid. My view is that a beggar will never think about the work s/he could do while they are able to live comfortably on the proceeds of their begging. At the macro level, a country that becomes used to balancing its budget with the help of aid from other countries will not start to think about how to raise money from within their own society. I asked my acquaintance if Cambodian people paid income tax.

The concept was entirely new to him.

He studies political science at university. He is politically active. And he had never heard of income tax.

I asked a few of my Cambodian friends what they understood by income tax. Most knew absolutely nothing about it. One told me that there is company tax but no income tax in Cambodia.

I can understand this. How much would you tax someone whose income was $50 per month or perhaps less? Many Cambodians live a subsistence lifestyle.

With very little money coming into the treasury from within the country, what sorts of services can the government offer its people?

Well, lets say that almost all services operate on an unofficial user pays system. If you need service from a government department you go and see the appropriate officer and they set a fee for what you want. The fee is determined by what they think you can afford to pay. It is not an official fee. It doesn't go into the government coffers. It goes into the officer's pocket. Some call it a bribe. Some call it corruption. Nearly everyone wants this system to end. But they never seem to think about where the money must come from to pay for the services otherwise.

These officials would not stay in the job if there was no opportunity to improve on the $50 a month the government pays them. Having a government job is simply a right to make money by charging for your services.

Yes, it is illegal but what can you do about it? Like to make a complaint? Just go and see the appropriate government official and pay them the appropriate fee—which is probably a little more than the one your complaining about.

I understand that this system extends to all government departments including the police and the justice system. People often say there is no point in going to court unless you can afford to pay the judge the appropriate fee. An article in a recent issue of the Phnom Penh Post says that if someone steals two cows you have more chance of having the thief apprehended if you offer the police officer one of the cows. The same article suggests that there are no rich people in jail. The people who are jailed are the ones who can't afford to pay for 'justice'.

So, what do you reckon? Like to come here and live in this tax-free paradise? Or do you prefer the system you've got?

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Bussing it in Cambodia

One of the joys for me of living where I do is that each week I spend close to five hours most Saturdays travelling to and from Phnom Penh. This journey is particularly enjoyable at the moment. Not because of the luxury bus, quite the opposite, but because, now that the rain has started to fall, the rice fields are a patchwork of beautiful greens.

Just getting the bus requires a patient attitude. I am told that the official leaving times for the buses out of Kompong Chhnang are on the half hour. I usually aim for the 7.30 am bus. I live on the Phnom Penh side of town which means I don't need to go to the bus station. I wait on the side of the road and the bus will pick me up. I am usually there at about 7.15 or earlier because the bus sometimes leaves early. If there are enough passengers it could pass my street at 7.15. Then again, if there are few passengers it may not leave until 8 o'clock. Of course, I am assuming that I catch the 7.30 bus. It is possible that it is the 6.30, running late.

Kompong Chhnang is obviously not a major route for this bus company. The other towns all seem to have bigger and better buses. Most buses, it seems, come into Cambodia second-hand from either Japan or Korea. You can see the old lettering when a new one arrives. My theory is that our route gets old school buses. Take a look at the pictures and you'll see that there is only enough seat room for an Asian school child. My knees do not fit easily behind the seats. I always aim for the middle seat in the back so that I can stretch my legs out in the aisle.

For this journey I have chosen a window seat because I want to get a few shots of the countryside to share with you. The windows are fixed because the bus is air-conditioned (well, in a fashion) and the window was a bit grubby on the outside. But I shot away figuring some would come out OK. Sometimes the bus was moving and sometimes it was still. I took over 60 shots and a few are not too bad. You can see the rest of them on the appropriate flickr pages which have links from the sidebar. Actually, I took these photos a couple of weeks ago. I've added a few more since. Just scroll through, you'll find them. Enjoy.

BTW, the colours you see in this picture of the fields and sky are real. I have not fiddled with them. This is the beauty I enjoy on my travels. Likewise, these are real homes of Cambodian people.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Big speaker, small brain

I moved house this week. The move went smoothly and I was in good spirits. The removalist was a motorcycle taxi driver with a trailer that he held on with a folded sack that he sat on. The trailer was falling apart and I thought I would lose everything. I rode behind on my bicycle and nothing fell out. The move took two trips. How quickly we acquire possessions. He charged me 3,000 reil ($A1) for the job. I gave him another 2,000 as a tip.

I am amazed at how quiet my street is. One side has virtually no houses and on my side there are four or five in the block.

After the removalist and my friend, Vana, had left I set about setting up my new home. An early priority was to put the mosquito net over my bed. Sarun, the owner, had provided a wardrobe for me but in an inconvenient place in relation to the net. When I say wardrobe, don't think wardrobe. Think of a tubular steel frame covered in cloth, made with sufficient steel to be almost stable. The one I had in my other room had developed a 15° lean by time I left and fell apart regularly. I pushed this wardrobe to one side a little. OK, so I wasn't practising mindfulness—one strut in the frame became dislocated. Later I decided to move it right out of the way. It has a masonite shelf about five foot off the ground. The shelf fell end on onto my big toe.

It was extremely painful—and still is—the toe is now blue under the nail and reddish-black around it. I have refused to allow this mishap to dampen my good spirits.

Sarun's sisters, and perhaps all their descendants, live on either side. There is very little contact on one side but family members on the other side come and go all day as if it is their place. There are so many of them. And Sarun continues to teach classes under the house. My house! There are so many people coming and going and I often don't know who anyone is. I think there are two reasons Sarun wanted to stay on in the house. One is so that he could continue to use the classroom and the second is that he is paranoid. He wants to be around to make sure I don't do anything to his house.

Before he went to bed on my first night he showed me how to lock up. I think he could teach the Bank of Cambodia a thing or two. The padlock that is normally used on the kitchen door during the daytime goes through two flimsy rings. A decent kick and they'd be gone. But he showed me how to put wooden props against the inside and then he showed me that he had a metal rod upstairs that slides through a hole in the floorboards down through three solid metal rings and into a hole in the concrete. I'm thinking 'What's this all about?' And I realized. Sarun is about my age. I don't know much about his family. Perhaps he had kids in this house in the seventies. Perhaps all this was to protect his family from the Khmer Rouge. And he still hasn't got over it.

There are internal stairs (steep and narrow) from the kitchen to the upstairs level and a hinged opening that can be held closed by two bolts.

I had been wary of opening the house up during the evening as I was paranoid about Cambodia's other scourge—mosquitos. By time I'd gone upstairs it was dark and I hadn't memorized where the light switches were. Cambodians don't put them in places that are logical to Westerners. The only one I could find was in my bedroom. Some rooms in these traditional houses are built with a wooden threshold that is six inches high. I kept kicking my sore toe against these. They're not logical to a Westerner either.

Without light I couldn't do much unpacking or anything else. I decided to go to bed early. Sarun had put a new mattress on my bed. Unlike the ones that are common in this country this one was firm—'just right' as Goldilocks said.

I got up early next moring and did my meditation. I had moved onto my exercise regime. At seven o'clock it started. Khmer music (it's horrible), followed by someone talking over an incredibly strong loudspeaker. There was a funeral in the next block and this is how they are celebrated here.

Sarun had an early class when I went downstairs. I don't know how Sarun and his students manage to concentrate with the noise being broadcast but obviously the Cambodians think that the spirit of the deceased is more important than the education of their children. I got a break from it after breakfast by making my morning trip to the market which is out of hearing range. I thought when I got back I'd grab my camera and ride somewhere out of earshot. However just as I was returning from the market it started raining. This noise continued on and off until early afternoon when we saw the Wat Xam hearse coming up the street. It is a truck with cut out wooden dragons on each side. 'It's over now,' said Sarun. But it wasn't. After the cremation they returned and the noise started up again. Fortunately it didn't go on into the night but it did start again Friday morning at 5.15 am and continued until late morning.

Since then there have been two weddings within earshot, one on either side, competing for my attention. One started this morning at 5.15. I'm determined to get on top of this and stay here. I've invented a slogan, 'Big speaker, small brain', just got to get someone to translate it into Khmer for me.

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