One of the things I have learned about the world since coming to Cambodia, is that there must be millions of people whose lives could be transformed by something as simple as a wheelchair, but who instead are confined to a tiny space by their inability to walk.  I have met a surprising number of people trapped in this way, usually without a diagnosis or access to any meaningful care.  The fact that an NGO might exist who can supply a free wheelchair is not necessarily of any benefit in many parts of the poor world.  In a place like Cambodia for example, services are not easily publicised; people’s capacity to access transportation to attend services is limited by their poverty; and they are often very hesitant to attend services where they have to deal with educated, confident and often intimidating professionals.

Today I had the privilege of arriving at a client’s home with the wheelchair he had been waiting on for a month since we sourced it for him, but which he has needed for almost two years when he first became house-bound due to his paralysis of unknown cause.  He was sitting in the doorway of his tiny rental room eating a small plate of plain rice when we arrived.  He only noticed me when I spoke “Salam Alaikum”.  He looked up and replied “Alaikum Salam”, before averting his eyes to the tuk tuk driver behind me who was pushing his new wheelchair.  His face transformed to a bright smile!  We assisted him into the chair and he disappeared down the alleyway at lightning speed.  Some days are really worth getting out of bed for, and today was one of them.

KF 22 Mar Wheelchair (2)

The concept of “transportation” took on new meaning for me in 2013 when I first came to Cambodia.  Firstly, the scenes of people traveling on the roads were mind boggling.  Secondly our program included a client assessment with social workers to determine whether transportation support was indicated.  This involved offering less than $5 to those who otherwise could not afford to attend their appointments.  Who could not afford $5 in a single month?, was my thought when I heard this discussed for the first time.  As it turns out, many millions cannot!

Yesterday as we visited our various clients around this particular slum area, my colleague informed the poorest of them, who often have no food, that “a foreigner” has been seen at a particular Phnom Penh market, choosing 6 people per day and offering them a meal.  If they go to this particular market, they could get chosen and receive a meal.  One older lady with missing front teeth and visible malnutrition replied that she didn’t know this market?  She then said “I have lived in Phnom Penh my whole life but I don’t know where anything is.  I heard that the riverside is a really nice area to visit but I have no ability to go there”.  The area she refers to is literally 1km (as the crow flies) across the river from where we were standing.  But she would have to travel about 5km to reach it, as it’s across the shore.  Similarly, most Cambodians dream of visiting Angkor Wat, the legacy their ancestors built which is a cause of much pride.  Yet most Cambodians have never been there.  A young French man turned up for dinner with some friends recently and they asked him, what did you see at Angkor Wat?  He replied “a lot of stone”, to the bemusement of the Khmer people at the table.  I have learned about Angkor Wat, that it is visited en masse by people from afar with plenty of money, for whom it has little meaning except tourism value; while those who live nearby, for whom it holds great significance, can only dream to visit it.

The capacity to travel matters far more than those of us who never have to think about it, realise.  There is a reason that in Cambodia you see people traveling in all manner of dangerous forms.  A few weeks ago this particular mini van caught my attention from my seat on a large bus as they were leaving a roadside stop and driving out onto a busy highway.  If I was paying $4.75 for my safe seat, what were these passengers paying and what was their income, that $4.75 was not an option?  These are questions that I continue to spend hours wondering about everyday.

KC005 (2)


Cool Fires

Cambodia is in the throes of “the Hot season”, better known in tropical Australia as “the Build-Up”.  It is hot and extremely humid, with clouds building up in the sky but very little rain, so that the humidity just builds and builds.  Even the locals are suffering.  Tonight, leaving my apartment, our security guard was shirtless and wiping sweat from his brow with his t-shirt.  Earlier today during a home visit, a 12yo girl was covered in pearls of sweat.  I always say that you know it’s truly hot when even the locals are feeling it.

A nationwide energy crisis is being blamed on the long Dry season which has depleted the hydropower dams supplying much of the country’s electricity.  Phnom Penh began experiencing daily power outages about a week ago, just as I was leaving for a weekend away.  It’s a real killer when your electric fan turns off in this weather.  Thankfully I live in an apartment block with a generator that kicks in with every power cut.  If I am home I often don’t know if the power is out or not.  On Monday morning, oblivious to the power cuts that had been happening like clockwork all weekend, I walked down the street to the beauty salon to get my nails done.  The girl turned me away saying “Sorry, can  you come back, because we have no fire?”.  No fire?  “Yes, do you know, no fire?”.  I could not imagine why she needed a fire to do my nails but I told myself “because Cambodia” and walked back home in blissful ignorance.  Relaying my confusion to a friend later in the day, I learned that the direct translation of “electricity” in Khmer, is the same word as “fire”.  So the reason we’re all suffering in the heat around here, is because we don’t have enough fire.

Today I did some home visits to a number of clients with my colleague.  We followed up on two high risk babies who are both doing well; visited our paralysed client who continues to wait for his wheelchair; and searched unsuccessfully again for “Face Man” who was out on the water, fishing.  A family I have met a few times who are dealing with a number of crises asked us to visit.  Two twenty-something brothers were released from prison a few days ago.  They were arrested for drug possession but proclaimed innocence with a credible story about the drugs being secreted over a small brick wall onto their property during a police raid in the slum where they live.  Their imprisonment placed the family under financial strain as their 19yo sister needed to travel to the prison every few days to supply them with food.  This meant she was not able to work as reliably as usual and so the family took a US$200 loan to deal with rent and other expenses.  The moneylender takes $40 in interest each month, keeping them in constant debt.

The brothers came home a few days ago and their sister asked us for a clinical review.  Both have Chicken Pox-like rashes which have become infected.  One of them only on his lower legs, but the other reported having a very high fever with coryzal symptoms at the beginning, and the rash is all over his torso and legs, with extremely swollen lower legs, ankles and feet, probably due to the sores becoming infected.  I reassured them it was nothing to panic about and referred them for review by our MD.  I then explained that infections are easy to pass around in prisons where it can be crowded, and enquired if it was crowded where they were?  Their cell was 8m x 8m and housed anywhere between 110 to 120 people!  When I asked how this was possible, they said that they had to sleep lying on their side and had a rotation for lying down / standing up.  There was no “fire” so I am left imagining how it’s possible to survive in such torrid conditions, with no air movement except the heat of each other’s breath and, as my friend Chom calls it, “body gas”.  If all they came home with was infected Chicken Pox, I guess they’re pretty lucky and I have a new understanding now of just why diseases like Tuberculosis run rampant through prison populations.

A few different people send, or have sent, money to me for Cambodia and entrust me with deciding where to channel it.  I’m not sure if any of them imagined, or would approve, of paying off a family debt caused by two young men’s imprisonment.  But that’s exactly where some of the money is going.  The potential of impoverished youth all over the world is destroyed by the perils of poverty.  In the wake of New Zealand’s terror attack last week, the phrase coined by PM Jacinda Ardern seems appropriate to so many violations against humanity:

They Are us

Kingdom of Wonders

Kingdom of Wonder

The Kingdom of Wonder is a very flat land.  Consequently, any small hill is well known and often named as a “mountain”.  One of the first places I visited in Cambodia was perhaps the most well known mountain in Kampong Cham province, where I cycled with colleagues at the end of 2013.  During that visit, mesmerised by the beautiful views over the Mekong River and villages stretching along her shores, I took one of my favourite photographs, not knowing the hundreds of times I would travel these specific dirt tracks by bicycle, car, motorbike and tuk tuk, nor the significance that this tiny patch of the world was about to have in my life.  Most recently a new meditation resort has been established on this hilltop, where tourists can spend $40 per night on spiritual retreat, perched above extreme poverty that they can remain blissfully unaware of whilst lining the pockets of wealthy entrepreneurs making fortunes off the backs of the poor and vulnerable.


There is a saying here, that Cambodia is the Kingdom of Wonder because everyone is frequently left wondering.  It’s an accurate comment.  I only returned ten days ago and I’m already reeling in wonder.

I wonder how to control the frizz that a combination of sweat, dust and wind transforms the mop atop my head into whenever I have to go anywhere in this hot, dusty country.  Why do I look like some sort of wirey-headed shaggy sheep alongside local women gliding about with straight, silken, shining elegant manes?  I wonder at the sensation of a small animal landing on the top of my earlobes before realising it’s beads of sweat which then trickle down my head, neck and back to drench me.

In Cambodia’s oldest and largest Islamic community, we encounter once more the generous hospitality of Cham people inviting us to their home during a crowded wedding celebration.  Cham people live in wooden elevated homes much like Khmer people only their houses tend to be built much closer together.  My educated guess is that this signifies the closer ties Cham people have with each other.  As the mini van pulls up an Islamic woman greets us and insists on taking my bag, wheeling it along the narrow street, then through some alleys, under some houses, and up the ladder of a small home decorated with a combination of satin, velvet and tinsel.  An excited bride appears in glittering white with henna imprints on her fingertips to symbolise her newly married status.  As we pose on faux velvet seating for photographs I wonder how many people are crowded into this tiny wooden home with one single fan offering the only air movement and just how much hotter I can feel sitting on this warm material with what feels like a thousand pairs of eyes smiling back at me from under an array of colourful hijabs.  The bride joins us on a floor mat in one corner of the room as dishes of food are placed in the centre.  Three of us dine on beef curry and rice together while the other thousand sit around us, staring and smiling.

We are then guided out of this house by a man in a pink tunic and matching skull cap who tells us about his community and invites us to visit anytime and if we ever need to rest, his home is our home.  I find my shoes at the bottom of the ladder, amongst hundreds of others.  We meander dirt tracks, past a row of five enormous steel pots sitting on five open fires lined along a tiny gap between two elevated houses with a woman standing at each pot, stirring many litres of beef curry and perhaps hundreds of kilograms of rice.  Many dozens of people are seated at tin tables on plastic chairs across at least eight elevated houses, all an extended part of the wedding congregation.  We reach the riverside and climb into another house where we are shown the bathroom downstairs past the wire bird coop and I take a shower with a pot of cold water to the rhythm of pigeons cooing, before climbing back up the narrow wooden ladder above the pigeons to pack away my things.  On my companion’s insistence I smear more make up over my sweating skin.  We are guided back to the brides’ home via a riverside stroll with our guide who talks about the Cham people’s history in Cambodia as a group of men watch him from the sidelines.  Back with the bride we pose for more photographs and squeeze ourselves into a space on the floorboards where plates of sweet food are served into the centre of every informal human circle.

Half an hour later the minivan calls to say he’s ready to return us to Chom’s family a little way downstream, where we are sleeping the night.  We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing on the wooden platform underneath the family home.  During my time here I wonder at how different my experience of being in a bathroom is, compared to most people in the world.  And my experience of a kitchen.  And my experience of home life in general.  As the sun sets over the Mekong, children wrestle each other in the dust; cows pull a wooden cart home from the rice fields; the hum of moto engines interrupts crickets chirping; dogs wander in and out of unfenced yards; neighbours wander the same tracks, stopping in on each other for a chat on dirt floors underneath elevated houses; chickens peck around my feet; a chicken that recently pecked fries with ginger and spices on an open fire beside a pot of boiling rice; customers pull up at the little wooden local store perched at the front of the house to purchase goods; sellers stop their bicycles to offer rice cakes, fruit and other snacks from baskets on their carriers.

As dinner time approaches I’m instructed to “take a bath”.  I make my way carefully in the dark to the back of the house and a little brick out house furnished with a hollow concrete block filled with “bath” water next to a squat pan toilet.  A plastic pot perched on the edge of the bath serves the purpose of flushing the toilet as well as for “showering” yourself.  Standing over the squat pan, I wonder where to hang my toilet bag, pyjamas and towel, then I wonder where to put my cleansers, then I wonder how to coordinate the process of washing, holding, rinsing, drying, in this tiny hot space where sweat and cold water compete fiercely with each other.

As darkness descends, life underneath the house moves upstairs and the wooden front door at the top of the 12 step ladder is locked for the night.  Dinner is served on shining wooden floor slats.  Grandad gets behind his mosquito net in one corner of the room as someone explains that today he is fasting as Buddha recommends once every seven days.  In the morning he puts his mosquito net away and starts to pray by 5am, facing some small monuments against the wall and chanting consistently despite wakeful children and women chatting as we wait for our mini van to arrive for the next leg of our journey. The upstairs bathroom is another new experience, with gaps between wooden slats big enough to send your water waste to the ground about 3 metres below.  I wonder if I can step on these slats safely as my hosts reassure me that they are solid and secure.  I take a plastic bowl of water from the clay tub to use for brushing my teeth, spitting out through the floor slats as my host places the torch strategically for me to see what I’m doing.



The way home is a combination of mini van, ferry, motorbike and tuk tuk.  Paula’s brother and sister arrive at the ferry on motorbikes, pile our cases on the handlebars and we climb on the back, the breeze whirling the wire on my head into even more of a spin just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse!  Today Paula weighs 48kg and she is the picture of good health – almost 2.5 times heavier than when I met her in 2014!  Another Islamic meal on floormats is shared with the family before our tuk tuk arrives, joins us for breakfast and then we make the final leg of the journey back into Kampong Cham town.

One final visit along the way is a tiny wooden shack sitting precariously on the riverbank underneath the mountain where tourists go for their spiritual retreats.  We picked up some noodles and soy sauce for the family along the way.  It’s almost two years now since this mother lost her three year old when he drowned in a pond at the base of the mountain.  Today she has a tiny newborn baby.  I wonder how I can possibly translate my newly acquired health promotion skills as a Child Health Nurse in this environment.  In Australia Child Health Nurses working with newborn babies focus on promoting and/or monitoring safe sleeping, smoke free environments, breastfeeding, maternal mental health, growth and development.  In this environment the baby is underneath a mosquito net on bamboo slats through which you can see the Mekong waters flowing below.  She looks small – perhaps premature or perhaps small for age?  There is no way to know.  There is no way to weigh her.  She has never been, and may never be, weighed.  Without appropriate translation I can’t do very much at all.  My tuk tuk is reluctant to translate my question about breastfeeding but it seems hopeful as it was a home birth and the family have no money, that Mum has not been targeted by any formula companies who tend to work out of private maternity clinics.  A pot of rice is cooking on an open fire as smoke bellows around the open room, the only saving grace being the massive gaps in the floors and walls allowing some dilution of the smoke.  I ask my tuk tuk friend to explain to Mum that smoke is dangerous to the baby.  I wonder how the house has not already burned down.  I don’t know how to address anything else this baby deserves as much as any other baby in the world, so we leave our meagre offerings and promise to visit again.


I wonder all the way home.

How Not To Be Ignorant About The World

A garden with only one type of flower or flowers of only one colour is no good.  This is a reminder that our strength, growth, survival and very existence lies in diversity.  It is however, a message of courage as well.  For a flower does not ask for anyone’s permission to bloom, it was born to offer itself to the world.  Fearless love is it’s nature.

Attributed to Chheng Phon

Last year Professor Hans Rosling, a Professor of International Health at Karolinska University in Sweden, passed away from pancreatic cancer following a long fight with Hepatitis C infection.  He had dedicated his life to public health and was described in this Guardian article as “a kind and constantly curious genius. He was truly committed to the poorest people in this world, passionate about statistics and dedicated to communicating a fact-based worldview. His knowledge, virtuosity and humour infused his unique data visualisations with a life of their own, encouraging people around the world to engage with facts about population, global health and inequality that might otherwise have passed them by.”  His work took him from Sweden to India, Africa and Asia.  Had Professor Rosling been born in a war-torn or impoverished nation, his potential would never have been realised, to the detriment of all of us, whether we have heard of him or not.

A toddler at the time, I don’t remember the first time I traveled overseas (from Australia to New Zealand).  I also have no clue how many times I’ve traveled overseas since that time.  Whilst always aware that the ability to travel is a privilege, due to my own personal enjoyment of the experience, I have never considered what it means to hold a “powerful” passport.

Passport Index is an interactive website ranking individual country passports according to their power.  This is determined by how many countries will accept entry using a specific country’s passport.  The Passport Index includes a total of 199 countries, states or territories who issue independent passports.  The Australian passport has a high visa-free score with a power rank of 8th in the world, alongside Malta and Czech Republic.  Australians can travel to 157 countries either visa-free or by purchasing a visa upon entry to the country being visited.  Singapore are ranked 1st in the world with 164 nations accepting their passport easily.  In contrast, Cambodia ranks 79th with only 52 countries offering visa-free entry to Cambodian citizens.  Perhaps not surprisingly given the ravages of war in the region, but adding to the disempowerment of their people, the four bottom ranking countries are Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This power of passports is a very human construct, based purely on perceptions and decisions of people in powerful positions.  It makes me wonder how much the world misses out on due to our deliberate limiting of human potential.  By “our” I mean all of us – including governments involved in oppression of their own citizens.  Despite two world wars and untold other conflicts including mass genocides, as well as natural disasters, last century saw colossal global progress in improved health outcomes, medical breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.  Noone has captured this information better than Professor Hans Rosling in his various presentations at conferences and TED talks.  I wonder at the loss of potential directly resulting from the need humans seemingly have to discriminate against each other?  How many potential scientists, researchers, artists, leaders and peacemakers have been unable to realise their potential because of the power others have held over them?  How many today are instead pushing trash carts through impoverished city streets or surviving by other menial and demeaning pursuits of mere subsistence?  What have we all lost because of this individual loss of realised potential?

Obviously laws are needed and countries need to have borders.  But I wonder if our attitudes and laws were based on the need to promote human potential, rather than on anxiety and fear of things that are considered foreign, how much we could all benefit?  In Australia we have some very fear mongering politics and I often wonder, for a country with so much unlimited opportunity to shine, where our visionaries are?

Today’s national news featured an item about one young visionary, Molly Steer from Cairns in North Queensland.  At just 10 years old, Molly was deeply affected by a documentary she saw highlighting the damage done to oceans and marine life by plastic straws.  She began a campaign, Straw No More and has managed to convince 90 schools in Australia and overseas to abandon plastic drinking straws.  Earlier this month she won Cairns’ Young Woman of the Year Award.  During her acceptance speech she called on Cairns City Mayor to join the campaign.  Almost immediately, Cairns Regional Council unanimously agreed to eliminate plastic straws from all town council operations (which includes office buildings, markets, events and venues that the council are responsible for).  Cairns is on the doorstep of Australia’s infamous and beautiful but threatened Great Barrier Reef.

As I watched Molly on this morning’s news, my 10yo amputee friend Dara entered my thoughts.  Out in his dusty remote village where the damage of single use plastic is likely not something anyone has an awareness of, let alone power to do anything about.  In places like this, sellers drive sugar cane juicers attached to archaic motorbikes, serving their iced fresh juice in plastic bags with plastic straws along the roadside.  There are no waste disposal services.  Ocean pollution begins on land and flows to the coast via river systems.  This is a tiny example of the fact that for global benefit, we must fight for global equality of opportunity across populations.  Not only does Dara deserve a safe and healthy childhood, a basic education and the opportunity to shine, but we all deserve for his life to hold such value.

This week I received a call for help from a friend in Phnom Penh.  The family of a 2yo who drowned in the Mekong in March (mentioned in my blog of 15 March), needed a boat repair.  The boy’s grieving father was unable to feed his family without the ability to fish.  They were asking for someone to make a micro-loan to them of US$150 so that they could repair the boat.  I put a message on Facebook and within two minutes a friend contacted me to say it was not a loan, the money was en route.  This morning my friend visited the family to inform them of the good news and organise the boat repair.  “What a difference” was her message attached to the photographs of a smiling couple with their surviving baby.

We all have our own inherent biases, related to our personal experiences, attitudes and beliefs, which limit our perception of reality.  This is discussed well by Hans Rosling and his son Ola, at their 20 minute TED Talk in 2014, How Not To Be Ignorant About The World, where they discuss perceptions of poverty and how wrong we can be based on our preconceptions.  It is so common to hear that there is no point helping the poor because nothing gets better.  If the smile on that father’s face is not enough, listen to Hans and Ola for twenty minutes and learn how wrong this idea is.

This Week’s First World Problem

Near one of my work locations a 3 year old girl sits in grandad’s tuk tuk with him everyday for the six hours that grandma spends at work as a cleaner.  It is a busy road and I have always joked that I think this is the road where I will die.  Phnom Penh’s footpaths are crowded with parked vehicles and shop stalls so pedestrians become a part of the mix in the traffic chaos.  Standing aside to let bigger vehicles pass by and brushing up against moto drivers is normal.

I always stop at the parked tuk tuk to say hello to my little friend as I walk  past.  The other day with my phone and some cash in a small clutch purse, I said farewell to her at the tuk tuk.  She has taken to kissing me goodbye on the cheek.  As we said goodbye I laughingly turned away from her as a moto driver no more than about 20yo came towards me on the wrong side of the road. This was not unusual until he brushed his hand along my arm.  With barely enough time to wonder why he was touching me, he gently took the wallet from my hand and accelerated across the road.

Opportunistic muggings are the most common type of robbery in Cambodia, with teams on motorbikes working together to snatch and grab items.  One of our cleaners recently came off her motorbike when a team of young men pulled her bag, sending her crashing to the ground.  She broke a leg, a bone in her shoulder and lost a tooth.  This is not an uncommon outcome of bag snatching.  So I consider myself beyond lucky to have experienced such a gentle robbery.

Not knowing any of the right words to shout, I stood speechlessly pointing at him in the distance, collected my thoughts in time to read his license plate number and ran to work for English speaking help.  When two colleagues and I returned to ask for grandad’s tuk tuk service to the police station, my little friend was furrow-browed and worried.  I imagine it was not the first time she’s seen the seedier side of life, nor will it be the last, despite her own family being perfectly respectable.  A side effect of being born into poverty, is that you’re not protected from the outside world the way we are when we live in comfort.

Grandad drove us to the nearest police station.  A house converted to an office, with a few people in the yard who told us they were not responsible for robberies and we should go to a second station to make our report.  The second station referred us to a third.  I was surprised to learn that I pass by these police stations regularly and had never noticed them.  Their blue signage is in Khmer and there are almost no police vehicles in Phnom Penh, certainly not at the stations, despite a presence of heavily armed military police, particularly near the Prime Minister’s home and office buildings.  Still lunchtime, a lone bare-chested staff member sat on a plastic chair in the austere concrete floored garage, watching television.  My colleagues informed him of why we were there and he pointed to a telephone number on the wall.

A short telephone conversation ensued and within about five minutes the responsible person arrived on a private moto, in khaki clothes.  He found the right forms and completed them in Khmer based on what my colleagues and then the tuk tuk driver, visibly uncomfortable inside a police station, informed him on my behalf.  The plate number I had memorised was incomplete so he did not write it down at all.  There were no computers in any of the stations we visited which were furnished with old wooden desks, hammocks slung between posts and layers of dust.  I got a clear impression that no investigation would be carried out.  The form was signed with my thumb in red ink.  At least a copy is available for insurance purposes, perhaps the only real use of reporting it to the police?

Friends have nearly all since told me that often thieves and police work together, with police taking a cut of any spoils in exchange for impunity.  The police know who their local thieves are and everyone has suggested that my mugger had probably followed me for a while, getting to know my routine so that he could know when to pounce.  This seems likely given that he happened past me just as I was walking away from my little tuk tuk friend after lunch – a daily routine.  It also probably suggests he is local to the area which doesn’t help me as I walk the streets now, and I need to stop obsessing with finding him vigilante-style!

Reading what I can about the police in Cambodia, I have learned that, as with all government staff, police are some of the country’s lowest paid workers.  The salary of government staff, be it doctors, teachers, administration or cleaners, is not enough to live on, meaning that people are forced to supplement their incomes.  Positions are sold to the best candidates, and the money trickles up through the ranks systematically.  The benefit of government work is that once you have a position, it is lifelong and includes a small pension beyond retirement, which is unavailable to most.  For doctors this means that all medical care is user-pays, with fees for every test, investigation and treatment openly displayed on hospital walls.  For nurses it means that patients wanting any intervention, prescribed or otherwise, will have better luck if some small amount of cash exchanges hands.  Most doctors and nurses also have their own private practices or pharmacy dispensaries, where they work afternoons unless allocated “on duty” at their government job.  In the police force, supplemental income is available through fees for writing reports or, as everyone openly states, collaborating with petty criminals.  There was no mention of paying this guy any fee for writing my report.

Today my Facebook wall includes stories from a friend who is visiting Copenhagen from Australia; another in Oslo from London; another on Lake Titicaca from Australia; my cousin who was recently in Cambodia from Australia; a friend who traveled via Cambodia for a few days en route to Myanmar; another friend who has been at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne; and the list of travels and fun seems endless.  All of them are hard working, ordinary people.

Those hard working, ordinary people from the rich world enjoying everything that life has to offer, are not any different from my hard working, ordinary friends and colleagues in Cambodia.  The single difference is that one group were born in a strong economy with functioning institutions, while the other group exist in a micro, trickle-up economy.  When survival is your main focus, being forced to work inside a corrupt system victimises people as much as being a customer of corruption.  A friend once told me “I don’t like it when the People From The Sky accuse my country of corruption and point to me like it is my fault.  I am not the corruption.  I am the victim of the corruption and if I can fix it then why can’t the People From The Sky, who know so much, fix it?”.  His frustration was palpable and I could not agree more with the sentiment.

To quote Michael Wunsch in his January 2017 article, The Significance of First World Problems, privileges of those of us in the rich world include well-paying jobs, functioning institutions, access to education, freedom of speech and seven types of chocolate ice cream in stores.  Part of being someone with these privileges must surely include fighting to keep them for ourselves; and fighting for those who don’t have the same privileges.

These thoughts remind me of the Australian government’s collusion with the Cambodian regime in 2014, when a $55 million agreement was negotiated in secret for the relocation of refugees detained on Nauru, to Cambodia.  (The Cambodia Agreement).  A monumental failure for everyone but the Cambodian authorities, three or four refugees have so far made their way to Cambodia under the agreement.  Only one remains here which comes as no surprise given the nation’s incapacity to look after their own, let alone vulnerable people from elsewhere.  Are our two governments so different?  One is perhaps doing what the other would do if they could find a way to break down our established and functioning systems, enough?

An Epidemic The World Needs

Einstein on Empathy~ quoted in Born to Love

As an expat living in Phnom Penh it is perfectly easy to ignore the poverty that the people surrounding you are immersed in.  Two nights ago I walked through a crowded Night Market making my way towards colleagues at a Sky Bar above the market.  A detached bystander weaving through the throngs, I declined the advances of a few beggars and sellers.  With a jolt of surprise at the mass of squirming fish in shallow metal bowls, drowning on a sea of bitumen, I took a sharp turn into a dark alleyway.  Did the man saying “Hello” to me from a plastic chair near the entrance even know there was a bar upstairs?  Was he guarding the entrance to ensure only a select few with the right profile were entering or was he merely sitting in his usual spot watching the world go by?

At the top of the stairs I approached the bar and ordered a $5 glass of wine.  That’s more than most traders working into the night two storeys below us could hope to make in a day.  But they were out of sight now.  From the open air verandah you look out across the single-storey, multi-coloured, rusted tin sheets crammed ruggedly together to form a patchwork roof over the block-sized marketplace, to scattered high rise apartment blocks beyond.  Looking across poverty to prosperity; across the foreign to the familiar.

The open air bar was crammed with people all enjoying our affluence, who had all entered via the Night Market below.  Every one of us knew we were two storeys above a mass of bustling traders existing in a micro-economy but it seemed no obstacle to our indulgence.  My national colleagues’ reference to “People From The Sky” seemed a pertinent phrase from this elevated position.  [Some of my Khmer friends talk about “the people from the sky”, who fly in, dominate with an air of superiority for their chosen amount of time, then fly out again].

A housemate once told me when I was studying indigenous health and planning to move to Alice Springs to work, that “you are enjoying indigenous health now but once you work with them you’ll soon change your mind”.  His comments proved to be very wrong, but they reflected an attitude I have encountered for more than 20 years now, that indigenous people deserve their disadvantage through their own individual choices.  So it comes as no surprise to learn that in Cambodia, some who prosper also malign the impoverished as deserving of their plight and undeserving of support or empathy.  This belief evades recognition that systems and institutions will favour some while excluding and even repressing others, based on factors that are often beyond an individual’s control.  Perhaps the issue is too abstract when black-and-white thinking is a much easier way for us to comprehend the world’s complexities.

Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and Maia Szalavitz, a journalist, describe this phenomenon well in their book Born For Love.  Expressly, from the book’s introduction, “There’s been a recent explosion of scientific research ….. that show how empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of human health …..  Empathy remains both intensely important and widely misunderstood ….. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence ….. The <ability to empathise> helped us become one of the most successful species on earth.  We survive because <we can empathise> …..  This book is about why we need an empathy epidemic.  Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work – like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.  Failure to empathise is a key part of most social problems – crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few ….. By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered.  Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live – a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all.  This destructive type of culture has appeared repeatedly in various times and places in human history and still reigns in some parts of the world.  And it’s a culture that we could be inadvertently developing throughout America if we do not address current trends in child rearing, education, economic inequality, and our core values“.

My personal theory is that the evolution of financial comfort triggers a risk of losing our ability to understand the complex reasons for poverty and disadvantage, as they become remote and therefore less important, to our personal experience.  We have also twisted our definition of what success actually means, with an exaggerated fixation on financial factors.  This is often accompanied by a focus on highly superficial concerns such as the suburb where you live, the type of car you drive, how many countries you’ve traveled to, or which university you studied at.  The quote above from Born To Love brings us back to the reality, that success is actually determined by our ability to relate to and care for each other.  As a society, we seem to have forgotten this!

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.

Kids 001 cropped

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.

Ciet 007

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.