When Cambodians sneeze, listen to sound of silence

5036593719_6dd776fc28_bAmong the countless cultural differences between Cambodians and Westerners is what happens when someone sneezes.

After 20 months living in Phnom Penh, I find it hard to drop certain reactions and expectations. One that comes readily to mind and that I cannot seem to accept concerns cars turning into a street; I still think they will give way to a pedestrian automatically — me.  They usually don’t.

Another has to do with sneezing.  Probably like you, my automatic reaction is to utter a “bless you” or “gesundheit” when someone, even a stranger, sneezes.  Where I come from, I know that I can count on hearing wishes for good health when I sneeze or anyone else does in virtually any situation but a performance.

Not so in Cambodia.  It is as if nothing ever happened or that no one cares about another person’s health.

What surprises me is Continue reading

Trying to book short flights with Garuda is nightmare

5-Star?  Not in my book.  Not by a very long shot given appalling customer service.

5-Star? Not in my book. Not by a very long shot given appalling customer service.

The sluggish saga of my attempt to book a roundtrip flight between Bali and a small island began last Saturday.  As I start to draft this post on Wednesday morning, I still have been unable to get my tickets from Garuda, the small Indonesian airline with which I am condemned to deal.

Moreover, responses to my e-mail have gone unanswered or delayed intolerably.  When they arrive, the e-mails contain unreasonable requests.  The only time I seem to get anywhere is when I complain on Twitter and Facebook, proving that social media can have a use beyond seeing what “friends” enjoy for dinner.

You may wonder why I haven’t tried the services of a travel agency, as my wise friend Amanda advised me, or a travel site such as Orbitz.  Continue reading

If you need to borrow money in a hurry, no problem


In Cambodia, U.S. dollars and the national currency are accepted interchangeably. The note top left, 100 riels, is worth 2.5 cents. Coins do not exist, and paper notes often are grubby beyond words.

It is easy enough for even the most impoverished Cambodian to borrow, say, $10,000, in the event of an emergency such as an arrest that requires bail, a fire that damages a house or shop, or a medical issue.

Paying back the loan is another thing altogether.  And not paying, well. . .

The parallels to the vigorish that the underworld charges in the West are inescapable.  I don’t really know what the criminally avaricious charge elsewhere, but here it is Continue reading

Weddings in Cambodia usually grounded in tradition


Since this is nothing more than a photo that I have plucked from the Internet, I have no idea who these wedding participants are.  But the bridegroom’s family certainly looks happy.

One of my Cambodian “nephews” — I am merely close to the family of five — has been talking for several months about marrying a young women with whom he works.

Like many prospective bridegrooms, “Socheat” is full of anxiety about spending the rest of his life with someone.  But he is going ahead with the planning because, he says, the bond will make his parents, her parents and her happy.

Whether he is truly in love with “Sophea” Continue reading

For many Cambodians, giving birth is perilous journey

maternity 6

Far too many Cambodians live like this in the provinces, even within Phnom Penh limits, with few having either the means for or access to (or both) maternity healthcare that normally is appropriate.

This post is published verbatim with the permission of Banyan Blog, where it originally appeared. The writer’s insights are always worth reading, and I highly recommend the blog as well as its Twitter feed. The source of all but one of the photos, which I have added to the Banyan Blog post, is Kuma Cambodia, funded by a Norwegian association that goes by NAPIC.

One of the most dangerous moments in a woman’s life is giving birth, especially when access to quality medical care is not easily available.  In Khmer, the term to give birth is called “ch’long tonle” which means to “cross the river”. The elders use this phrase to describe the dangerous journey of crossing the river, which was oftentimes difficult and dangerous. Some would make it, others would drown. The phrase is appropriate in describing the perilous and uncertain journey of childbirth.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia’s maternal mortality rate is 170 per 100,000 live births (2013). While the rate has improved significantly since 1990 (1,200 per 100,000), it is still one of the highest in the world. The biggest challenge is Continue reading

In many countries, U.S. greenbacks are not all the same


My hot and sour soup was doubly good.

Seasoned travelers learn quickly that merchants and money changers may well reject U.S. currency that does not meet their standards.

A tiny tear, too much wrinkling or an unsightly smudge may well upend a transaction.  The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller has an amusing video on his problems changing money in Myanmar.

As someone who has traveled far and wide and worked on introducing newly designed U.S. currency to the world, I accepted a crisp $2 note unthinkingly in change from the driver of a motorbike with whom I had ridden to the Riverside neighborhood of Phnom Penh.  (I rarely take advantage of such casual “taxi” services such as motos or tuk-tuks.)

I guess I was so intrigued by the appearance of that denomination, which I never have seen here in Cambodia and hadn’t seen in the U.S. for quite some time, that Continue reading

In Cambodia, dealing with refugees remains hot issue

Sitting left to right, Brooke, Siphan, Coghlin, Tai.

Sitting left to right, Jim Brooke, Phay Siphan, Denise Coghlin, Billy Tai.

During a panel discussion last week, four individuals failed as expected to arrive at unanimous agreement about the world’s refugees in general and, in particular, the four who have arrived in Cambodia from Australia.

Former New York Times journalist, Jim Brooke, a friend who is editor of the year-old Khmer Times newspaper, stuck to the theme of a column in which he denigrated the men, women and children who braved the perils of crossing the high seas to enter Australia from distant shores.

Those souls have made it only to the independent nation of Nauru, where some 1,000 of them are held in a detention center run by Australia in what are described as deplorable conditions akin to a concentration camp’s.

Saying that Australia has the fifth highest per capital income in the world, Brooke characterized the migrants as Continue reading