Archive for the ‘About’ Category

Commenting on the Body

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Furthering the topic of the Khmer culture in regards to their attitude regarding the human body, I want to explore the reasoning behind Cambodian’s frequent and seemingly blunt commentary on the physical appearance of their and other people’s bodies.

Throughout our month-long stay in Cambodia, one frequently occurring comment that Cambodians make in regards to others is: “Wow! (insert person here) is so fat!”  One time this happened, our tour guide Mot was commenting on an (admittedly humongous) baby.  The baby’s parents, the restaurant owners, smiled and laughed, even when Mot noted that the baby must take after his slightly chubby father. Commenting on a baby’s weight is a common occurrance in America; parents and family celebrate when the child is gaining weight, as it is a sign of health.  So, I did not think much of the comment, although I perceived the second comment as a bit “rude”.

Another time I saw a Khmer man comment on a body was in Sianhoukeville, when our friend Chen said, in extremely close proximity to an obese Frenchman, “WOW!  He is SO FAT! Do you see how fat he is?!”  To which Amy and I both tried to shush Chen.

Why do Cambodians respond so strongly to obesity?  One obvious explanation is that obese, or even slightly overweight Cambodians are an extremely rare sight to see.  For example, according to this website (, 0% (that’s right, ZERO, or at least less than 1) percent of Cambodian females in 2010 have a BMI greater than 30.  Overweight people are rare because poverty is rampant.  Cambodians cannot afford to gorge themselves on food like Americans can. Eating, from what I observed, is an enjoyable, celebrated ritual, to be sure.  However, buying more food than your family needs to survive is a waste of what hard-earned, little money a family has.

The second reason that Cambodians are vocal about obesity and physical appearance is that it is simply not seen as a rude thing to do.  The amount of fat one has on his body is obviously visible to the public– why NOT comment on it?  Because of someone’s hurt self esteem?

Self esteem is something Cambodians seem to have little of.  This is not to say they are not intelligent, smart, and beautiful (they SO are!), however, the Khmer people seem to think less of themselves than Americans do.  You hear the message every day in US media– “Big is Beautiful! Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!  It’s the inside, not outside, that counts!” In Khmer culture, one’s worth is not based on outward appearance, therefore, it is seen as fine to call yourself ugly.  After all, what’s it to you?  You have more important things to do than look in the mirror all day!

(In regards to Khmer men’s “self esteem”, they seemed to “put themselves down” most often with the comment “I am so lazy!” It was seen as a very funny joke!)

Every Single Khmer Woman we ran into commented on how dark their skin was compared to ours.  ”So beautiful!” they would say, running their hands over our white skin, hair, or teeth.  ”My skin so dark! So ugly!  Yours so beautiful!” Was this a means of complimenting a potential client in order for them to purchase more? Sometimes, sure.  Other times, when no money exchange was involved, it was simply a comment: You are white.  You are beautiful.  I am dark.  I am not.  This wasn’t said with sadness by any Khmer woman.  It was just an accepted “fact” to them, regardless of how true their white counterparts thought it was.  No Khmer woman accepted a “No, YOU’RE beautiful!” rebuttal from us– they laughed and shook their heads.

In summary, it is my hypothesis that Cambodians do not have as strong of a connection between outer beauty/inner self-worth as Americans do, therefore, commenting on things such as skin color, obesity, teeth, and height are seen as appropriate topics of conversation.


Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh

Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh

Mr. Mot

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

With its rolling hills and chilly nighttime air, Mondulkiri province is a world away from lowland Cambodia. It is quite a contrast both climatically and culturally as we were jokingly told, “Sen Monorom [the provincial capital] was a one-horse town, but the horse died.” The nightlife is pretty tame, unless of course you happen to be at the

A laid back atmosphere at the Phat Gecko

A laid back atmosphere at the Phat Gecko

Phat Gecko Bar, just a stone’s throw off the main two-lane road. There you will meet, quite possibly, the most interesting man in the world: Moth Morn. Move over Dos Equis guy, Mot can out-trek, out-swear, out-joke, out-sing, and definitely out-drink you, sir! Mot and his girlfriend Virginie, or Vivi for short, own the Phat Gecko bar and run a tour company catering to adventurous international travelers.


Between the two of them, Mot and Vivi speak Khmer, English, French, and Phnong.)

Between the two of them, Mot and Vivi speak Khmer, English, French, and Phnong.

Quick with a joke that can be “a little bit disgusting, you know” or a light of your smoke, Mot has a genuine smile that is contagious. He is a lover of The Doors, Bob Marley, and Johnny Cash, regularly humming the tunes and often improvising the lyrics.



"Hey bro! Wanna brew?"

“Hey bro! Wanna brew?”


Mot was born shortly after the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia. Unlike most Cambodian families, both of Mot’s parents survived the Khmer Rouge’s “agrarian revolution” and gruesome genocide. When I asked him how his mother survived the brutal conditions, Mot proceeded to tell the story of how he got his name. “Near the end, my mother had a dream. A man held up three plates and asked my mother to choose. The first had food, but even though she was starving she told the man, ‘No, I will still be hungry tomorrow if I eat your food today.’ The second plate had a bowl of water on top of it. My mother didn’t want this either because she will still be thirsty the next day. The third one had a knife on it. This one my mother took because she could hold it and it will last. She could cook, hunt, and protect herself, you know. When I was born my mother named me Moth which means knife in Khmer. I was the something she could hold on to. I was the something that would last. I think I helped pull her through.” Mot reverently told this story. It was a shock to see this dirty jokester become so reserved. Mot revealed the same demure countenance when trekking through the jungle. His respect for nature became most obvious when, during lunch, Mot silently set aside a portion of his meal as an offering to the forest.

Whenever a classic rock song comes on the radio, I am reminded of the fun-loving tour guide I spent a few days with in Mondulkiri. I think back to my first impression of him: an oddball who tells one awkward joke too many. That initial judgement has been replaced by thoughts of what a dynamic individual he is, and who we all are underneath our black trucker hats.


Silk: A tale from worm to worn

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Silk, like many fabrics, began in nature. Sericulture, or silkmaking, began about 5,000 years ago in China.  It spread not only to other pats of Asia, but to Europe and the Americans thanks to the Silk Road.  Though still the world’s leading producer of silk, China is not the only country receiving praise for it’s once secret craft.  Cambodia is beginning to earn praise for the beautiful silk scarves, tapestries, and clothes that they produce both by hand and commercially.  On our first day in Cambodia we go the chance to visit a silk farm on an island in the Mekong River.  We took a river boat from Phnom Penh to the island wear a family showed us the humble beginnings of a fabric worn by the high class and highly divine.

Once found in nature, most silk worms have been domesticated.  Bombyx mori is the most IMG_1080commonly used species.  Silk worms are fed a healthy diet of Mulberry leaves. Once the worms have completed a four stage molting phase, they create a cocoon of raw silk around themselves.  These cocoons are then often boiled, killing the worm inside.  The worms are not usually allowed to mature fully, because their bodies produce enzymes that create holes in the cocoon to allow them to escape.  These enzymes damage the silk and significantly lessen the quality and amount of silk produced by each cocoon.   The strands of the cocoon are then picked at until they form a strand that can be unwound.  A single cocoon can produce over 600 meters of silk.

IMG_1082The cocoon are then boiled in water for a brief time before being turned into strands that will be eventually be woven into beautiful pieces.  The family whose farm we visited showed us that all of their silks are dyed using natural elements. IMG_1083aOnce the silk strands have been pulled and dyed they are spun into a finer form of silk thread.  Everyone in the family works to create the beautiful silk pieces that they then sell.  Both the men and the women learn to weave.

Sericulture is truly an art.  From the growing of the silk worm to dying and spinning the raw silk into smooth thread, this family is its own artist colony.  The amount of detail they are able to include in their silk products is absolutely incredible.  One of the most amazing parts is the speed at which they are able to complete an average tapestry.  One large tapestry can take up to three days.  That’s it.  IMG_1076

People, like Kikuo Morimoto, have finally begun to take notice of the incredible cloth treasures produced by Cambodians.  Many are dedicating their lives to help this struggling industry take root in a country that almost lost all of its skilled artisans to a communist revolution.  Thanks to the efforts of Morimoto, and other like him, Cambodia’s silk industry is gaining strength.  Hopefully, in the years to come, it will come to be a main export of the country and help the Cambodian people by providing a reliable and sustainable job source.


The Many Faces of God

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Meandering aroundthe maze-like interior of the famous Bayon temple was truly an experience. I can understand why the word bayon in Khmer translates to “magic”; it was a miracle I only got lost thrice inside the cavernous 825 year-old structure. Bayon was the last stone temple built


during the Khmer empire, but King Jayavarman VII definitely saved the best for last. It is surrounded by two long walls bearing an extraordinary collection of bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events. In all, there are more than 11,000 carved figures. As is common throughout Angkor, they were originally gilded, but the varnish has long since faded. Bayon is also famously known for its huge stone faces of a Buddhist bodhisattva, or deity. The faces, 216 in total, smiled down on me rather curiously while I sat among the ruins, as if they were withholding some divine secret.



Those smirking faces resembled the countless other Khmer faces that had greeted me throughout the country. The resemblance made me think: what does God look like? Surely, Michelangelo had gotten it right when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Or maybe the Pende people of Zaire have the more accurate depiction of God in their wooden masks. Or maybe the Mayans are correct in their imagery of God. Or maybe…?


Michelangelo’s God


Kasai, the river god of the Pende people









Mayan god Itzamná

Mayan god Itzamná




Cima da Conegliano's "God the Father"

Cima da Conegliano’s “God the Father”













Elephant Trekking

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

If asked to name some animals associated with Southeast Asia, elephants would soon pop up in a list. While in Cambodia, I had a personal mission of seeing an elephant, and maybe even petting it (If I was lucky enough!). On our second day in Mondulkiri, my dream came true. We arrived at our first waterfall with Mott, a native Cambodian tour guide, as our leader. As soon as we pulled up, I spotted the elephant and began to do a little bit of a happy dance. I’ve seen elephants in zoos, but have never been so close with no barriers around. We were all getting excited as we started walking up this is gigantic and friendly creature. As we started petting the elephant, Mott said, “Do you guys want to feed him?” This shouldn’t have even been a question with how much excitement we all had on our faces.

Excited to feed our new friend

Excited to feed our new friend

Later that night as we all gathered around the dinner table at a local (and delicious) restaurant, we all got to talking to an Australian volunteer, James, who had been teaching English in the local schools for the past few weeks. After telling him what we had done that day, he asked us if we got to ride any elephants. After telling him no, he started talking about how bad it is to ride them and the health effects on elephants ribs and backs. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was because I can only imagine the amount of weight they are forced to carry on a daily basis, but it got me wondering why I had never heard about the detrimental effects on these magnificent creatures.

As of 2004

The use of bullhooks on elephants

The use of bullhooks on elephants

, there were about 250 elephants in Cambodia living in the wild. Elephant trekking is a popular attraction to tourists, but if they knew how harmful it is, would they still have the same desire? Every country is different, but many elephants are trained to accept riders, usually in abusive ways such as using bullhooks and electric prods. On top of the abusive training, these innocent creatures have to endure hundreds of pounds on their back every day. An elephant’s spine cannot support the weight of people. Permanent spinal injuries, infected blisters from the chairs attached to their backs, and even foot infections from long-term trekking are all health concerns for elephants.

If more people, specifically tourists, were aware of these effects, maybe elephant riding would be less desirable and more elephants would be able to roam the forests without the added weight and health concerns.

DJ Vuta

Friday, January 4th, 2013

The first week in Phnom Penh was the first week of my life where I woke up consistently at 4 am. Hello, jet lag.  Despite my many attempts to force myself to sleep I finally took my professor’s advice and went to watch the sun rise over the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. I walked the short distance from the hotel to the river front (two blocks) and found a spot on the low wall facing the water.  Like most cities, Phnom Penh rises early.  Electricity is a luxury and the day’s business begins before the sun has even gotten out of bed.  People were walking the river front and chatting with friends.  Tuk tuks and motorized scooters raced along the road  delivering people and packages.

As I began to watch the sky lighten up a Cambodian man came and sat down a little ways from me on the wall.  We acknowledged each other and continued to watch the golden streaks of sun light push back the night’s dark blue.  A little bit later he asked where I was from and I told him that I was from the United States.IMG_1361  He was very friendly and his English was quite good.  I found out that he was born in Kandal Province, where he grew up on a rice farm with his two older sisters and one younger brother.  He is thirty-six years old.  Ten years ago he came Phnom Penh to study at university.  He earns a living by giving motor rides during the day.  At night he is a DJ at the local Manhattan Club at the Holiday International Hotel.  He plays mostly electronic and dance music.

I asked him if he had had a chance to travel anywhere else inside of his own country.  He told me that one of his favorite places to visit is Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat), especially for the sunsets.  He has also been to Vietnam and Singapore, which he visited with a friend who is also a DJ.  In fact, he was leaving once the sun had risen to drive to Vietnam to visit a friend.  This led me to ask him about his opinion on the large population of Vietnamese people living in Cambodia and their affect on the country.  He explained that many of those Vietnamese living in Cambodia are living here illegally.  It is easier for them to make money here than it is back home in Vietnam.  They take thousands of jobs from Cambodians every year.  The Vietnamese living in Cambodia make up nearly 5% of the nation’s total population.

He also asked me if I knew about President Obama’s recent visit to Cambodia.  He said that he would President Obama to speak with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen about the big issues facing Cambodia today: land grabs by the government and private businesses, the increasing Vietnamese population, poor conditions of public schools, and the government’s lack of concern and action over the poor living and working conditions of its people.  He does not think it is right that a government and its officials should be so rich when the majority of the people are so poor. Since 2008, the Cambodian government has allowed much of its country’s farm land to purchased by foreign companies, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese, or seized from the local people who have lived and worked on their farms for many generations.  Often the people who live on these farms and other lands are evicted with little monetary compensation.  The government provides no help with finding alternative housing or occupation.  Protesters are most often jailed.  A interactive map shows the land that has been seized since the early 1990′s, with most of it occurring within the last five years. IMG_0998

Vuta is concerned with the state of Cambodian public schools.  Like in the United States and many other developed countries, the government provides free schooling to children.  These schools are usually built in an open air design with a large courtyard in the middle. The school day exists in two sessions, the 7 am to 11 am or the 1 pm to the 5 pm. Although the school is free, most children end up having to pay their teachers a fee.  Teachers salaries are very low and they often charge students money for class in order to make ends meet.  In addition to the poor conditions of the classrooms and low  salaries, teachers are not always qualified to teach and sometimes do not even show up for class.

While researching I was able to find, an organization that documents human rights violations in Cambodia. On their website, they have created a map that displays all documented cases from 1993 until today.  These violations, and the many more that go undocumented, are the reasons that Vuta and other Cambodians want to see significant change in the way their government takes care of its people.

Despite these major challenges, Vuta is overall happy with the direction his country is headed in since the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.  I attempted to ask him what he thought about his Prime Minister Hun Sen, but for reasons of his being uncomfortable or a limitation of language vocabulary, we were unable to discuss it further.  He was able to tell me that he sees a good future for his country and its people.

IMG_1360When I asked him about what he sees for his future he smiled, “I would like to own my own stall in the market”.  I asked him if he was a good cook and he replied that he was a great cook of Khmer food.  He would like to cook many fish dishes.

Cambodia’s Underground War

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Cambodia is a country scarred by years of conflict and some of the deepest scars lie just inches beneath the surface. The legacy of landmines in Cambodia is one of the worst anywhere in the world, with an estimated four to six million dotted about the countryside. Not only a weapon of war, landmines are weapons against peace, as they recognize no ceasefire. Although military skirmishes ended more than two decades ago, war is still claiming new victims: civilians who have stepped on a mine or been injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO), also known as explosive remnants of war (ERW).

In 1969, President Nixon launched Operation Menu which authorized the secret bombing of suspected Vietcong communist base camps in Cambodia. Continuing til 1973, huge areas of the country were carpet bombed, killing many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees. During this bombing campaign, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were used by all sides during WWII. Today many of these bombs dangerously litter the countryside as UXO. Landmines were also deposited in Cambodia by both sides during this Cold War period. Mines were laid along borders and supply routes to prevent towns and villages from being overrun.

Map showing ERW contamination

Map showing ERW contamination

As a result of a protracted sequence of internal and external conflicts, Cambodia today has one of the world’s worst ERW problems and the highest number of amputees per capita of any country. Military explosives have rendered 64,035 casualties since 1979.


For more information regarding ERW, check out this January 2012 article from National Geographic.

AIDS in Cambodia

Friday, December 28th, 2012

As you walk down Phnom Penh’s city streets, you’ll come across many homeless, crippled, and starving people and families. It’s difficult to walk by all of these people on a daily basis who are mostly begging for money, and do nothing. Although there are homeless people all over the world, it’s a rare occasion for a pedestrian to stop and ask them about their life, how they ended up there, and just their opinions on life.
On our seventh day in Phnom Penh, our tour group and I were walking down (enter streetname here) that runs along the National Museum when we noticed a homeless woman sitting cross-legged on her worn down mat. We stopped to ask her a few questions about her life and who she is with Chen, our native Cambodian tour guide in Phnom Penh, as our translator. Through Chen, we discovered her name is Lanchna and she is infected with AIDS. At the young age of 23, Lanchna has no family, no home, and no treatment. There is an option for some medical treatment at orphanages, but Lanchna expressed her dislike for going to them. Lanchna contracted the disease one year ago as a victim of rape on the streets of Phnom Penh.
After this appalling explanation, it made me question the what the amount of Cambodians suffering from this horrible diseasewas, as well as how many reported rapes occur in the country. After researching, I found that as of 2009, 0.5% of Cambodia’s population is suffering from HIV/AIDS. (insert link). Although this may seem like a small percentage, especially compared to other parts of the world, it is still extremely important to recognize these numbers, as Cambodia is the 69th most infected country in the world. Treatment for HIV/AIDS is expensive and hard to come by, expecially in poorer countries like Cambodia.
Ever since the Khmer Rouge “Reign of Terror” in the 1970s, Cambodia was left with very few doctors, as most intellectuals were killed, since the state was turning agrarian. (insert link here). The lack of doctors, as well as many Cambodian’s preference for traditional medicine, makes it difficult to treat illness like HIV/AIDS. After interviewing Lanchna, I asked Chen if many Cambodians are even aware of the disease. He replied that some know of its existence, but not much more than that. This also makes it difficult for victims of HIV/AIDS to seek treatment if they don’t even know they have been infected.
Besides the issue of AIDS that Lanchna made me think about, I was shocked to hear exactly how she contracted the disease. According to ‘The Mirror’, a weekly Khmer news publication, the number of reported rapes in Cambodia increased 322 cases from 2009 to 2010. This was a reported 16.77% increase since 2008. With the numbers of rapes increasing, its safe to say the number of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS is increasing as well.
Since there are a few number of doctors practicing in Cambodia due to the Reign of Terror along with poverty and a resistance of modern medicine, it is difficult for those suffering from HIV/AIDS to seek treatment and receive adequate care. Even in the United State, if individuals have the resources needed for treatment, it is still hard to come by. When faced with problems of poverty and lack of education, it is even harder. For Cambodians, those who are suffering find it hard to find the proper resources to help them through such difficult times.

Cambodian Rubbish

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

It’s a common site in Cambodia to see side walks with plastic bags, discarded bottles, straws, and other items strewn all about.  When people are done with their food containers or wrappers they throw them on the ground.  There are trash cans, but they are few and far between.  It is most commonly disposed of by burning.  Whether in the countryside or city there are small piles of smoking plastic.  Burning plastic outside of an incinerator is dangerous for peoples’ health and the environment.



One of the major issues is the cost.  There is no government-run trash removal in Cambodia. The independent companies charge large sums that the average person and/or business cannot afford.  Foreigners are charged more than locals.

Growing up I was always told not to litter or to properly dispose of my trash (recycling vs. trash), so coming to Cambodia and seeing the amount of trash everywhere really surprised.  I can understand having a financial strain that keeps one from affording the environmentally sound choice. For a people and a country that depend so heavily on the land beneath their feet, they have a poor understanding of how to help themselves by helping their environment.  I can’t help but think that it is either a lack of knowledge or a lack or concern (they are more concerned with surviving the daily grind) about their environment.

There are some organizations that are attempting to reverse the commonly accepted attitude regarding waste disposal.  HUSK is an organization that has initiated a “Rice for Rubbish” program.  For every sack of rubbish that families turn in, they can receive two kilos of rice.

Hopefully, programs like this and improved education about the environment can change the way Cambodians view and treat their environment.



A Hard Working Society

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Tra's neighbor taking a break on the farm as we try cutting the rice

Tra’s neighbor taking a break on the farm as we try cutting the rice

Everyday people are talking about how much work they have to get done. In America, hard work is portrayed as this whole idea of working hard enough to become successful, and success is portrayed as making and having a lot of money. In Cambodia everything is different. And by everything, I mean absolutely everything. It’s so difficult to describe cultural differences, because a lot of what you see, hear, taste, and smell can only be fully embraced by firsthand experience.
Everyone knows poverty exists and it’s all over the world in every country in some shape or form. We don’t know what to do about it, because if we did, the problem would not exist. It’s a difficult question to ask why it exists in so many places and forms, but even harder to answer. In Cambodia, family is everything. They are not only your blood, but your security. Dr. Rallis has mentioned to us that many Cambodians ask how many children he has, and when he replies that he has none, the first question is, “But who will take care of you?” This says so much about their outlook and the importance they place on family. Many Cambodians have many children in order to increase their security. By security I mean more people to help with the harvest and more people to bring in an income.
Yesterday, we visited Tra’s family who lives right outside the city. His family was so welcoming and generous. Tra showed us their rice farm and we were all lucky enough to meet one of his neighbors who was cutting the harvest as we walked by. We each took turns cutting and collecting the rice, which is brutal, tedious work, especially under the blistering sun. Did I mention Tra’s neighbor is 60 years old and still working on the farm? (Refer to picture). As much as you want to show sympathy for someone working so hard under intense heat at such an old age, you can’t help but feel this sense of admiration.
I know there are many people in America who work hard every day, but a lot of the hard work we see in America isn’t pure labor intensive work that’s motivation is survival. Without harvesting the rice fields, there would be no rice, and without rice there would be very little food to eat. Tra’s family does not harvest the rice to sell for money; it is their main source of food. There are so many labor-intensive steps that go into the whole process of planting and harvesting. Because of the amount of work there is associated with harvesting rice, the more help the better. This is why so many Cambodian families are large in size and aim to be.
Being in Cambodia has already changed my view on so many things, of them being hard work. I know you can work hard in many ways, but for some reason I personally have a greater respect and definition of hard work that is motivated by survival. In Cambodia I see success as a form of survival, with no association to money. I don’t know what makes America so different, or when things started having different meanings behind them, but after many observations of Cambodian culture, I do know that family is everything in so many ways.