People we met in Cambodia and their Stories

Expat Jim

When we were in Thailand we met an expat named Jim who lives in Cambodia. In Cambodia Jim exposed us to many things we would not have discovered on our own.

Jim’s a retired school principle who currently lives in Cambodia. He’s been working as the English language coordinator in an elementary school for 4 years or more. He came to Asia with the intent to volunteer somewhere, and almost instantly found this NGO funded school. It was a good match so he looked no further.

The library at the Spitler School where Jim volunteers

The library at the school where Jim volunteers

Jim took us out for a tour of the school and the village it serves. He explained to us that there are a number of problems with the public schools. Many children cannot afford school even though it is technically free. But they have to buy uniforms, supplies, and pay the teacher for extra lessons in the afternoons. The teaching day is just the morning. Not enough can be taught for the students to pass their tests, and the teachers will not pass them unless they pay the teachers for extra tutoring. It is necessary to pass to move up. When they get to the point of taking the high school exam, they have to pay the tester to pass them. They also pay to prepare for the exam. Recently the government decided the corruption in the system was mostly the kids cheating, so they proctored the exams, disallowed cell phones etc. That year the pass rate dropped from 87% to only 20%.


This translated poem is an example of English Language Skills

English is not taught generally. One person told us that it is hard to learn English, even when classes are available because English teachers usually don’t know much English; their skill level may be as low as just knowing how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet. We learned that the children are not taught in school about their countries’ recent turbulent history. Science is taught by the instructor reading text and the students memorizing it – there are no demonstrations, discussions, or hands on experiences.

Of course a big part of the education challenge is finding teachers because almost all of the educated people were killed during the Khmer Rouge era.

Bottom line: Kids are not really learning, the system is geared so they have to “pay to pass”, limited material is taught and the standards are very low. The result is a population unprepared to either power an economy or assess what is happening in their country.

Touring a local village

Some of the kids in Spitler School live in these houses, that are built by squatters over a drainage ditch.

Some of the kids in school live in these houses, that are built by squatters over a drainage ditch.

Jim took us on a tour of the village served by the school. Parts of the village looked even poorer than places we saw in Africa. In one area we saw a slum of squatters living in temporary dwellings built over a dirty gully which had standing water in it. We saw people in various states of dress, mostly doing nothing because there is nothing they can do. Garbage was around everywhere (no place to take it to), naked babies (one woman handed Char her naked baby to hold, which she did a little reluctantly), and very cute smiling kids, who you know  would not have much future. These people in the squatters area of the village clearly did not have access to things like

Char holds a baby

Char holds a baby

dental care, medical care, mosquito nets, or electricity on a regular basis. They did have some hand water pumps which were donated. (Jim said sometimes people steal the pumps because the metal is valuable).

Many people were very small. We were told that undernourishment is a major contributor to this. Jim pointed to a girl and asked us to guess her age. We said 5. Jim said she was 10.

We passed a nice two story house and asked Jim about it. He said that the house is owned by a tuk tuk driver who speaks English, so he can give rides to tourists who will pay much more money than locals. Tourists will pay $2-3 for a ride that would cost a local 20-30 cents. Evidently English is one of the ways that people can work their way out of poverty. Imagine!

Using the Arts to Expunge the Horrors of the Past

Can you do this?

We  actually saw this particular moment in the Phare show.  It was dramatic. She shot the arrow to burst a balloon that represented the Khmer Rouge nightmare.

With Jim, we went to a circus event called “Phare”. It’s a little like a mini Cirque du Soleil. Evidently Phare was started by a man who realized how much emotional pain was entrenched in the people who were in the refugee camps near Thailand during the war years. Many of the children had started to dance, draw, and act sort of spontaneously. So he gradually formalized the activity, and now Phare provides employment, artistic training and funding for the education and training for dancers, artists and musicians. It also offers potential career possibilities to the performers.

What a performance it was! Super high energy, with great passion and feeling! The performers did numerous things demonstrating their flexibility, strength, agility, and balance as they told the stories of their history during the brutal Khmer Rouge era..


Romcheik Artists

Romcheik Artists

Later, in a town called Battambang, we visited a brand new art gallery called Romcheik that shows works of 4 artists, all close to the age of our son Alex. All four had experienced horrific childhoods, and been sold by their parents to work in Thailand. Then they were expelled from Thailand, returned to Cambodia and taken care of by NGOs. Eventually this remarkable French man learned about them through a chance encounter with one of the boys, and decided to sponsor them. The boys and the Frenchman built living spaces where they could paint. When we visited they were just completing a very impressive gallery to showcase their work. The art is even more impressive than the gallery. It is strong, emotional, and well executed. We tried to help them out by posting their brochure on the web and getting them listed in Trip Adviser. The brochure is here.


We hired a Tuk Tuk driver to take us around to some of the sites. He turned out to be so much more than a Tuk Tuk driver!

Lucky was born in a village during the Pol Pot (Khmer Rouge) era. When he was born his mother had no milk because she was starving. Each person got only a cup of porridge twice a day, and the porridge was very weak – only one kg. of rice was used for every 100 liters of water (2 pounds for 25 gallons). Several of his sisters starved to death and his brother was killed because he stole some food. His father was a policeman before the Khmer Rouge, so in 1978 they took him away. They told him that they were taking him to a meeting with the king. His father knew better but he had no choice but to go with the men. Lucky thinks they took his father to the killing fields – he never saw him again.

Lucky was the only one of his 7 siblings to escape the Khmer Rouge. He was the youngest. His mother put him in a hole in the ground each day when she went to work in the fields. That is why he survived, and that is why he is called Lucky.

When it was just Lucky and his mother, she escaped with him and they both walked to the Thai border. They walked for 2 weeks and finally found a refugee camp where they were taken in. He learned English there. He said he likes to talk to tourists to help them understand what is happening in his country.

A shrine in the killing cave that contains some of the skulls of people who were killed.

A shrine in the killing cave that contains some of the skulls of people who were killed.

One of the places we visited was one of the many killing fields. This one was actually a cave. You could look up high and see a large hole in the top of the cave which was where they knocked people unconscious with a blow to the head, and then push the bodies down into the hole. Lucky told us he had heard about one woman who actually lived. She woke up at the bottom of the cave and was just strong enough to climb out to find help.






Bats leaving cave at night

Bats leaving cave at night

We went around to a bat cave on the side of the mountain opposite the killing cave. The three of us sat on a wall for about an hour watching the river of bats flowing out of the cave. There must have been a million or more. As we watched Lucky talked. A 20 second video is here.

Lucky was a monk for about a year. Many people were monks because it was about the only way to get any education. He had to memorize 5 books about Buddhism so that he could recite them word for word. Every night he would study by the light of burning incense. The incense only illuminated one or two words at a time. He felt this narrow focus helped him memorize the text.

Cat in a cage

Cat in a cage

Lucky told us how to make it rain – California listen! It was known that you should never hurt a cat because if you do the cat will find a way to make your life miserable – for example they might bring sickness upon you or your family. People used this trait to make it rain. You put a cat in a cage, and then throw water at it. The cat gets very angry at you and makes it rain so you will get wet and uncomfortable too.

Lucky also told us a story about a poor man who did not have gold with which to guild a Buddha statue, so he cut pieces of his own flesh off of his body and used the flesh to cover the statue. They say that he went to heaven.

And Lucky related this story from the time of the Angkor civilization.  A king’s guard grew watermelons. One night King Jayavarman VIII stole a watermelon. The guard did not recognize the king, and killed him. The guard became the new king because clearly he was powerful enough to kill a king.


Char and Sarin

Char and Sarin

Our Angkor Wat guide is the principle of an 800 student school, and our transportation was the schools’ Tuk-Tuk. Why would a busy principle spend his time guiding a couple of tourists? He wanted to use the fee we paid for guide service and a tuk-tuk to help fund the school.

Sarin is the principal of the school where Jim works. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge because he was a teacher. Sarin, too, grew up in a refugee camp where he was selected for a special program because he was so poor. The program involved being fed three times per day, which was the first thing he said about it! But also he was educated in various topics including English. He decided he wanted to give back to his community. Through his guiding he met the the people who started the NGO that provided start up funding for the school and helped it grow. It started small but now there are 800 students.

During the era of the Khmer Rouge Sarin and his family fled to refugee camps near the Thai border.

En-route, the family was told that they could travel cross country to a place where they would be transported to the USA, but they decided not to go because there was a rumor that people were being fed to crocodiles. Sarin wonders what his life would be like if they had ignored that rumor.

Sarin explained that in Cambodia Sunday is not a religious day. Religious days are on the full, new, and half moons. So a religious day may fall on any day of the week. People get up early, go to temple, and then they get on with their day.

Conversations with war veterans and a visit to two museums

In the war museum there are 4 veterans who work as guides. ALL of them had their right leg blown off by a land mine. One was in the Khmer Rouge. Another fought for the Cambodia Republic. Our guide joined the Vietcong side of the conflict when his village was burned by American bombs. It seemed like they all did what they needed to survive. One story he told was how he was in a skirmish when he recognized his uncle through the site of his rifle. He dropped his gun, overcome by the thought that he might kill his uncle, but his uncle continued shooting at him. His comrades asked what was wrong and he said he had a headache. They persisted because generally he was their best marksman, so he shot over his uncle’s head. Later he told his uncle “and they both had a good laugh”.

Aka removing a landmine

Aki removing a landmine

Regarding landmines, which we learned about at the Landmine Museum, there were probably 6 million or more landmines and un-exploded bombs dropped in Cambodia. So many, no knows where they all are. It is estimated that there are still 1-1.5 million and at this rate it will take at least 10 more years to get rid of them all. There is a remarkable man, Aki Ra, who as a soldier personally planted many. But his mission now is to try to make his country safe again. He started an NGO to work on landmine removal. He has personally removed something like 30,000 landmines. He knows how to deal with them safely. We learned that the land mines were designed to maim a soldier, not to kill him, because if you maim a soldier then 3-4 of his buddies have to stop fighting and assist the injured man.


2 thoughts on “People we met in Cambodia and their Stories

  1. Ramon

    Great as always, enjoyed the narrative of the history! The story of the guy you met, Lucky was very interesting, he is indeed “Lucky’! Must have been great listening to his story.



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