My first year in Cambodia has passed at warp speed

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What some folks think of as Angkor Wat is the temple in the background, but the name actually applies to a sprawling complex filled with architectural wonders that cover many kilometers.

December 3 was the anniversary of my move to Cambodia.  Although I felt pretty much prepared for the experience, I have learned a lot.

Everything about making Phnom Penh my home is new.  I have never before been retired, never lived as an expat, never expected to have English be so often understood here and never spent more than vacation time in a developing country.

The list of what I learned about Cambodia and me is long, but I’ll do my best to provide mere brushstrokes of my perspective in the hope that I won’t tax your patience.

One year 3

One surprise has been how deeply moved I have been by the widespread poverty, how desperately I’d like to help a poor people and how Continue reading

Bundle up for month-long cold spell, health officials say

ThermometerCambodians joke that the country has but two seasons, rainy and hot.

It turns out that there is a third one, according to the health authorities.  They have issued warnings about a cold spell that is expected to last until early next month.

By “cold,” they mean as low as 13 degrees Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit) in mountains that are hours on the road from Phnom Penh and 22 degree Celsius (71.6 Fahrenheit) in the capital city. Continue reading

For construction workers, home is where the building is

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Families with children live communally in the shelter at the rear as the foundation is prepared, then they move up into the building when construction progresses.

Most construction workers make their way to Phnom Penh from the provinces, where work for them either doesn’t exist or centers on shrinking farmland and inadequate compensation.

They are distinguished by at least two characteristics: skin browned by the sun from all their outdoor work, branding them as lower class, and by painfully thin, if muscled, bodies.

Their makeshift homes here in the capital are where the work is.  They inhabit crude, rude, jerry-rigged shelters that are moved and modified as work proceeds on each space they occupy until foundations are completed over weeks and months.

Then, Continue reading

In Phnom Penh, it’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas

 All of half a dozen restaurants offer turkey dinners for Thanksgiving

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This dusty Christmas tree has adorned my building’s security desk since I moved in a year ago.

Luckily for me, Christmas is not a holiday that matters to me. Thanksgiving is something else entirely; it has become my favorite occasion for overeating and communing with friends and family.

In a country that has made Buddhism the national religion, one could hardly expect much in the way of celebrating such Western holidays. But the expat community of Americans — which seems very much a minority among Australians, New Zealanders, Brits and Canadians — manages to participate long-distance in celebrations half a world and half a full day away.

It is possible to find frozen turkeys in supermarkets that cater to the Western market. One upscale meat market delivers ready-to-eat soup to nuts for Thanksgiving, and I am aware of maybe half a dozen restaurants offering turkey dinners, among them the fancy hotel rooms at Raffles, Sofitel and the Intercontinental.

At a restaurant that trains students in food prep and cooking among other skills with a view to socially responsible capacity building, Continue reading

The food truck, actual truck, has arrived in Phnom Penh

Food tacs truckThere is no end to the number of food carts in Phnom Penh offering everything from fried noodles to crisp insects.

When I walk a few blocks up the street, I spot vendors of coffee, soft drinks, bread, fruit, those noodles, something like hotdogs and barbecued animal parts, of which only some am I able to identify.

Food tacos truckOutside the French Institute, I have seen a man making crepes on a contraption that he somehow has mounted on a motorcycle.  Someone sells pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven on a bulky portable cart.

But only in that last few weeks Continue reading

Minus pressing crowds, Water Festival is delightful

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With winning competitors making their way upstream to the start after winning their first heat, the weather could not have been better.  I took this photo from a privileged area set aside for “foreigners.”

Laying eyes on the king may have been the top highlight among the many joys of Bon Om Touk, Cambodia’s annual three-day Water Festival.

Apparently the deaths of 353 souls during a stampede in 2010 was the chief reason for the absence of shoulder-to-shoulder throngs. It also reduced the number of boats competing in races along the river, called Tonle Sap, in front of the Royal Palace. (The year 2014 was the last time the event was held because of the tragedy, excessive flooding, the death of the last king and political confrontations.)

Another possible explanation would be the many blocks of streets closed to vehicular traffic and the mandatory unloading of buses and other large passenger vehicles at great distances from the Riverside neighborhood.  That area, which happens to be especially popular with expats, is where the festivities were concentrated.

In any case, predictions turned out to be wildly wrong about how many folks would journey to the capital from the provinces, 2 million of them, according to officials, as opposed to reportedly 100,000 the first day and subsequently growing.

Whatever the cause, I never expected Continue reading

This is big week in Phnom Penh, too big by magnitudes

Boat races and fireworks are highlights of the three-day Water Festival.  (Photo: The Cambodia Daily)

Boat races and fireworks are highlights of the three-day Water Festival. (Photo: The Cambodia Daily)

The peak of the rainy season is supposedly long past, but it seems that nobody told the monsoon master.

When there is a downpour here, the rain roars so loud that it wakes many of us, including me, from a deep sleep.  Time to close the windows to just a crack.

Although the season normally ends around now, my first such experience of it seems significantly out of sync with the usual situation.  Hours-long deluges and days of off-and-on rain over the last couple of weeks have proved to be the exception to what I understand to be the rule.

It pours down even as a three-day holiday approaches this week.  The aptly named water festival takes places during the first week of November, when the river called Tonle Sap reverses direction, a phenomenon new to me.

Sometimes the rain is so heavy that Continue reading