Rockin’ the socks and sandals

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While people are scolded in North America for wearing socks and sandals and stirring up much anger among fashionistas, women around Cambodia pull it off quite well. The markets have a variety of colours and designs that comfortable accommodate the sock and sandal look.

Women often wear this and PJs when it’s sunny because they want to protect their skin from becoming darker. It makes me sad that the women here don’t think they’re  natural skin colour is beautiful and people can buy whitening lotion everywhere.

I keep telling them, “In North America, we think dark skin is beautiful, you’re beautiful.” I guess we always like what we don’t have no matter where you are in the world.

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Best of the Cambodian Circus

Phare, The Cambodian Circus, is a must-see show for anyone visiting Siem Reap or Battambang. By going to this show, not only are you going to see amazing local talent, but you are also supporting a fantastic social enterprise.

The Cambodian Circus is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) Association, which means “Brightness of the Arts” in English. PPS Association is a Cambodian non-profit founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugees artists in the area of Anchanh Village in the Battambang Province.​ They work mainly with disadvantaged young people and emphasize self-development and sustainability. The artists of the circus come from disadvantaged backgrounds including people who used to be on the street, trafficked, orphans. The arts and education helps them integrate into society.

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My friends and I took a one hour circus workshop with a few of the performers and we have a much greater appreciate for people who juggle and do flips. We had trouble juggling three balls, let alone the 10 that they juggle in the shows, so I think we’ll leave it up to the pros.

I’ve been fortunate to see a few shows and enjoy watching these talented contortionists, jugglers, flippers and even breakdancers. All the shows tell stories of Cambodian lives and society. Now the artists have taken their performances around the world!

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More fundraisers should have ladyboys like this one

I’ve been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia for seven months now and there are still nights that are unpredictable. You can never know what to expect in this small town.

One of my friends brought my attention to a Cambodian-founded organization called Self Help Community Centre (S.H.C.C.). With about 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia (yes, incredible isn’t it?), the organization already stands out by being started and run by a Cambodian man named Choan Sambat. People can easily get NGO-nauseum living here, and when you meet organizations that are doing the same thing, they often blur together. But Sambat’s story of struggle, relentless persistence and passion for community is really inspiring.

Sambat’s story

This is the very short version of his story, I really encourage you to read his full story here.

He was born in 1985, just four years after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ended. Hunger and financial poverty caused many problems while he was growing up. He worked long hours in the rice field to earn $0.75 US per day, among other labour jobs while he was a young boy.

Even though he knew education was key for a better future for him, school was very challenging because he lacked supplies and proper transport, so he dropped out for a period of time. He ended up hanging out with people who were a negative influence and he knew if he didn’t change his life, he would end up in jail or dead.

At 16 years old, he moved to Siem Reap and offered to work for free at a pagoda. While he was there, he taught himself English by listening to the stories of tourists who were around. He also heard of an organization called Sala Bai who takes disadvantaged youth and train them in hospitality skills. He got one of the 50 sought-after spots out of over 5,000 applicants.

He found a job right away after training and after five years of hard work, he saved up $700 to start a village school, which classes include English, Organic Farming, Education on Hygiene, Nutrition and Environmental Issues. The school began with 250 students and thanks to international funding, they now accommodate 1,500 students. Every Sunday, the school goes and helps the local community, whether it is building houses for families or roads.

Even more incredible, the school’s budget allocates him a salary but he never takes it. He lives with his family and rides his motorbike that doesn’t work most of the time because he believes that all the money should go to the kids.

The fundraiser
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The event was held at The Station Wine Bar, the gay-friendly bar in the centre of town. First of all, I love that this community event was held at a gay bar. Second, the feature show of the fundraiser were ladyboys. Third, Sambat said that people think he is gay if they don’t know he has a girlfriend and he really doesn’t care. Awesome.

When I arrived, one of the teachers told me about the beautiful artwork of some of their students. I was very impressed with the detail and quality of their work, I could never produce what they did with all the training in the world. Then I walked in the bar with a diversity of people in the crowd, ladyboys and the lovely staff of SSHC.

People were brought to tears when the SSHC staff sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is one of the most adorable things I have seen in the seven months I’ve been here.

Fortunately, there are many success stories like Sambat’s around Cambodia and they deserve to be shared.
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Cost of living in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap has a full range of prices of food, accommodation and services. People, whether they are Khmer (Cambodian) or an expat (foreigners who live in Cambodia), can live comfortably for $300.00 US to $500.00 a month. Unfortunately, most Khmer people’s salaries are nowhere near that.

Some of my friends work nine hours a day, six days a week to earn $60.00 to $90.00 a month. Some of their jobs include working guest relations at a hotel or a cleaner will earn just $40.00 to $60.00 a month. The lowest price for a room to a rent I have come across is $25.00 per month, so of course that doesn’t leave people much to save.

While it’s nice to have a treat to eat out once in awhile, I’ve enjoying buying at the market with my Cambodian friends and cooking at their house. Just last night we went to a friend’s place and it cost $1.50 to buy enough veggies, eggs and noodles to feed four of us. It is still often cheaper to cook than eat a $1.00 meal every time.

Least costly food (US dollars)

  • Street sandwhich with a fresh baguette: $0.30 without meat, $0.50 with meat
  • A meal of fried noodles off the street: $0.50 to $0.75
  • A full meal of fried rice or fried noodles at a small restuarant: $1.00 to $1.50
  • 1 kg of tomatoes: $1.25
  • A bunch of green beans that can feed 4 people: $0.25
  • A dozen eggs: $1.50
  • A big pack of sliced bread: $1.25
  • Fresh curry spices: $0.25

Eating and drinking out 

  • You can a range of sandwhiches, a curry dish that is good for a meal, tacos on deal nights: $1.50 to $3.00: 
  • Eating a lot of soup and noodles you cook yourself with three other friends: $2.00 per person
  • All you can eat BBQ: $4.00
  • There are places like Soria Moria and Ivy guesthouse that have $1.00 tapas and drinks every week
  • Pizza is a little more expensive, ranging from $5.00 to $13.00

Accommodation and property

  • Rent for a very small room (5 ft x 8 ft): $25.00 a month
  • Rent for a basic bachelor suite just outside the city centre: $40.00 per month ($20.00 if you share with someone)
  • Rent for a bigger suite or one-bedroom apartment: $100.00 to $300.00 per month for a bigger suite. It’s on the higher end if you’re closer to town
  • Rent for a three story house: $600.00 to $800.00 depending house close you are from the centre. But you have a motto or bicycle, three-story houses that are just a 5-minute motto ride from the centre of town are about $400.00 per month. They have a lot of space

I’m very grateful to have the ability to try a full range of food and services. But what I’ve enjoyed the most in Siem Reap is spending time with my Khmer friends in their homes, local hangout places and meeting their families in their home town. That’s when I feel like I’m experiencing the “real Cambodia.”

 

Poverty in a so-called “developed” country

My friend shared this video featuring Ronald Davis, a man who’s been living on the street for almost two years.

This video made me think about the different types of poverty that can exist. Most people immediately associate poverty with not having much money or material things. But what about people who have many material things but few quality relationships in their lives? Or people who have a lot of money but who are miserable? Maybe spiritually or socially poor?

One thing that struck me the most in this video was when he said, “Everybody gets on the Metro and then I just feel so bad that I can’t be going home. It’s really emotional because I’m really trying to get myself together to get off the street . . . No matter what people think about me, I know I’m a human first.”

When I was watching this video from Siem Reap, I immediate though of the paradox of this man who lives in one of the world’s riches countries who has no house, family or friends to go to and struggles every day to get food and a place to sleep without getting kicked off by the police.

By contrast, I look at my Cambodian friends who are not financially wealthy by any means but they have a comfortable home to come to, a loving family with enough food to eat, a place to take a bath and good memories to share. I’ve shared meals with families and friends around the country and their homes are filled with laughter, jokes and love.

Poverty comes in various forms and financial poverty is not always the worst kind that exists.

Part 2: You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .

1. You think “bay” (rice) and “bey” (number three) sound exactly the same

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2. When people who are much better-looking than you call you beautiful because of your lighter skin
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3. You actually use your traffic signals on your motto or car

 

4. When you scream at pitches you didn’t even know you had every time you see a cockroach or a spider and your Cambodian friends are confused at your seemingly irrational fear

5. When you go shopping to find self-tanning lotion and all you can find is whitening lotion

 

6. You realize that pajamas are not just for sleeping, it can be used for sun protection and makes for very comfortable market wear


7. You are confused when the box of ingredients you can add to your pizza includes soy sauce 

I’m continuing this series of “You know you’re a Western in X country when . . .” as I visit other countries over the next year. If you have any ideas, please submit them to melissa.chungfat@gmail.com and I will post it.

See Part 1: You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .