Conversations in Cambodia

speech bubbleIn which I recall some intriguing conversations I had with the fascinating people I met in Cambodia.


It’s Saturday night and I venture into the expat bar across from the guesthouse I’m staying at. I prop myself up at the bar. I make eye contact with the man next to me. We start to talk. For the next hour, he tells me his wife’s story and about the organisation she founded and which they currently run (albeit from abroad). Only in Cambodia can you walk into a bar and sit next to the husband of a CNN Hero. His wife has such a hard luck story it’s almost tempting to believe he made it up: she loses all her family during the Khmer Rouge reign, apart from her mother who then dies from cancer when she is a teenager. She takes care of herself, gets an education by sticking to a grueling schedule that leaves little time for sleep, learns English, finds work with various international NGOs and aid organisations who are, at that time, flooding into the country. She earns good money. Buys a house and a car. Takes care of distant relatives and puts them through school. She enjoys a degree of independence and wealth she never dreamed possible. And one day she is having lunch at Phnom Penh’s upmarket riverside with her friend. She eats her roast chicken then throws away the bones. She watches in horror as the street urchins, the begging children run into the trash and retrieve the bones and suck them. This is the moment of transformation for her. She sets up her foundation in the slums. It’s a school/boarding house for kids too poor to go to school. She wins awards and makes headlines. “It’s all about women and children now. That’s where all the money from donors is going,” my new friend tells me. I pick his brain on Cambodia – but why do these people – those in the slums with no house, no job, no money, reproduce if they are in such dire circumstances? “It’s survival,” he tells me. “They are living for today, they don’t even think about tomorrow. Surviving another day is the only priority. They’re not educated. They don’t think ahead. They’re almost like animals who do what they need to just to survive.”


It’s happy hour at the Italian pizza place and we are slugging back two-for-one mojitos. It’s me, another volunteer from New York and Alice, a former-volunteer-turned-staff-member of the organisation I volunteer with. Alice just got back from L.A. where she returned to sell up and move back to Phnom Penh to take on her new role – as a kind of innovator and leadership coach. She is in her 50s, petite and attractive and dresses in expensive cotton with long, flowing scarves and pure silver jewellery. She used to live “in Europe” and it shows. I never would’ve expected to meet such a cosmopolitan person here, with properties around the world, a resume sprinkled with Fortune 500 companies, several authored books and a rolodex of all the wealthiest people on the west coast. Since I have very little face-to-face contact with the western staff members of the organisation, who beaver away in an office in a different neighbourhood from the centers I work at, I take this opportunity to fire questions at her.

“But what about kids with special needs, does the organisation take them?,” I ask.

“I’ve never met any. I don’t know. It seems that it’s survival of the fittest out there and if there’s something wrong with you, you won’t survive. These kids we have, their immune systems are so strong. They never get sick.”

“And what about psychological services and support for the kids? Is there any?”

“I’m not sure, but they seem to heal so quickly when they become part of a center. It’s one big family. In the States, we have such a therapy culture – we psychologize everything. We hold onto everything. We can’t get over things. We can’t let go and move on. My nephew’s parents died in an accident, over fifteen years ago. He can’t get over it. HE CAN’T GET OVER IT!”

She is exasperated and finishing her fourth mojito. I look her in the eyes. They are watery. She is crying. “If you saw behind the scenes, if you knew what some of these kids have been through. It would break your heart. I have slept on the floor of their homes as we negotiate for a child’s life. If you knew, it would break your fucking heart.”


It’s 34 degrees outside and 3.30 in the afternoon on a weekday. I am being driven back to my guesthouse by the driver. I have company today – one of my students is going back to the central center where she lives. We make small talk in the back as we bump along. I love this student – she is the youngest in the class of freshman but so much wiser and more mature than the others. She’s 18 and a little bit like Lisa Simpson, with sensible clothes and glasses. She has made documentaries and short films that have won awards. Because I am nosy, I broach her on her life story:

“We lived in the riverside slums before the government made us leave. I went to school during the day, but at night I worked in a restaurant for tourists as a traditional Khmer dancer. I had to make some money for my family. Then, one night, I met the founder of the organisation. He arranged for me and about eight other children to be the first ones in the foundation. He wanted to help up. Now, I live at the center during the week and I go home to stay with my mother on weekends. She lives near the center. She doesn’t go outside. She is 60 years old and gave birth to 12 children, but five died during the Pol Pot regime. I’m the youngest.”

And then I ask her what all annoying teachers ask their students, what she wants to do with her life.

“I’m going to be a producer and director of films. Hopefully I can get a scholarship to attend the animation school here and then study abroad later. I want to tell the stories of Cambodia.”

I have seen some of her work. She will go places. And then, we talk about her time in the States, meeting Tony Robbins at his Leadership Summit, with youth from all over the world. It is incredible to think that just 7 years ago, she was working as a dancer to help her family and now she is taking on the world and being a trailblazer.



The Day I am Finally Shocked

silenceIt finally happened. Up until this point, I had experienced varying degrees of surprise, anger, disgust, horror, outrage, depression, hopelessness and a sense of injustice when being confronted with daily reminders of Cambodia’s dark side: her tragic past and poverty-stricken present. Call me jaded, but I hadn’t experienced outright shock.

I mean, I had visited The Killing Fields and felt depressed and somber at being surrounded by the mass graves of some 8,000 men, women and children and cringed when I saw the blood on the bark of a tree that babies’ heads were smashed against. I felt the same kind of emotions at Tuol Sleng Prison (now a museum) where 18,000 people had been tortured and executed.

I was horrified when I saw one of the little girls at one of the centers I teach at – her father threw acid on her face and body and now all her skin is burnt, melted away and she has disfigurement, severe scarring and must wear a hat at all times. Then there is another little one, a new recruit who is so malnourished you can count her ribs and who is suffering from myriad diseases. If the organisation hadn’t found her, she would’ve been dead in weeks.

Then there was the news that my fellow volunteer, a banker from Paris was attacked when riding her bike out in the provinces. The young men threw her off her bike and stole her money and passport, leaving her stranded, bleeding with nothing. That was close to home. As was the news several days ago that a French woman had been found floating in a river, dead and naked with severe head injuries in a location that I was in only a week prior. These incidences were disturbing, but not shocking.

So, here I am teaching my class of eight first-year university students. We are talking about Valentine’s Day and its significance in Cambodia. We read an article written by a Cambodian about how the special day has been misinterpreted by young Cambodians as a day to be ‘promiscuous’ and have sex (on the surface, Cambodians are supposed to wait until marriage, but it seems the reality is different), rather than a time to show your appreciation and love for your friends and family.

There is a line in the article about how a significant percentage of young men want to engage in Bauk, or gang rape. I asked my students about this notion. One of the girls then says, “It’s when the man takes his girlfriend or another girl to a hotel and then other men are there too, his friends, and they rape the woman. It’s so common. And they tell her that if she tells anyone, he will kill her.” The other students nod, confirming her explanation.

I proceed to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The drive home is grim and then I make matters worse by googling ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Rape’. I learn about this disconcertingly common practice of Bauk in which a man buys a prostitute for a night, takes her to a hotel or elsewhere where his friends are waiting to attack her and then proceed to gang rape her for as long as she is conscious. He pays her the same rate as he would if it was just him, then all the friends split the cost (the woman would cost about $15 for one night).

It happens with ordinary young women too – some tricked into going to a hotel with a guy they meet at a club and then ambushed by up to 10 of his friends, some girls are grabbed off the street, and some even do it to their girlfriends.

The BBC, CNN and various human rights groups have reported on the shockingly common instances of rape in Cambodia and tried to pry the lid off this taboo subject. I feel a degree of denial – I mean, these guys, they’re so physically small, timid, shy, passive and sweet. But then again, this is a culture that killed over a million of their own in one of the most brutal genocides the world has ever seen. Still, there is a disconnect.

The really terrifying part in all of this is that the victims HAVE NO RIGHTS. Even with evidence, the police are generally corrupt and lazy and don’t really care, especially in a society where men rule and the law is subjective and never enforced. Anecdotal reports state that they’re in on it too. It’s a growing trend amongst the new middle class and the rich – if you have money to pay off authorities, you can bribe your way out of anything, even really violent recreational activities that involve destroying the lives of others.

Now I understand why some of the older students at the organisation are making a documentary about incest and fathers raping daughters. Now I understand why women never go out alone after dark. It’s the ever-present threat nobody wants to acknowledge. Victims from villages in the provinces have to leave as they are shamed and ostracized. Victims fear for their lives if they ever speak out. And even if they do, who in a position of authority or power is going to care?

And then, there is outrage over Valentine’s Day and an effort curb ‘teenage lust.’ As stated in the Phnom Penh Post:

Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.

“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”

One token day a year to consider violence against women and girls is really a drop in the ocean. A culture that values and promotes chastity yet tolerates rape is in dire need of more than some half-assed policing of teenagers on Valentine’s Day. As long as the justice and legal system remain broken, as long as corruption reigns, and as long as women are silenced, rape will remain a fact of life for females in Cambodia.


Trouble in Paradise

DSC_3702Thanks to the King’s (very elaborate) funeral, I had a long weekend. There was nothing to do except get my adventure on and travel solo to a sleepy seaside village known for its French colonial architecture and crabs (the edible kind).

Once a playground for the French, the area is now over-run by giant palm trees, flowers the size of bicycle wheels and grass taller than a toddler. There are spooky, empty shells of buildings that were once considered architecturally avant garde. It hasn’t been overdeveloped yet and retains much of its bucolic charm – there are a few rustic resorts for the tourists, a small fish market and literally a handful of restaurants that overlook the expansive Gulf of Thailand.

As a New Zealander who grew up near the beach, I seek out any opportunity to have the sand between my toes, the surf swirling around my legs. With this in mind, I put on my bikini, covered it with shorts and a t-shirt and made the pilgrimage down to shore. There were a few kids frolicking about, and one or two token white guys out for an early morning dip. I stripped off and ran in. It was refreshing to splash around for a while, play ‘guess what creepy sea creature I’m standing on’ and wash my face with seawater. I then got out, and having forgot my towel in the excitement of getting to the beach in the first place, I drip-dried on the sand.

You may be wondering, ‘Where are you going with this?’, and that would be a fair question. Bear with me, as the um, punch-line, is coming soon.

So, I take my things and have a bit of a wander around the nearby sculptures and wonder why the old Khmer people, who sit squatting along the esplanade like monkeys, are staring at me. I don’t think about it too much though and proceed to march back to my $20 a night resort for more swimming, this time in the pool. Isn’t it weird, I chuckle to myself, that those children and women out there, go swimming almost fully-clothed. How strange!

And then, as if out of nowhere – WHAM! I feel something ram into my stomach. I yelp. When I process what is happening, I understand that one of the 110 year old woman, skinny as a vine with no hair or teeth, has jumped up from her perch and punched me in the stomach!

I stare in disbelief (accompanying internal dialogue: “What the fuck you crazy fucking bitch!”) and she starts yelling while pointing out to the beach with one hand and rough handling my clothes with the other. I give her my best ‘Whateverrr’ look and turn and walk away. When my breathing has quietened and I am calmer, it suddenly occurs to me: I have offended these people by wearing my bikini in public. They are actually so conservative they go swimming in their clothes, and along comes this white blond girl splashing about like it’s some kind of Sports Illustrated photo shoot. Bad form. At least I don’t have large breasts.

And the irony of this is that the day before, when I attended the procession for the King’s funeral, I watched as foreigners walked through the cordoned off areas, didn’t follow the standard dress and basically did what they wanted and thought to myself, “ahhh this is a country where foreigners can do what they want.”

More irony: I have traveled alone to many places and walked through port towns in Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Australia by myself. And the time I am assaullted is by a woman old enough to be my great grandmother. Well, at least there was no damage done, but next time I go swimming at a Cambodian beach, I will consider wearing a jumpsuit.

A Day in the Life of a Humble Volunteer

girl in hatIt’s a strange thing, this volunteer gig. I mean, who wants to go and work their ass off for free. For Free. Actually, for more than free, since I’m paying for everything out of my own pocket (“self-sustaining” in NGOese), except for transportation and the occasional free lunch of rice and watery soup (when I have time to eat).

But this experience is so interesting and valuable in so many ways that I’m kinda over feeling bitter about having to use my own money to pay for photocopying etc. There is never a dull moment, with everyday bringing new surprises (some welcome, some not so much).

If I could pin down a typical day, it might go something like this:

One of my four drivers will meet me at my guesthouse. We drive through throngs of motorcycles and tuk-tuks to get to one of the three centres that I work at, two of which are deep in the slums, or ‘the community’ as the organisation calls it. Depending on the driver and his English language skills, I may or may not get a lecture/rant about the lack of opportunities available to the average Cambodian.

Yesterday’s rant went something like this: “Itisveryhardforpeopoleinthecountryside.Theyhavenochanceforopportunityandteacher




I teach on average for 4-5 hours everyday. During the course of the day, there will be endless clusterfuckery with any kind of technology – the speakers don’t work, the printer is out of ink, the photocopier is dead, the Internet gets cut off, there are power cuts  – I mean, who needs electricity anyway – and there are a million other things happening at the same time, so students might not even be present in class. Often, I will get cornered by one of the Cambodian teachers (80% of whom are male) and be lectured at (again) along the lines of: “PolPotverybadnowCambodiahasmanycorruption


Temperatures hover around 35 degrees and the simple fans don’t do much to stop the beads of sweat from dribbling down one’s face. Doors and walls are a beautiful thing and in these large, 4-storied-houses-turned-into-classrooms, there aren’t enough of them.

The happiest moments are the minutes spent between classes playing with the little girls who may be five or six or seven but look about three. Their energy and adorableness is infinite. Then there are the older students who are so innocent and pure – who, at 17, want to learn about trees and who are scared of worms. Yesterday, one student introduced me to his pet hamster. I imagined most 17 year olds to be into heavy metal and experimenting with drugs, but no, here they are developing bonds with furry creatures. I love it.

These students are not allowed to date, or dye their hair. They can’t have much of a social life outside of the organisation (for good reason), yet they spend their free time making documentaries about the dying grandmothers in the slums, or interviewing those who have been displaced by government development and finding the neediest cases to support. They write essays for global leadership contests and write letters to their sponsors. Always courteous and sincere, and so willing to contribute, they are the reason I have not gone crazy working in a ‘low resource setting.’

Moving between centers, floors and rooms, there are always a few interesting white people to bump into: groups from international organisations who are touring the facilities with their cameras, semi-famous entrepreneurs from California (the last one I recognised was a dude who invented some kind of best-selling pogo stick), and philanthropists with serious money whose last names we lowly teachers speculate about (affiliated with famous universities, newspapers, companies, shops).

Then there are the high-flyers from Australia (so many Australians here) or the States who have come for a month or two, taking a break from their job at Apple or Google, or relinquishing their position as the CEO of this business or that institution in order to contribute their expertise to the organisation and help build, influence and shape it. I guess they are more ‘consultants’, who sit in offices with laptops, a bit different from the teachers who are working, ‘hands-on’, in the field.

Nights, dark and balmy, are spent with a few hours work in preparation for the next day, often with a trip to the copy shop where more clusterfuckery ensues (Internet not working, power cut, printer out of ink, photocopier jammed, no-one speaks English). There is little time or energy for a social life during the week. Dinner is usually eaten alone in one of the dozen or so restaurants that dot the relatively posh area I have called home for the past six weeks.

Two things have not escaped my attention about the other volunteers here teaching (there are only a handful of us): first, we are all women, and second, we are all ‘older’. In fact, I am the youngest which makes me infinitely happy, as these days, I’m never the youngest of anything. These women are accomplished, in their 40s to their 60s. They come from Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and bring with them all their acumen in finance, health, education, manufacturing, technology and have resumes that would make even the most zealous overachiever green with envy. We are all well-educated and well-traveled. We are all (with the exception of one nurse) single and childless. It is an interesting phenomena.

Of course, I am still processing this experience as a volunteer here in a beautiful land ravaged by genocide and poverty. When I write about it again, my perspective will probably be different and my understanding deepened with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.




So Long, King Sihanouk

DSC_3601Today was a special day. I witnessed history as a participant in the procession preceding the royal king’s cremation (that’s King Norodom Sihanouk, Hero King, King Father of Independence, Territorial Integrity and Khmer Solidarity to you).

Along with tens of thousands of others from all over the country, I sat along one of the main roads in 30 degree heat, wearing the mourning colors of white and black, watching an endless procession of gilded floats, monks, military, government officials and other important people as the king’s body was made available to the public one last time before, following Buddhist tradition, it is cremated on Monday (Feb. 4).

Since October 2012 when he died of a heart attack, his body had been kept at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh so that mourners could pay their respects. Today, as the body was paraded around, accompanied by his widow and son, Cambodians, both old and young, sat on the sidewalks quietly weeping, their hands held up in prayer as they said their final goodbyes. Many clutched framed photographs of him as a show of affection and reverence.

According to people I have spoken to and things I have read, he was so revered and loved because he was instrumental in gaining Cambodia’s independence from France, investing in and developing the health and education sectors as well as being for the people. Despite some regrettable involvement with the Khmer Rouge, the people still hold him in the highest esteem.

DSC_3615Such an elaborate farewell is new to the country and represents a turning point in the nation’s future. In a nation so rife with corruption in the upper echelons, the King Sihanouk leaves big shoes to fill. Let’s hope the people get the kind of honest political figures they deserve.