Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Old culture, young people

Men in Cambodia, and throughout Asia, like to dye their hair to hide any grey hairs. I may be a little odd having youthful face matched with grey hair, but the dyeing of hair could also be considered a little strange given the respect for age in Cambodia and throughout Asia.

Respect for elders is probably something that many people would associate with Asian culture more than Western culture. However, one hundred years ago, Western culture was also marked by a deference to age but we have changed over time and there are signs that the same changes will happen in Asia too.

At the time of the Cambodian census in 2008, 58% of the population was aged 25 or under. In the UK, it's 32%. In Asia, people are talking about a youth bulge where there are lots of young people about to enter the market place for jobs, for love and for their future. And as they begin to seek these things, they will begin to assume roles in society that may disrupt traditional hierarchies of age.

Education is still very poor here, but there are more opportunities for young people leaving school and university now to have learnt skills and knowledge that their predecessors growing up in the 1980's and '90s would not have had. It is not just a gap between older people in their 60s and young 20 year olds, but even people in their 30s and 40s are feeling as though they are being left behind.

One Cambodian woman in her early 30s who has studied abroad (a very big thing to have done), told me that she feels that she is having to run just to keep ahead of the youngsters coming at her back. She sees their ability to question and to speak in front of audiences and recognises the difference from her day. This is how one of the most educated people of her age feels and behind her are many, many more people. In Cambodia, once you've passed school age, there is very little support for you to catch the train of progress as it whistles past taking the young ahead of you.

Last year during the elections, colleagues told me that it was no longer the father or older man of the house who influenced how people should vote. They told me that it was often an adult child who had gone to work in Phnom Penh and was sending money back home who could be the most influential. As well as money, they would bring back a smart phone and use it access to information that the elderly, with high levels of illiteracy, could not access. I think everybody believes that the influence of young voters was what caused country-changing shifts at the last election.

The rise of the youth are not just affecting places of work and politics, but they are also affecting places of home. After a few months here, my Cambodian boss (mid-40s) said something that made me ask whether he, his wife and their daughter still lived with his wife's parents. With a slightly bemused look he answered that of course he did - that is the tradition. Last Sunday, he showed me the house that he will live in with his wife and daughter only. Of two other colleagues who recently married, one couple has their own house already and another couple are building their's.

As these young people move out of their parent's house, they will also move out of their control. Parents will no longer be able to instruct young people that as long as they are under their roof, they have to follow their rules. Young people will be making their own rules in their own house.

These changes are happening more in Phnom Penh, but the rural provinces are being affected as young people leave to come to Phnom Penh and work. Not only are they outside of their parents' house, they are outside of their parents' sight. The future will be determined by what young people do when out of sight, even if not out of mind. The times, they are a changin'.

Youthfully yours

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Cambodia's Olympic Games

For Claire and I, the jewel in the crown of Phnom Penh is the optimistically named Olympic Stadium. It was actually built for the South East Asian games in 1964 which were then staged elsewhere because the stadium hadn’t been completed in time. For Cambodians, the word Olympic does not really mean anything other than being a reference to multiple sports. And since there are multiple sports played at the stadium, the Olympic Stadium sounds like a fine name.

A glorious place for sunsets. This view has changed now; large apartment blocks half built are already towering over the stand opposite. 
It was designed by the iconic Vann Molyvann whose architecture you can see throughout the city and harks of a Cambodia moving from colonialism to a modern era. Such is his fame that there are architectural tours of various buildings and areas that he has designed. The indoor stadium is cleverly built into the main stand with hundreds of vents allowing air to circulate and light to burst in, and has a water system where rain water is transported around the walls and floor acting as a cooling system.

The indoor stadium where people play badminton in the evenings
Every day, over a thousand people use the stadium as their place for exercise and for hanging out. There will be people running or gently ambling around the track having a natter, whilst on the pitch in the middle, two teams from the Cambodian professional football league might be playing; running back and forth in an often fruitless manner. Where shot putters and long jumpers would be, there will be couples swatting a shuttle cock back and forth – no net is needed.

The stars of the show, however, are the throngs of dancers who rim the top of the stadium. They move en masse dutifully following the aerobic dance class leader as large loudspeakers belt out the music. As the evening progresses, the music moves from Korean pop, to traditional Khmer, to Bollywood and on until the music and dancers drift away into the night. The eclectic mix of music, always involving a jazzed up version of Hotel California though, is matched by the range of ages taking part. And even the odd white person can sometimes be spotted.  

This happens every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset. It is mostly women who do it, but of all ages. When running around the track and looking up at them dance traditionally Khmer, the mass, moving together to a slow rhythm can be a little hypnotic. In the morning, there are also Chinese sword martial art type rhythmic thing. Those pics are on the computer in Oz with Claire though. Sorry!
Below the dancers on the steps of the terracing are those who like to sit, gossip and look at the life that is happening around them. They see people running up and down the terracing or doing press ups and sit ups on the steps. The slightly older male and female walkers, flinging their arms in the air, will weave in and out of those sitting as they make their way around the stadium and back again.

After all of this exercise, you would be right to expect that Cambodians will be hungry. So of course there are snack stalls selling corn on the cob, meat on a stick, noodles and fried bananas. The healthy addition is the freshly squeezed orange juice, which is undoubtedly the best I've ever tasted.

It is behind these food stalls that the Olympic Stadium’s secret lies. Walk through a door in the wall and laid out before you are the Olympic swimming and diving pools. On a weekday after 5pm, you may be privileged to see swimmers who are missing limbs power up and down the pool and at any time you will be entertained by fearless Cambodian youths diving off the 10m board – often more than one at a time. Amazing pics here.

50m pool with a separate diving pool at the far end. One length of the front crawl and I'm done for. 
This is all just within the actual Olympic Stadium. The immediate grounds surrounding the stadium is where you will see old men playing petanque, young bucks playing basketball, children learning tae kwon do, wealthier types serving double faults and footballers scuffling about in the grit and concrete. The largest crowds watch the volleyball though, where a nation of small people defy gravity to slam the ball down with force. As ever, the crowd’s interest is encouraged by the amounts that they have bet.

They are seriously skilled at petanque. If you throw it close, without fail the next guy will just whack it away. 
It is here that the life of Phnom Penh can be felt and one of the few places where the various people of Phnom Penh, rich – poor, young – old, male – female, participant – spectator, share a space and an experience. It is free and open to all. The opportunity to be together is maybe the most valuable thing there could be in a society where division and strains continue.

This all may not be enough to save the Olympic Stadium though. It is prime real estate situated right in the middle of the city, and huge developments already engulf and tower over one side of the Stadium. Last year plans announced to develop a modern, multi-purpose sports centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh were met with fears for what it would mean for the Olympic Stadium, especially given that the government actually sold the stadium to a Taiwanese company in 2000.

When I was young, the tennis courts of the local school would be swamped with kids itching to dive around like Boris Becker or volley like Navratilova. Every evening for a few glorious weeks in summer, there would be about 20 kids whacking balls about. The gate was sometimes left open and other times, you could crawl under the fence that nobody seriously thought about repairing to keep people out. The fence was more there to keep balls in.

Now, the courts have been resurfaced and improved and, because of the investment, was deemed valuable enough to be locked up. There are no kids whacking balls about during a summer’s evening anymore. It is pristine and empty. In the UK, there was a huge focus on how to create a legacy after the Olympics but they couldn’t even work out what to do with the stadium. In Phnom Penh, they may not have had an Olympics but the stadium has created a legacy, just by opening it up for the people to use.

Strange people even have bread, cheese and prosecco to celebrate birthdays. Thanks Nicole!
Olympic Stadium, we raise a glass to you.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Why should Scotland be in the Union?

I wrote a previous blog discussing Cambodia’s relationship with Viet Nam and suggested that the best way for Cambodia to find peace and security was through ASEAN. When writing that, I realised that this argument could also be applied to Scotland remaining part of the UK, and indeed Claire's wise (cracking) father picked up on this.

Most of the independence discussion has focused on money. How much will it cost? How much extra will we get? The consideration is not irrelevant but the questions themselves will not help you. Firstly, economic prosperity will depend on what policies are taken by whatever government is ruling Scotland, whether independent or not. And those policies are as unknown in a UK setting as they are in a Scottish setting because of democracy and elections.

Secondly, whatever economic conditions may exist today may not exist in the future, even just in five or ten years time (2007 - boom, 2008 - global collapse). It has been over 300 years since Scotland became part of the UK and the economic conditions that existed then do not now. We are talking of a similar timescale for the decision about independence; this is a decision for centuries not for the equivalent of primary school.

Thirdly, the track record of economists in predicting the very near future is absolutely dismal and there is no reason to trust that their judgments over time spans of centuries will be any better. 

There are some people who are crying out for objective facts that will tell them whether Scotland will be better off or not. They criticize people for not making these available, but do not appear to realise that these objective facts do not exist. They do not exist because the decisions that will determine future economic prosperity, and other things, will occur after the referendum and are currently somewhat unknown. We don't even know who would make these decisions; an independent Scotland would have an election, and the UK will have an election in 2015. This makes it impossible to say whether we will be richer or poorer.

For me the question of independence is not about the economy or, at a more base level, whether I'll be a few quid better off. A great consideration should be war and peace. Scotland and England had many years of wars before joining in union and have enjoyed many years of peace since. Some may think it is inconceivable that Scotland and England could ever war with each other in the future so we should not worry about it if there is independence. I don't think that we can be so complacent, because the long-term future is so uncertain.

However, neighbouring countries need not go to war with one another. USA and Canada have certainly not been doing too much warring against each other recently as they enjoy a semi-union of culture, and of economy through NAFTA. Scotland and England are of course culturally similar and there is the possibility of economic or even monetary union.

Some warn that if Scotland uses Sterling, Scotland would suffer because monetary policy for Sterling would be decided by the government in London, predominantly considering the needs of England. This is exactly what happens now so it would appear to be an argument for Scottish independence having its own currency, rather than an argument for Scotland to be in the Union.

It is also unlikely that England could prevent people in Scotland using Sterling if they wanted to. The only way to stop it would be for the English, Welsh and Northern Irish Government to completely ban the movement of Sterling out of their country; a policy which would make you delighted to be independent from any government that thought it a good one.

One concern is that Scotland might not be able to join the EU and if it does it will have to use the Euro. On this second part, I don't know. However, regarding the first, people in England are more likely to want to leave the EU than those in Scotland. With growing enmity towards the EU, particularly in the rest of the UK, there might be a greater risk of Scotland being outside the EU if it remains within the UK.

As I read or hear arguments against independence, I find myself being less convinced of the need to stay in the Union so I have begun asking a different question. Scotland was an independent country before it joined the Union and joined it as a matter of convenience - because it suited us to do so. The questions I'm now considering are:

  1. Do the conditions that brought Scotland benefits from being part of the Union still exist today? 
  2. If they don't, then why should Scotland be a part of the Union?

Scotland has never become independent from the UK before, so there are many things that are unknown and it is understandable for people to fear such uncertainty. But uncertainty about Europe, about the economy, about the BBC, even about the weather, will exist if Scotland remains within the UK. The real question to be decided is who do you want to be responsible for dealing with that uncertainty.

Do you want a government voted only by people living in Scotland or a government voted by people living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well?


Some other little thoughts

PS: The question about whether Scotland should still be a part of the Union if there is no benefit to us, is admittedly selfish. I think there are real issues about the impact on the rest of the world if the UK was to be dis-united. Would the UK successor still have a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council? Would it be good or bad for the rest of the world if the UK didn't?

PPS: The charge of being anti-English if you vote yes is a bit inflammatory. Why are we not being anti-Welsh? Are the Brits being anti-French by not wanting join in Union with them? However, it does cut at something real in two ways.

Firstly, maybe it is a vote against "England". "Scotland" could want to be seen as being something different. In the 80s, the English were perceived as being football hooligans so the Scots decided to become the complete opposite at international football games. This could be translated into policy too.

Secondly, many Scots have close relationships with many English. What would separation do for these personal relationships? I have thought about this and do have a fear that my English friends may stop liking me. Then I think about the friends I have from Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Cambodia and realise that we are friends without having the same government. Nevertheless, if we were to separate, would there be a separation of the bonds between the two peoples? (if you accept that the Scots and English are indeed two peoples and not just one whole British people) If yes, will we have lost something there? Will independence enable closer bonds with other people? Will we gain something there?

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Well did you ever…

Or, things I never thought I'd do, never mind do in Cambodia…

(I started writing this post in February, then edited it in March, and now it's June tomorrow. Although when I started this I didn't know I'd be leaving Cambodia, it does have a feel of someone who's moving on. Perhaps this helps give you an idea why it's such a bittersweet decision to be leaving this lovely place)

Sing Christmas carols with the British Ambassador in his house
It's thanks to neighbour Andy that I got to do this (he was invited as he works for VSO). I didn't even know where an embassy was in the UK before, never mind been inside one. Now I've been into the UK, the US, the Indian and the Indonesian embassies here in Phnom Penh and, just before Christmas, I found myself in the Ambassador's residence scoffing home made mince pies and mulled wine and singing along with a choir to Christmas carols.

Sadly, neighbour Andy only had a 'plus one' so Gordon did the gentlemanly thing and let me tag along. (panic not, mince pies were smuggled home to him as a thank you)

Terrible picture, but we'd moved out of the prime photo-taking spot to go in search of more mulled wine. That's the (now ex-) Ambassador in the pale blue shirt and his partner on the right in the black shirt. It's a beautiful old building.

And this just made me laugh - health and safety to the max (watch that 4 inch step up to the pool area!)
 in a country where health and safety are just things that you wish to someone!

Make a dance video
Before you go any further, please watch the video, and then you'll understand how much fun I had helping to make this.

A few months after moving to Cambodia I was delighted to discover the Central School of Ballet had just opened and it was teaching adult classes. Adult contemporary classes! I signed up and have been dancing there ever since (more about that below). My teacher (and the Artistic Director of the school), Stephen, has become a really good friend and he asked if I'd help him with his other project here, Dance Made in Cambodia. He works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, believing in the power that dance, and the arts in general, has in transforming people's lives.

We were making the video for a project called Dance Our City that Amrita Performing Arts (where I now work) were curating for Our City Festival - an annual festival of art, architecture and ideas. The idea for Dance Our City was to celebrate your city through dance.

The video was shot at the Olympic Stadium, one of me and Gordon's favourite places in Phnom Penh.

You can read more about Dance Made in Cambodia at

Dance on stage - twice! (I guess the second time round I should have expected it)
Crossing the Bridge Dec 2013
I've been learning contemporary dance for maybe four years now - two years on and off in Scotland and nearly two here at the Central School of Ballet. At the end of year one the School had an end of year performance. And then at the end of year two they had another. I've loved doing both.
Crossing the Bridge Dec 2013

Simple Pleasures Dec 2012

Simple Pleasures Dec 2012

Attend a film premiere alongside a who's who of Cambodian arts royalty (and actual royalty too)
In January, we were lucky enough to attend the film premiere of Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll. I've never been to a bona fide film premiere before. It was strange sitting in a room and going "Oooh, that's so-and-so. And OOOOh, there's what's-his-name." It was an experience made even more special than I imagine most premieres to be because there was just so much history in the room and in the film. You can read more about the night in this blog post (which you should click on just to watch the trailer for the film and see some wonderful old footage of Phnom Penh and all the cool cats getting their groove on in Cambodia!)

Dress up like a Khmer bride

It's a bit of a tourist thing to do, and I still can't quite decide if it's a little offensive to Khmer people, but it was a fun morning planned as a goodbye to a friend who will soon leave da Penh. $15 for hair, make-up, outfit, bling and three photos ($10 for Gordon - saving on the hair and make-up!). Some great Photoshop action later you have the 'after' photo.
(Sadly, I had to return the outfit and the bling - you don't get to keep them for 15 bucks!)

Attend a swanky event celebrating 65 years of Indian independence
Amrita, the dance company I work for, also do production work. We were working with the Indian Embassy to produce a performance of 35 classical dancers from India. Someone from Amrita got invited to the Embassy's event celebrating 65 years of independence. They couldn't go;  Gordon and I went instead; there was an ice sculpture of the Taj Mahal; never saw this one coming either!

Yarn-storm a cyclo
One of the lovely things I do in my spare time, apart from dancing (see above) and being in a book club, is to Stitch n Bitch. For those not familiar with the concept, it's the modern name for what I've always known as  a knitting bee. Basically, it's a group of people who get together to stitch (mostly knitting and crochet but all forms are welcome) and have a chat (the bitch element of the name, but we don't do that).
One of the cyclo drivers heading off on his newly decorated vehicle
For this year's Our City Festival we decided to yarn-storm something. Normally you yarn-BOMB something but we figured that was not a good choice of words in a country where things are still a little wobbly after the last election. For more information on what a cyclo is, what we did and why we did it, read a great entry on the Phnom Penh Stitch n Bitch group blog here.

An additional note to the blog: when I first spoke to a cyclo driver about this he explained (through someone who translated for me) that he was happy that we were making a 'dress' for his cyclo because it's very lonely being a cyclo driver. He'd been a cyclo driver for 20 years and people are now more interested in using tuk tuks or motos (very few people use cyclos now and cyclo drivers are generally very, very poor). Also, a cyclo only takes one person and you don't sit next to each other so that's lonely too. He was happy we were taking an interest in him and his cyclo as it made him feel warm and cared for. Yup, had me a bit teary at the time too.

Read Address to a Haggis. To a pizza. On our roof.
For Burns' Night we decided to actually do something this year. Sadly we couldn't find haggis. But we could find whisky and friends, and our roof is a great place for parties, so we toasted Rabbie in the only other way we knew how. With pizza. We all took turns reading a verse as we addressed the pizza and then toasted with whisky. And then we even had a wee ceilidh on the roof (a Strip the Willow for those that are interested)

A late entry - attend a King's birthday party
Okay, so I'm taking a little bit of licence with this title but it's almost true. The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is directed by His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni's sister Princess Norodom Buppha Devi. She created a new work for the company, Lights and Shadows (which recently toured Europe), and they gave a performance for the King's birthday. And somehow, again, because I work with Amrita and we helped produce the event, Gordon and I managed to go along. And the King was there. And it was his birthday. And this performance was for his birthday. So that means we were at the King's birthday party. Right?

That's the King sitting in the middle. The King!
This piece was unusual as it also include sbaek thom (large shadow puppets) - a separate art
 form not usually included in the ballet
sparkly costumes and insanely beautiful bent hands

Not the show that we saw, but a sample of work from the company

I suppose my point in this, rather than purely updating you of some of the things we've been up to over here, is that, doing something like VSO has opened us up to new experiences that we never thought we'd have. I truly didn't think I'd ever do half the things I've been lucky enough to do here. We've been so, so lucky to have these experiences and it's definitely taught me to look at the world in a different way. Many VSO-ers (and I'm sure other people too) are quick to point out that they get back so much more than they feel they put in and that's certainly true for me.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Are all explorers lost and is Scotland the best?

When a friend of mine left Scotland to work in France, I was envious of him as I imagined what it would be like to live in France with red wine, croissants and cheese. I found it hard to understand why he continued to insist that Scotland was still the best country in the world. My incomprehension was not resolved by his inability to explain why. Finding it difficult to capture the right words, or even identifiable things that makes Scotland the best, he had to settle for telling me that it was the best because it just is. I was left puzzled and doubtful.

As a child, a day after arriving at our holiday destination, I would ask my parents when we could go back home. Maybe I felt that I I would miss a great game of football with friends or that it was the perfect season to be playing golf. Or something else that a ten-year old’s life may revolve around. It was not that I did not like these places or struggled being away from home, I guess it was just that home was where my life was.

It seems to me that the desire to explore is at odds with the desire to be where your life is, unless your life is only what is with you at that particular moment in time. For most people, life is much more than what is in that instant as it contains the people and places that have become woven into our lives over long periods of time. When attempting to fulfill a desire to explore, it can be very difficult to take your entire life with you and I sometimes wonder whether constant explorers are those without much life behind them.

Before coming to Cambodia, an acquaintance approached me at the end of a meeting and shook my hand. He had previously spent four years in Brazil and had done other travelling. A warm, light hearted man, he looked at me seriously, carefully even, and told me “don’t get lost”.

Immediately, I knew what those words meant. They had the same meaning as the fear that was inside of me as a child when I wanted to go back home as soon as I had arrived on holiday. They had the same meaning as the fear that propelled me to go through all of my classmates names during the long summer holiday. It was not that I was scared of getting lost - I remember sometimes dreaming of being alone in a far off country, sitting drinking a beer and reading a book - more specifically, I was scared that I would be lost to others. The further you explore, the harder it is to reach those behind.

Claire has spoken about the feeling that some people have when doing VSO of feeling like they have pushed the pause button on their life. As if when they leave home, everything in their life stops but in a not-quite-real-life parallel universe, they fulfill their desire to explore and seek new experiences, only hitting the play button on their real life when they return. For me, I find that not only is life paused but my identity of who I am is also suspended a little as in this not-quite-real-life-parallel universe my identify forms with different people and events shaping it.

For me a special time in Cambodia is between 4:30pm and 6:30pm when the sun begins and finishes its descent. I sit on our roof, looking into the distance, breathing in the experience of Cambodia. There is a magical light that fills me with happiness, but I have realized that part of this happiness is because the light makes me think of those long, summer, Scottish evenings. They make me think of home. They make me think of my life there and the people in it.

A lot of things, a lot of wonders, go into making a country what it is. Unweaving this wonderscape to explain exactly why Scotland is the best place in the world is as hard as unweaving a rainbow. I write this blog in Guangzhou airport on my way back to Scotland having finished my time as a VSO volunteer, but maybe not having finished my time exploring. I want to see my friend and tell him that now I understand what he means and why it was difficult to explain. But most importantly, I want to ask him to make sure that even if I keep exploring, I am never lost. 


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Cambodia: more than temples and Toul Sleng

In USA, there are some cities that are now forever defined by shootings at a high school. For many people, Cambodia is defined by its own tragedy of the Khmer Rouge. And that tragedy, like car crashes, draws people to see what happened. But imagine yourself to be from Columbine or to be in a car crash. Would you want the world to come and watch you?

The Missing Picture was recently nominated for an Oscar (best foreign language film), dealing with the director’s experience of the Khmer Rouge. It is a superb film but I felt uneasy asking my colleagues if they have seen it or heard about it because of its’ subject matter. I can understand why some Cambodians may just not want to talk about it.

There is a beer here that promotes being proud and drinking their beer and after years of war, it is understandable to find something that pride can be focussed upon. In Cambodia, pride is focussed on temples from the Angkor Empire when Angkor (ancient Cambodia) covered an area much larger than present day Cambodia. However, I think that sometimes the pride is not just for the temples but also for the Angkor Empire itself, the power it had and the area it covered.

Pride in the past can lead to a desire for a return to the past, which is not always possible. Indeed, it may not always be desirable as it can stoke past rivalry or enmity. It is important to find new things to be proud of.

Claire works for Amrita Performing Arts, which encourages classically trained dancers to explore the creation of a Cambodian form of contemporary dance.  Last week, they performed pieces choreographed by their own dancers to a hall packed with Cambodians and foreigners.

Traditional dance involves creating shapes such as these hands and feet. It is unbelievable how far they can bend fingers and hands. The shapes can be quite beautiful. This is an Amrita dancer in rehearsal.
A piece by two brothers explored their relationship growing up so close but realising that they might not stay so close forever. The final piece, Religion, mixed hip hop, contemporary and classical dance, and dancers, in a message (as I took it) that truth can appear in many guises and that each dancer (or person) finds a dance that is true for them. Each form can be celebrated.

Spontaneous applause, laughter and wonder erupted during the dances as the dancers showed grace, skill, emotion, athleticism, humour and understanding. Cambodia can remain proud of its traditional Apsara dancing but dance can evolve to become something new, created by contemporary Cambodians. You can see videos of their performances online. 

The athleticism shown by the dancers appears to be present in many Cambodians, which has always impressed me. It is hard not to be impressed watching small people leap skywards before powerfully spiking a volleyball down over the net. Similarly, I am in wonder when I see three people balanced on a bicycle cycling along a busy road – and even turning corners!

Athleticism and balance are to the fore in Phare PonleuSelpak, a Cambodian acrobatic circus. I have seen them many times now and each time there are moments when I laugh out loud in disbelief at what I am seeing. After one show during which males had performed gymnastic type acrobatics that I had thought possible only by Olympic gold medallists, I was gobsmacked to learn that they were aged 14 or 15.  Check out these films for extreme fire skipping and mesmerising juggling

Be it young dancers or acrobats, Cambodians do not just have to find pride in the past, they can also find it in the present.


Sunday, 4 May 2014

Foreigners welcomed with a smile in Cambodia

We live in the Cambodian equivalent of Mayfair. A house in Boeung Keng Kang 1 can cost $2m, in a country where GDP per capita is nearer $1000. Apartments with swimming pools can be rented for $2000 per month; coffee shops with air-conditioning can charge $5 a cup; food can cost $30 in a restaurant; and flash cars are parked everywhere. This is ex-pat ville.

This is one is definitely more than $2m - owned by the family who have the license for Tiger beer.
Amidst all of this are the cheap local market, street food stalls and Cambodians eking out a living, often by serving the needs of wealthy foreigners. My sense of inappropriateness if eating a lavish dinner or drinking an expensive cocktail comes from my fear of what these people will think when they see me.

They see us come to their country, mangle their language, remain ignorant of their culture and spend exorbitant sums on things that are strange and foreign to them. They see the places that they know change to look more like the places we come from. And then these places remain too expensive for them to access.

People in developed countries get annoyed when people from developing countries live in their country and take the low paid jobs. Can you imagine what it would feel like if it were all of the high paid jobs that they took?

Whilst they would become doctors, engineers and bankers, you would work as a waiter, in a shop or as a taxi driver. You would practice for hours without books or teachers to learn their language, whilst the foreigners are pleased with themselves because they can say no and thank you in yours. 

You would copy phrases that you hear to greater endear yourself. Everybody becomes a sir or madam and you never stop enthusiastically offering your services because it might help you get another dollar. Any feeling of resentment is submerged by the need to earn money and the knowledge that it is through serving these foreigners that your family can eat.

What do you think that this would do to your feeling of pride? Yet, I do not see any resentment but instead have experienced kindness from people we work with, tuk tuk and moto drivers who take us places, staff who serve us and people who we see in the streets. A smile as wide as their faces is usually what greets us.

In other countries, tourists can complain about being ripped off and taken advantage of. So far, that does not happen to a great extent in Cambodia. Either, the Cambodians have not worked out how much they can rip people off or they are just not willing to do it. Sometimes, if you ask for a price, you can sense a hesitation whilst they consider whether they could get more than normal and if so how much more. Could they try to eke out an extra 500 riels (less than 10p)?

In fact we have experienced the opposite; people giving us stuff because we're foreign. Children at a pagoda in Kratie gave us fruit for no reason other than that we were foreign guests in their village. Teenagers in Battambang made a grasshopper from coconut tree leaves and gave it to us because we were talking to them. A food seller in Takeo gave us extra snacks whilst we were resting after climbing a hill. They gave to us even though they had less than us.

Our local moto taxi driver invited us to join a family celebration at his house, where not only were we treated to as much food my belly would allow, but he also gave us how home brewed wine that he had kept special for years.
As more tourists come, attitudes may change, but maybe not. I do feel that we are lucky to have been here at this time though.