Tag Archives: culture

Cambodia Is

Cambodia is a white cow in a green rice field,
framed by palm trees
and towering white thunderheads.

Cambodia is dozens of gilded roofs
of temples
and monks in bright orange, walking in the heat.

Cambodia is a nine-year-old girl
pulling a cart of rubbish behind her,
while her little sister plays amongst the cans and bottles.

Cambodia is a huge black Lexus
slowly forcing its way through a sea of little black motorcycles.

Cambodia is a textured oil painting of Angkor Wat
in the dim corridors of Russian Market,
rolled and sold to a tourist.

Cambodia is the cool breeze off the Gulf of Thailand
piling up clouds on Bokor Mountain.

Cambodia is a street-vendor selling pork and rice each morning,
who knows her customers’ orders
even if not their names.

Cambodia is the killing fields,
and genocide,
and corruption, still the corruption, always the corruption.

Cambodia is a homeless woman drugging her baby
to beg more money
from good-hearted, ignorant tourists.

Cambodia is afternoon rain,
and evening thunder,
and hot airless nights.

Cambodia is a red, white and blue flag,
a gold palace,
green money,
red earth and black water.

Cambodia is a fleet of fishing boats in the dying light,
thud-thud-thudding their way down the Kampot river
to the sea.

Cambodia is a slum built on a creek full of rubbish,
that floods in the wet season,
sweeping away houses,
and sometimes children.

Cambodia is making do.

Cambodia is people moving to Phnom Penh for work,
renting a tiny room,
and sending their wages back home.

Cambodia is a cool breeze that breaks the heat
and brings neighbours to their front doors
to breathe and sigh and laugh.

Cambodia is the Mekong River,
wider than my dreams,
and as slow as real change.


Passing Through Prey Thea


The road is torn by rain and heat and trucks
whose drivers barrel on. The damage sucks
more life from dirty, ragged streets
where women sit on plastic seats
and watch as no one comes.
The factories watch the slums
now growing grey,
the slow decay,
the rust
and dust.

I stand on sandy soil where trees once grew,
my camera up, and wonder who
to shoot. I take a few
then go. And you
will too.​

Prey Thea is a community that we are pretty involved with, made up mostly of garment factories and very basic facilities for garment-factory workers. It’s kind of a mess, and has been for some time. It feels like it has declined even in the time we’ve been here, but whether that’s actually true, or we’re just seeing the downward-side of a cyclical process I don’t know yet. 

Whistles, Happily

My language teacher told me that his name, literally translated, means “Whistles-Happily No-Problems.” He was born in provincial Cambodia, fourth child of seven in a farming family, to parents who survived the Khmer Rouge with the regulation emotional scarring. “I don’t speak to my father,” he tells me. “When I go home, I sew up my mouth, because whenever I speak to him, it’s wrong.” This is hyperbole, I think. “He drinks a lot. When we were children he hit us a lot. I don’t want to be like him. I work with foreigners now; I want to be like them.” I can’t decide whether this makes me sad or hopeful. Both, maybe.
When he was a child, my language teacher worked as a rubbish-kid, sifting through stinking piles at the side of the road for recyclables, which he could on-sell. He had a cart, with bicycle pedals and handlebars and a saddle. “But I never sat on the saddle. I was too small. I just stood on the pedals all the time. It was very difficult. I stopped that job when I was twelve, because I was ashamed.
“I was a very cheeky child,” he tells me. The Khmer word for ‘cheeky’ is the same as for ‘broken.’
“When I was twenty, I came to Phnom Penh. I carried everything I could on my moto, and wore extra layers of clothes so I didn’t have to pack them. I came with some friends, and we were so excited. ‘Goodbye! We’re going to Phnom Penh. Goodbye!’ I had $25 in my pocket. I wanted to study medicine at university.”
My language teacher is a very intelligent guy. His grades are always good, and he doesn’t pay to pass, though the practice is common here. When he got to Phnom Penh, he went to the university, and asked how much to apply to study medicine. “$25,” the clerk told him. He went back to the room he had rented and lay in bed. “I thought, $25! $25! So expensive!”
He worked for a while at the side of the road selling rice; then again, he worked for a while in a factory, covered from head to foot in white safety gear, so the workers hardly knew each others’ faces.
“My brother got me that job. I didn’t want to do it, because I thought I was too smart to be a factory worker. But I had to. For three months at work I never talked at all. People asked my brother if I was dumb. Then I started to talk.”
After a little while at the factory, my language teacher decided to study veterinary science. “The application fee was $5.” He left his job at the factory. A friend helped him get a job at the language school. He is working in the mornings now, studying every afternoon. His colleagues are all Khmer. They are almost all Christian.
“It made me very angry,” he said once, “because they told me anyone can go to heaven, even my father. I didn’t want my father to go to heaven.”
He spoke almost no English when he started to teach. He learned fast.
“My English is still very bad.” This is not true. “My students are patient, and I am learning.”
My language teacher became a Christian after some time working at the school.
“I was very harsh, before I believed in Jesus. I didn’t say much, but inside. If you didn’t do what I told you, there would be a big problem.” I find this hard to imagine, knowing him now. When he found out I was a Christian he asked to pray at our lessons.
“For today’s class?” I asked.
“Yes. And for the school, and for me; for your family; for Cambodia; for the foreigners who come to have a good attitude; for Khmer people; everything.” So we prayed for everything.
When he completes his studies in Phnom Penh, he would like to do his Masters in Veterinary Science in Australia. After all, my language teacher wants to be a veterinarian, not a language teacher. Money is difficult, so he would need a scholarship. He doubts his English is good enough for that.
“I have a project. A plan. I will start a farm in my province. My friend can help me finance it. I will help children who have no parents: they can work with me in the mornings, and go to study in the afternoon, so they can learn.” He smiles when he talks about it.
The day we discussed his name and its meaning, he told me, “I don’t like it. I can’t even whistle.” He showed me, pursing his lips and blowing, soundlessly.

My language teacher has taught me so much in the past nine months, not simply about Khmer as a language, but about the culture and about what life is like here. He has shared a great deal with me, and I am intensely grateful that he was also willing to share his story more widely. I wrote this as I wanted it, assuming that there would be parts of it he would ask me to change or remove. He left it all as it was, saying, “I’m free. I want to share.” I pray he is successful in all he puts his hand to; if you’re the praying kind, perhaps you could too.

You, Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, you so ugly sometimes,
with your dirty roads blowing dust in my eyes
and your rubbish piles that stink of rot and dead rats;
with your broken people everywhere.
Phnom Penh, you so stupid sometimes,
with your traffic jams that come from nothing and go like smoke,
and your blocked drains that spew filth in front of houses
and your police that just sit, or blow whistles and take fines.
Phnom Penh, you so cruel sometimes,
with your beggar kids with sores, and dirt in their cuts,
and your ten-thousand hookers outside karaoke bars every pink-lit night
kissing drunk mouths and sweaty bodies
to rent a single room with no furniture.

Phnom Penh, you so wounded sometimes,
with your eyes that stare
and your corruption that never goes away,
and your people too scared or poor
to give or care or plan for change
because everything falls apart or dies
sooner or later.

Phnom Penh, you so beautiful sometimes
because you’re so broken by pain
but still you invent and discover
and improvise and survive.
And still you tell me,
“Hello! Where you from?”
and because you smile
and your smile is a lie
but the truth also.


Learning to love Phnom Penh is an ongoing process. We are feeling so much more at home here than even six weeks ago, but Phnom Penh is a difficult city. Like a difficult person, a difficult city is the way it is for many reasons. We are growing deeper and deeper in our understanding of those reasons, and Phnom Penh is rewarding us with more views of the beauty that is actually here, and not simply the smile it puts on for the tourists.

Phnom Penh, One Month

This is a poem I wrote after our first month in Phnom Penh. It was published to the Storehouse photo-story website, and the original post can be found here.

This is the heat
of waking in the morning
to the fan blowing tepid air across my back
while the sweat-stuck sheet clings to my chest.
This is the rumble of the heavy iron gate
each day as we leave the house
surrounded by old plastic bags and stray dogs and the gazes of children.
This is the taste of coffee, sitting in the car,
or the bite of dust
and the stink of exhaust and sulfur and shit and stagnant water,
and the emphysemic growl of the tuk-tuk.
This is children shouting at my daughter’s gated school.
This is people chattering outside my understanding,
and pointing and laughing
and nodding and smiling.
This is the pungent odour of fish sauce,
the comforting smell of French-fries,
the sweetness of mangoes, growing cloying
as the season
and lingers.
This is the lung-rattling roar, every quarter to midnight,
of an Air-Korea 767.
This is not knowing landmarks in a place
where they can’t read maps.

I was looking for a narrative
but I can’t find it
if it is
here at all.
This is just a
collection of
and sensations.

This is probably to be expected.