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Monday, January 28, 2008


Khmer Strine

People in nonEnglish-speaking countries who study English and then visit Australia must get quite a shock. They probably think they are going to be able to understand us. When an Australian says something to them like, 'Jagoda da footy onna weegen mite?' they probably don't know that they are being asked, 'Did you go to the football on the weekend my friend?'

Here in Asia I don't speak Strine, as we call our local English. No one would understand me. I speak slowly and enunciate each word clearly. And sometimes to keep it simple I talk Asian English.

Now that I have been studying Khmer regularly for three months you might expect that I could communicate with the nonEnglish-speaking Khmers. In fact I can have some pleasant conversations with anyone who is prepared to speak Khmer the way I speak English here, ie slowly and clearly. But many Khmers speak Khmer the way we Australians speak English. I've picked up some of it. For example, the word for house is pataya but it is commonly pronounced taya.

I still have trouble when I ask the price of something and someone says 'mbai roi'. Bai roi means three hundred. Eight hundred is pram bai roi. But often the word pram is shortened to a hardly discernible 'm'. But if I offer them 300 reil, they soon set me straight.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Village kids

I recently had a visitor to my home in Kompong Chhnang, a young Australian woman named Sarah. She only stayed for a few days but I certainly enjoyed having her company and showing her around some of the Kompong Chhnang villages.

At one village we stopped to visit a temple and chatted to the monks. There was a school attached to the temple and as we were leaving the school was breaking for lunch. There were a few kids standing outside the sala staring at us.

They looked pretty cute so I decided to take their photograph. In no time at all there were many smiling faces and more coming. It seemed everyone wanted to see the foreigners and get into their picture.

As we left they walked with us until they reached their homes—homes like these.

It was just before Christmas when we were there and it occurred to me that these kids make a lie of the myths we in the West grow up with. I was always told that Santa comes to all good kids all over the world. Somehow I don't think these are bad kids but I doubt that any of them have a clue who Santa Claus is. They won't have received even one toy on Christmas day. I doubt that they'll see as many toys in their lifetime as most Australian kids received on that one day.

I don't write this to gain your sympathy—not because of the lack of toys anyway—these kids are generally pretty happy and don't miss what they don't know. They are delightfully friendly, as you can see.

Sadly, they lack a quality education and for most there are no great prospects for the future. Hopefully they can retain their smiles despite this.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008


Of water and dogs

My water pump was playing up. I hadn't got any water for two days. So the landlord sent his son over to see if he could fix it. The little daughter came too. She likes to play with my dog, Dingo, and Dingo likes her. After an hour or so the son had not achieved anything so the landlord himself came and spent a few hours. He didn't say anything when he left but when I tried the pump I got nothing. I left a message for him the next morning. Three o'clock a phone call interrupted my Khmer lesson. They were waiting at my place. I had to cut my lesson short to go home and let them in. I wasn't happy but I need the water. Over the next few hours half the family came and dug up the whole pipe system, replaced most of it and left just before dark. The water was murky but at least there was a good flow. Hopefully it will clear up in a few days.

That night after dinner I put some food out for Dingo. She wasn't interested in even looking at it. This is most unlike her. She is always very enthusiastic about food. I thought perhaps the daughter had been feeding her again and she just wasn't hungry. But to be honest she's never not hungry. She might leave boring food but she'll always take a look first. This night she wasn't even interested in looking.

The next day she still wasn't eating. She was also vomiting, just water and mucus. I could see she was sick but I didn't know what to do. There are people here who practise as vets but who knows what qualifications they have?

The following day she was still not eating and seemed a bit weak. She had definitely lost weight. That morning at the market I mentioned this to the landlord's niece. She said her uncle would come and bring some medicine. That afternoon Vana turned up. His advice was to either take her to the 'vet' or give her some paracetamol. The landlord and niece turned up then and offered the same advice. He loaned us his motorcycle and Vana took me and Dingo to the 'vet' who gave her a couple of injections and said to spoon-feed her some milk and sugar. He also gave us some medicine to give her an hour after that.

We took her back home. After we'd fed her I said to Vana that I didn't think she'd last. She was breathing but seemed to have no life left in her. Vana went home and I went inside to do some chores. When I came out an hour later Dingo was dead.

The next morning at the market I told the niece. She asked did I want her uncle to find me another dog. I said not at the moment, I'd think about it for a while. I also added that I was thinking of getting a python. I was only half joking. Dingo was not a scary dog. If someone came to rob the place she'd welcome them with a wagging tail. In Cambodia it seems that just about everyone is scared of snakes. A sign on the gate saying 'Beware of python' (in Khmer) might be a better deterrent than a dog. I'd like to know how much trouble one would be to care for. I'm quite comfortable with pythons.

That night I was in the shower when I heard the landlord's voice at my gate. He was there with his niece and they had disregarded what I'd said about not wanting another dog. Or maybe they were worried that I was serious about the python.

So, now I have this fluffy little thing, younger than Dingo was when I got her. I gave her a Khmer name 'K'mao'. Can you guess what it means?

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008



The most readily available meat here is pork. It is not sold under hygienic conditions. There is no refrigeration. Meat sits or perhaps hangs in the open on a market stall in the heat and humidity. The ground below can be pretty disgusting at times and I've seen meat that falls from the bench picked up again and put back. The person who buys it won't know. The seller usually sits crossed-legged on the bench, her feet very close to the meat she will sell for your dinner. The pigs here are bred to be fat. People here appear to be blissfully unaware of the dangers of eating this.

Having lived as a vegetarian for many years it is not difficult for me to bypass pork. I get my protein from either fish or tofu. There are perhaps hygiene issues with both of these too but I see them as lesser evils.

I am aware that my dog needs raw bones to chew on to provide calcium and to keep her teeth in good condition. However, I found that with pork bones she was constantly having trouble with worms. Now she too gets most of her protein from fish.

When I eat fish I buy a slightly bigger piece so there is some left for her. I usually buy one of the more expensive varieties. Perhaps it is a little extravagant for her but is still usually works out at less than $2 for both of us. On the days that I'm not eating fish I buy some of the smaller, cheaper ones for her.

The first day I experimented with this I approached a stall. There was a young woman with three kids selling fish similar to what we in Australia call bream but only about five centimetres long. The oldest child, a boy of about eight, was busy gutting and beheading the fish. There was also a little girl and a baby.

I asked the price. It was quite cheap so I ordered a suitable amount. As she handed them to me she asked, in Khmer, if I would use them to make soup. (People are always interested in what you are eating and how you are going to cook it.) 'No,' I said. 'They're for my dog.' She looked quite shocked. I understood. To her this is probably about as good as she can offer her kids and I'm feeding it to my dog.

Later that day I was having my Khmer lesson. Even though I pay Esther to teach me Khmer I'm teaching her a lot of English on an incidental basis. Khmers seem to have difficulty understanding the difference between 'shy' and 'ashamed'. I was trying to explain this to Esther. My mind was seeking a story to explain 'ashamed' when the little episode at the market that morning came into my head. I told her the story and ended with 'I am ashamed because my dog eats better than many Cambodian children.'

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Running water

I've been in my house for close to two months now. Perhaps it's time I told a little about it. This is a traditional Cambodian timber house. Basically there are three types of house here. Ones like mine are quite common. Many people live in simpler homes built with a timber frame and palm leaf walls. Their walls need to be replaced periodically. If the family is poor, which is often the case, such walls become well ventilated. The non-traditional homes that many aspire to are made from bricks with a concrete facing.

The house I have now is similar to the one I had last year only smaller. It has two upstairs rooms. One is about six metres square. The smaller is about 3 x 2.6 metres. This is a high-set house similar to the Queensland style. Under the house is mostly open but with one brick-walled room. In this particular house, I suspect it will flood a little in the rainy season. I use it to store my bicycle. I have a verandah on one-and-a-half sides.

There is no internal lining on either the walls or ceiling nor is there glass or screens in the windows, just bars and shutters. This is a very basic home. I like to think I live Khmer style but the reality is that in this house in which I live alone there would normally be about ten Khmers. I recently visited my landlord's home, bigger than mine, and there are 23 people living there.

My house last year had no running water at all. Water was collected from the roof in the rainy season and pumped from underground during the dry season. This house has no way of collecting water from the roof. Before I moved in there was no water what-so-ever. Nor was there a bathroom of any sort. The owner put in both for me.

He didn't consult with me first and put the bathroom in the far corner of the backyard. When I talked to my friend, Vana, about this he said that Khmer people like their toilets to be as far from the house as possible. Strangely, when they advance to an indoor toilet they often put it in the corner of the kitchen???

To bathe I have a similar setup to what I had last year. A big tub holds water and you splash it over your body to get wet, soap up and splash water again to wash the soap off. My friends in Australia with water shortages could learn a lot from my Asian friends about saving water.

The owner also put in a water pump for me. There is no such thing as town water. The water is pumped from under the ground. About once a week I need to run the pump to top up the water in my tub. I also asked him to have a pipe run to the upstairs verandah so I could have water available there.

I pump it into a bin and have to collect it from there but at least it's right outside the door from the corner of the main room that I use as a kitchen. That's my version of running water. The red bucket in the picture is my washing machine.

Initially I started with both electric and hand water-pumps. They were in the open next to the bathroom. I hadn't been here long when someone climbed the 2.6 metre brick fence during the night and carried off the hand pump. I didn't hear anything.

There are a few results from this incident. I have another new electric pump installed in the room under the house. Razor wire has been put along the top of the two most vulnerable fence walls.

And I now have a dog. Australian readers shouldn't need three guesses to know what I have called her.

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