It’s Not About Angels

Recently I discovered Birdy, an English folk musician with the most unique and dreamy voice.  Assisted by Birdy, the dulcet harmonies of Ed Sheeran, a good book and good friends, I enjoyed a week off with neighbours from Australia at Siem Reap and Battambang.  I must have listened to Birdy’s Not About Angels a thousand times in the past week and I am still listening to it obsessively.

My Siem Reap highlight was the opportunity to bring Rav with his two sons and their two cousins, to swim and play with my friends’ son, 10yo Dylan, at our hotel.  Dylan is having a very adult holiday with his parents and I, so the chance to hang out with other boys was welcomed.  Rav’s sons have been in English school for two years now, so there was a tiny bit of shared language, but it doesn’t matter where children are concerned as play is always a common language, especially when water is involved.

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A swim, some food, and an Australian toy to play with – fun in any language.

It was my third time making the boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang, across the top end of the immense inland lake known as the Tonlé Sap and up the winding, narrow Sangker River.  Only able to travel on the Sangker during the wet season when there is enough water, when Caz and I did this trip in February we had to disembark the wooden boat when it could finally no longer be pushed off the sand bed another time.  Along with dozens of other mostly foreign passengers we climbed the river bank and packed into the back of two pick up trucks for a 1+ hour journey through alluvial crops across the floodplains.

Last week the river was high enough that the same blue painted wooden boat could pass through floating villages from the mouth of the river, and as the river narrowed, past riverside villages.  Many if not most homes in this area are made from nothing but scraps of any material the residents have been able to scavenge so that those not living on their small canoe-sized boats are under tarpaulins attached to shabby frames of wood and bamboo.  These are the poorest of the poor.

As the boat burns it’s way across the Tonlé Sap, it’s impossible not to be awestruck at the magnitude of this inland sea.  Sun rays strike the water’s surface turning the lake into an immense sparkling diamond, barely another boat in sight despite the thousands out there.  At the mouth of the Sangker the boat pushes through dense growth of bright green sponge-leafed water hyacinth before reaching the first of many villages floating in the waters that fall and rise with the seasons.

Our boat picks up speed, generating a ripple of waves towards the embankment where I notice a gaggle of children in charge of a small boat bobbing up and down in the undulating swell.  One holds onto the nose of the see-sawing boat, another jumps off the edge into a soaring wave as his friends wave excitedly at the tourists gliding past.  Just behind them a man emerges from the water onto dry land, a cane basket filled with fish positioned on one shoulder.  I realise that the man at the bow of our boat is not another passenger, but working with the driver, waving him around fishing nets buoyed by plastic water bottles and checking for traffic at each bend in the river.  Occasionally a head and some shoulders emerge from beside a moored fishing boat.  A tiny boy lurches from a swing rope fastened to a tree branch, out across the water and back again, afraid to let go despite goading from his friends waiting their turn at the river’s edge.

Farmers plough land which we assume was probably submerged recently and new crops peek demurely from under alluvial soils.  Men swim and fish, sometimes at the same time.  At a wooden pier a woman in a yellow sarong washes a naked toddler who waves excitedly at our boat, taught by older groups of children who shout frantically as they dive into the water, showing off their moves to the foreigners.  I lose count of how many quite tiny children deftly manouever the boats in their charge.  Willow trees droop over short but steep waterfronts and I realise the impression of hundreds of sleeping birds hanging from their branches, are actually plastic bags, snared as they floated past during the recent torrents.  An old lady crouches on the edge of a tiny boat washing herself in the brown water from under the modesty of her sarong.  Three canoe sized wooden boats are pinned to each other by a single bamboo platform across their surface, forming a ferry upon which people sit on their motorbikes, being transported from one side of the river to the other.

A few days later at the bus station a small girl in a red pinafore dress smiles bashfully at Dylan as we decide that despite being significantly smaller than him, she is probably a similar age.  A station employee brings three plastic chairs for the three adults to sit on.  Dylan stays standing, smiling back at Red Pinafore who stands up and walks away.  A few moments later she reappears from around a corner with a fourth chair, presenting it to Dylan quickly before running to the safety of her mother for more sheepish ogling at the foreign boy she would like to have as a friend!

In Battambang we had a night out with Phare Ponleu Selpak, a youth circus of extraordinary talent who entertained us with their comedic acrobats which are as good as any international standard troupe I’ve seen, only on a smaller stage with a smaller budget.  Meaning “Brightness of the Arts”, Phare Ponleu Selpak began in 1986 at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border with nine children as a way to help them express the trauma of war.  In Battambang since 1994, the association now provides education, arts training and social support to over 1,000 disadvantaged youth.  Any visit to Battambang should include a visit to this circus, for your own sake as well as to support a very worthwhile cause.

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The Cambodian tradition of teamwork in action at Phare Ponleu Selpak

As Birdy croons at me that it’s Not About Angels, I think of little Dara in Kampong Cham telling his mother that he saw angels at the Night Market with me in 2015.  As this was translated to me I struggled to imagine what he was talking about, until I remembered that we had seen an Apsara performance.  Apsaras are celestial spirits in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, featuring strongly in stone carvings at ancient temples across Cambodia (most famously on the walls of Angkor Wat).  I have since had the privilege to learn a little about Khmer classical dance and that while used as a general term to describe this dance style, Apsara dancers are only one character in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  During the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, 90% of Cambodia’s classical artists were killed.  From 1979 the tradition was resurrected, beginning in the Thai-border refugee camps with the few surviving dancers.  Once more a proud tradition, you can see dance performances at various places around Cambodia including but not restricted to, the very talented village youth at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham, where I took the below photographs.


Bongs and Tycoons

There are so many cultural quirks in Cambodia that you could write a book on them, if you were confident enough in your knowledge.  One of my favourites, perhaps because of the similarity with Central Australian indigenous custom, is the practice of referring to people according to an assumed kinship status.  Here I am often referred to as “Bong”, meaning “older sibling”.  These people to me, are “P’un”, or younger sibling.  It is a polite reference, favoured over using a person’s name; if you know their name then you can add it after the title, eg I can be Bong Helen.  If you’re in a restaurant and you want the attention of the wait staff, you call to them as Bong or P’un, depending on their age against yours.  If you’re unsure, then you default to Bong.  Other designations include Uncle and Teacher, depending on the relationship, eg a man old enough to be your father or someone deserving of respect due to their wisdom.  Something about this practice seems to give you an immediate affinity with the person you are interacting with.

In my last blog I mentioned the video clip a friend in Kampong Cham sent me, of a young boy being interviewed on camera about his struggles trying to earn an income for his family after his mother was injured in a moto accident.  My friend had contact with a local Khmer “tycoon” who had seen the video and offered to help the family if someone could locate them.  Fortuitously, unbeknownst to my friend when he asked me to help, the young boy’s usual trolley-hauling route seemed to be very close to my workplace in Phnom Penh.  On Monday my colleague/housemate came in a tuk tuk with me and within ten minutes we had located the boy’s mother.

Some transcript from the 12 minute video which is only available through Facebook so I can’t share it here:
Boy: I want to start up business to feed my mother.  I don’t want her home alone.  I want her take a break and not in difficult situation.  I also want to take care my siblings so my mother not in trouble.
Mother: Since I broke my leg I am very difficult.  I jobless and no money.  Sometimes I beg money for my children and pay electric, water.  I really suffer.  No matter my leg hurt, I have to try for my children.
Boy: Talks about selling shellfish, fried bananas and fried potatoes while the cameras show him preparing the food and pouring it into a shallow tray on a barrow which he then pulls through the streets amongst traffic, including at night.  My mother wake at 2am to cook until 6am.  When she feed my sister I go to sell.  At the day I push clams and call customers, anybody buy clams or not brother?  After sell and get money I give to Mum for buying food.  My Mum think about children more than herself.  Sometime she not eat in order to get enough food for us.  Father leaves us for a long time so we don’t have father.
Their story continues and Mum talks about lending money from her neighbour to get to hospital, her concerns for her malnourished baby, not wanting her son to become a beggar, her experiences with a violent husband and deciding to finally divorce.  I really suffer when my son asked me, “Mom, when we go to eat pizza?”  I responded “It is very expensive, I can’t afford it son”.  I pity my son so much.

On locating Mum last Monday, we told her via telephone translation with Win, that we’d like to take the family to eat pizza, and a date was set for Saturday.  Today we ate pizza together.  Samantha joined us for translation with her sister, her daughter and her niece, so with the family and my housemate and I, we made up a table of ten at The Pizza Company.  Mum came with her three youngest children, the oldest son who is 16yo and did not appear in the video, was in school today.  Upon arrival the children (sons 13yo and 7yo and 15mo baby sister) were initially shy.  When we told them we’d seen them on the television screen they relaxed and soon enough we were bombarded with smiling, playful, happy children who beamed thank yous at us from the motorbike of five people as they drove away, pizza digesting in stomachs and boxed leftover pizza hanging from the crook of a small boy’s elbow.

During lunch we learned a few things.  All three brothers are engaged in school at an NGO involved with vulnerable children.  They like school and they like their teachers.  They are not learning English but they wanted us to know they can say “what is your name” and “my name is”, which we practiced together.  As lunch drew to an end the two boys put their hands together in sampeah gesture and said clearly “thank you”!  Mum broke her ankle in a moto accident two years ago, whilst pregnant with her now-1yo daughter.  She walked on the broken bone for over 1.5 years before finally seeing a doctor.  To be poor in a country where the health care system is user-pays, keeping a significant portion of the already-impoverished population in debt, unregulated, under resourced and of variable quality, means that when you have a health problem, you avoid seeking health care until often it is too late.  She has since had an internal fixation of the bone, but it was probably performed far too late after a lot more damage had likely been done.  She walks with a limp and does not sleep well at night due to ongoing pain.  Doctors have told her she should not walk on it but her only income generation comes from pulling her cart of food for sale through the streets.  Her next appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon at a hospital for the poor, is later this week and we have arranged for Samantha to attend with her so that my MD housemate/colleague can get some more detail and find out if she’s receiving quality care.

We arrived home just before a tropical downpour, at the same time as my telephone rang.  The nephew of my Kampong Cham friend’s so-called “tycoon” introduced himself in perfect English and asked me if I knew how he could contact the family?  Yes I did!  I gave him the family’s telephone number and we spoke for a while about today’s pizza outing.  When he heard me speak a few words of Khmer he broke into Khmer, immediately referring to me as Bong!  We said farewell before he called me back to say that tomorrow he will visit the family with the money from his aunt.  This wont solve the problem of this mother’s badly injured ankle or her poverty.  But it will relieve some of her stress.  And for today at least, she and her children know that they matter in this world.


A first they thought would never happen: eating pizza


Hijinx in the restaurant car park with baby sister

The Krama

As a young child I remember seeing footage on the television of scenes such as this coming from Cambodia.

Child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, 1975

Child soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, 1975

My enduring memories include a guy called Pol Pot, said by Mum to be “a very bad man”, and soldiers in black pyjamas with a checked scarfe.  With the exception of the occasional elderly person, the population have generally rejected black for bright, floral pyjamas, worn to my amusement at all times of day or night and in all public places, from shopping at the market to working on a construction site.

The checked scarfe, known as a “krama”, remains an abiding item of Cambodian attire.  Often the only thing men appear to have on, it has a wide and surprising variety of uses.  The many Khmer people I have asked all admit owning and using a krama.  Sold for between $1 (local marketplaces) and $5 (tourist hotspots), I too now own and use kramas, mostly as a bandana against the dust and sun when I’m out cycling.

Traditionally a gingham pattern of red (most commonly as you can see by my photographs) or blue, kramas are made in “silk villages” using cotton or silk.  A “silk village” seems to be any village where the dirt floor area under someone’s traditional elevated wooden home contains a foot-pedalled loom used to weave krama.  There are many “silk villages” dotted throughout Cambodia where you can visit to observe this traditional weaving.

Krama weaving at a silk village in Tboung Khmum Province, last year

Krama weaving at a silk village in Tboung Khmum Province, last year

It’s probably impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the uses of a krama because I doubt I’ve seen or imagined them all.  But I do see them everyday and it is astounding just how many practical functions one smallish strip of material has.

Perhaps most commonly, men wear them as a skirt in the hot and steamy climate.  They also come in handy when bathing in public, as most people do, in either the river or from the large pottery rainwater tanks most villagers have in their open yards.  You can wash without getting naked.  They are also used as a towel by most people.

Man Skirts

Perhaps the next most common use of a Krama is as a sunhat of sorts, either on it’s own or in combination with a hat.

Ideal for use by one or many at the same time.

Ideal for use by one or many at the same time.

Usually wrapped or tied, this villager goes freestyle with her krama

Usually wrapped or tied, this villager goes freestyle with her krama





When you don’t need full sun protection but you want your krama nearby, they tie nicely around your scalp like a turban.  This can also help as a way of stabilising the trays of produce people carry on their heads.

Head ties

Women tend to wear them in a looser style unless using it to anchor a tray of produce.

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They make great slings and carry-bags.

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They can be slung between structures including the handlebars of bicycles, as a makeshift hammock for babies and small children.  I’m yet to capture a pic of this.  And they’re also used as decoration, which I suspect is in order to have it on you for when you happen to need it next.

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There are apparently regional varieties to krama, which I am yet to work out.  They were described by a Chinese visitor to Angkor Wat in the 13th century, indicating their historical significance.

Next to wearing your bright floral pyjamas in broad daylight, the krama must be one of present day Cambodia’s most symbolic cultural statements.


More Khmer Style

As with all countries, Cambodia has it’s cultural norms which can sometimes be a bit foreign to the likes of me.  On my first day in the country the Head of Mission in Phnom Penh, introducing me to various colleagues, explained that shaking hands is not the done thing here and to instead use the Sampeah gesture.  This gesture features strongly in Khmer life, from everyday greetings to formal situations and in Apsara cultural dance.  Children are taught the gesture from a very young age and it is not uncommon for a parent to put the hands of their baby together in your direction by way of teaching the baby to say hello.  The level at which you hold your hands when you perform the gesture indicates a level of respect.  When greeting those younger than you, it is normal to hold your hands at chin level, whereas if you greet royalty you hold your hands at forehead level.  There are five separate levels in total.

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets the press with a Sampeah gesture

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets the press with a Sampeah gesture

The Ministry of Tourism have published an excellent, small and brief book which is available for free and covers cultural dos and don’ts for visitors.  They are not particularly taxing and merely request a certain level of respect towards the local population, such as asking before taking photographs, not wearing shoes inside, and other fairly predictable standards.  Not everyone takes notice of these norms, which seems to be particularly European behaviour from my observations.  I had one memorable conflict with a colleague who wanted to visit an Islamic family at their home in an Islamic village over the road from a mosque, wearing tight and skimpy clothes.

One of the brief list of don’ts is that women should never touch a monk, nor hand anything directly to a monk.  This is very reminiscent of Central Australian indigenous culture during the time of Mens Business, when men separate themselves from the community, cover themselves in red ochre and disappear into the bush for periods of time.  This can make interacting daily with male patients quite challenging!  The other day when I boarded the bus to leave Kampong Cham, my allocated seat was beside a monk who was already in his seat, at the front of the bus.  I approached and hesitated.  Without a shared language we stared at each other, then I moved to sit down and he motioned for me to wait.  He then spoke to a father and son sitting across the aisle and the teenage son quietly moved himself to sit beside the monk, allowing me a seat next to Dad.

One very weird practise I observed for months before asking Win what it was about, is that of three policemen working together on the side of the road.  They place themselves in a triangular position opposite the road from each other.  As motorbikes approach them, one blows a whistle to alert another positioned over the road, who also blows a whistle, and a third walks out onto the road to stop the motorbike driver.  The driver then turns around.  When police are in place like this, it is common to see moto drivers move onto the sidewalk to bypass them.  Some drivers who are whistled at drive away from the scene while others approach the middle policeman who is seated at a table and writes something in a book.  Watching this, I really couldn’t work out what was going on.  Were the moto drivers being assessed for their driving test perhaps?

When I asked Win, he said to me “You don’t know how to catch a fish.  Without a net you will never catch the fish”.  He then explained that moto drivers (but not their passengers) are legally required to wear helmets.  Helmets are very rare, but it’s not uncommon to notice them being worn at certain times, in certain places.  Those not wearing a helmet, or with no rear view mirrors or licence plates on their bikes, are stopped by these temporary police posts and fined.  But some drivers don’t stop at the table where the fine is written?  No, because they decide not to pay the fine so they drive away.  What happens if they get caught though?  “Nothing, they just have to pay the fine, the police don’t care, they are used to people running away.  I did it myself once in Phnom Penh when the policeman stopped me and he moved away which gave me the chance to drive off, so I did.  I turned around and smiled at him and he smiled back”.  So evading the police, admittedly for less serious offences, is yet another cultural difference I’ve learned of!

As we sat on the bus waiting to leave Kampong Cham I watched one such police post in motion.  One guy whistled and waved down offending moto drivers while another wrote out the fine receipts.  Some drivers pulled over and obediently paid the fine, with one young man even leaving his passenger at the fine table while he drove away to retrieve the money he needed for the fine.  Others move out onto the other side of the road to evade the policeman waving them down, and yet others pull over, bide their time and then drive away once the policeman’s attention is diverted.  There is absolutely no stress from the police by any of the evasions, they just wave down the next offender!

Returning to the sidewalk after an unsuccessful attempt to stop a moto driver without helmet (to the left behind him)

Returning to the sidewalk after an unsuccessful attempt to stop a moto driver without helmet (to the left behind him)

Despite many evaders, this guy was kept busy writing receipts and placing loose notes into his bag, paid by those who chose not to evade the fine!

Despite many evaders, this guy was kept busy writing receipts and placing loose notes into his bag, paid by those who chose not to evade the fine!

It’s apparently also quite common for motorists who are pulled over to be told that the fine is one amount if you need a receipt, or a smaller amount if you do not need a receipt.  When I asked Win about this he confirmed.  He said “when I am pulled over, I always ask for a receipt, then when they say it’s cheaper without a receipt I don’t argue and pay the smaller fine”.  It’s difficult to fathom but stems from the higher level corruption in bureaucracies here.  Police earn very low salaries – something like $100 per month – and this is their way of increasing their income.  The same apparently happens in hospitals with doctors and nurses charging small amounts before providing necessary treatment.  You can see why the population do not hold much trust in the systems which in the western world provide us with a minimum level of protection.

Leaving Kampong Cham, we travelled at some speed along the busy highway, our driver honking his horn frequently to warn drivers in front that he was approaching.  Whereas in Australia and other western countries, a horn honk usually indicates annoyance or even rage at other drivers, here it is  used as a warning system.  Drivers very rarely take any notice of the traffic behind them unless they receive a honk to warn them someone is there.  It is very common to see motorbikes exit country laneways onto busy highways without looking or even slowing down, and seems to be the responsibility of traffic driving towards them, to let them know they need to slow down or stop.  From the front seat I looked at the odometer, wondering what speed we were doing.  0km/h the whole way!

Highways here are very busy and chaotic, two lanes often transforming into three and four lanes depending on who is doing what.  After a  year here, I am less shocked these days, but my heart jumped when I glimpsed a crippled man walking on his buttocks on the side of the highway the other day.  He would have been invisible to drivers in higher vehicles and was on the side of the road which often turns into a third or fourth lane.  Children play and cycle on these road sides, cattle and horses travel amongst the traffic, etc.  The only rules in place are to be polite and it is very rare to see any form of irritation from drivers, let alone road rage.  Vehicles drive across to the other side of the road when preparing to turn, expecting oncoming traffic to simply wait for them, and that’s exactly what the oncoming traffic does.  Despite the polite way in which everyone shares the road, it is not surprising that there are a high number of accidents.  Driving away from Kampong Cham the other day we passed the scene of what looked like it could have been a fatal accident which occurred almost directly over the road from a sign in English: “Welcome to Cheung Prey District.  Think of your safety”.

When road accidents involve injury or fatality, an exchange of money occurs.  One of my staff was involved in a fatal traffic accident near the end of last year.  His son was driving a car which was hit by a motorbike and the moto driver was killed.  Despite it being the motorbike’s fault, which drove into the car from a side road, the car driver paid $1000 to the deceased man’s family.  A huge amount of money for someone earning $300 per month!  Dara, my little amputee friend, lost his leg in an accident with a motorbike.  He was apparently on the side of the road when a moto hit him.  The other day a Khmer friend met his family with me and, discussing his leg, asked Dad if they received a payment from the driver?  The answer was no because the driver blamed the parents for letting their 4yo play on the road.  So while it’s common, it seems to be connected in some way to blame, although not in a strict or easily understood way.

It’s always difficult to fully understand another culture as an outside observer.  In his usual wisdom, Win said to me when we were discussing the police fines, “when we don’t know something, we don’t realise what we don’t know.  Before you didn’t even see things but now you are starting to realise how much you don’t see or understand”.