Cambodia… It’s Always Something

Karen’s thoughts upon leaving Cambodia:

Cambodia was the first country where we embraced the language. While we did not get too far, here is what we learned.

1 through 10: mouy, pee, bey, bourn, pram, pram mouy, pram pee, pram bey, pram bourn, dawp

Hello: suesaday!

Thank you very much: acoon tran

Bill/check please: ketloy

How much: Klie pull man

Delicious: chinya

Khmer definitely has sounds that are tricky for the American mouth, yet I would be delighted to go back and learn more. It would have been so nice to have spoken more to the very friendly people of this country.

And friendly they are! (Except for the two women who kind of attacked us, yet we think there was some mental illness there.) With Cambodians being so torn apart by 30 years of civil war, you would think they would be wary of everyone. Yet as our past videos have shown, strangers reached out to us many times.

Everybody wants to help the Cambodians. This country is crawling with NGOs. There are many schools and orphanages created by Westerners trying to save the day. The government is beginning to make it harder to establish these outside groups, so thankfully the Khmer people are starting their own NGOs. Two that impressed us were the Land Mine Museum and Savong School.

Another outside NGO that knocked our socks off was Kantha Bopha hospitals, created by an eccentric Swiss doctor. He has an interesting name, Beat Richner, and an interesting history. His organization has opened five children’s hospitals in Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap. Cambodian children commonly die from dengue fever, malaria and tuberculosis, and by treating cases early the hospitals have saved upwards of 12 million lives. The work of these hospitals is bringing free and very modern health care to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. And only 10% of the operating budget comes from the Cambodian government. The rest is private donations.

Beat + his cello = Beatocello. That's his stage name, and he gives concerts twice a week to raise money for the hospitals.

The Cambodian government doesn’t do much to help its people. Like so much of the rest of the developing world, this country is run by corruption. Wanna be a police officer? Gotta pay up front. Don’t earn enough working as a police officer? Gotta get bribe money. Like the time the police asked for $1000 dollars to cover up the death of a guest at one of our guesthouses. They said it would help to keep things quiet. $1000 was paid and yet hundreds of people lined the street to see where the foreigner had died. (He was an alcoholic and basically killed himself with an overdose of booze and pills.) Such a nice police force.

With rampant corruption and few standards for justice, many small villages work with the village chief to settle disputes. We met a man who had recently won custody of his 3 year-old son. In the initial divorce, the son was given to the mother. The mother was useless and the child was being abused by his grandmother. The father wanted him back. So he negotiated with the village chief and family members. The trade? A motorbike. The father gave over a motorbike, which was deemed the same value as his son. Interesting justice, yet everyone is satisfied in the end and the child is living a better life, so it worked this time.

Poverty reigns in this country,where 80% of the population live at or below the poverty line. Imagine eating on a dollar a day. That’s some rice, a couple eggs, some veggies and spices. Many people have no running water or electricity. If they do have it, it’s expensive. Electricity costs nearly 10 times more in Cambodia than it does in Australia. Garbage pick-up does not exist in most of the country, so people burn their garbage every day. The pollution to the air and lungs is intense. It’s a pretty wild-looking place, yet so many Cambodians smile and keep moving along. Their Buddhist faith may help them in this regard.

Monks earn no money, so many mornings the monks go begging for money and food. It’s good karma to help them, so locals offer what they can and the monks offer a prayer on the spot. In rural areas where it may be harder for people to come to the pagoda to worship, monks may be pushed around in a cart attached to a motorbike. The monk proclaims the good word through his microphone and speaker or bullhorn, and other monks follow behind to collect alms.

Cambodians care little about day-to-day beauty. Stylish clothes mean nothing… it’s about character. We found an interesting form of fashion, especially in rural areas: the patterned, 2-piece pajama set. All the ladies were wearing them.

Pajamas at the market

Pajamas on the ferry

Pajamas in motion

An ex-pat in Phnom Pehn noticed this and tried an interesting experiment. What would happen if she wore pajamas? Check out her blog for the answer.

Being a tourist in Cambodia is not always easy. Eating at restaurants drove us particularly crazy. Once you are seated, the server hands you a menu, usually about 12 pages long, listing every dish and drink under the sun. Then he or she stands there and…. waits. We tried many times to shoo them away, yet we never learned how to say, “Please come back in a few minutes” in Khmer. These Cambodians are fairly patient. They will wait all day if need be. After placing your order, it’s a crapshoot when the food will arrive, and you are guaranteed to never receive all the food at once. Multiple times one of us had finished our meal before the other one was even served. Yes, the Cambodian work ethic is very different. I guess most chefs can only cook one dish at a time? And, a bit humorously, your food will travel from Westerner table to Westerner table until they find the person who ordered it. They don’t seem to number the tables and we barangs must all look the same to them.

Yes, in Cambodia… it’s always something. So when these somethings come up, it’s best not to “lose face” and get angry. Count to ten in Khmer and relax. The number one thing you can count on is the beautiful, genuine smile of most of the people.

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