The traditional and modern Khmer women

My Cambodian/expat football team

My inspiring and strong Khmer friends on our football team. Seeing them every week on and off the field is always a great time.

“Cambodian men won’t like me, because I’m independent. They don’t like women who say, ‘do this’ or ‘do that.'”—One of my modern Khmer friends.

I’ve spent a year in Cambodia to date and have met Cambodians in rural villages and the heart of the busier cities in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh around the country. I’ve become very accustomed to seeing women who always greet you with a smile, often timid, and who have been raised to become a good wife to somebody, especially in the rural villages where over 85% of the Cambodian population lives.

Traditional Khmer women
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I’ve learned from my close Khmer friends, including those who have grown up in the cities, that their parents didn’t support their education because they were girls and prefer to send the boys to school. They would essentially say, “What’s the point? You are going to be a housewife so you need to learn to cook and clean the house.”

A “good” Khmer woman is a woman who does not speak back against authority, parents or their husbands. They are responsible for managing the house and taking care of the children while many of their husbands drink, laze around or cheat with other women. I don’t want to generalize but around Asia, particularly rural areas, this is a very common problem among the men. And the women often just tolerate it.

Modern Khmer women

Cambodian party

More of my confident, intelligent and talented Khmer friends at the one year anniversary at King’s Road restaurants.

 

I have been meeting more women in in Cambodia, particularly in sports groups and NGO employees, who very much surprise me with their boldness, confidence, LGBT friendly attitude, humour and sometimes sexual jokes. They are very liberal even by Western standards.

I very much admire and respect some of my friends who went against their parents wishes, which is very difficult in a culture where you are trained to respect and obey your elders from the moment you are born, and they fought to go to school anyway because they wanted to learn so they found a way to get their own scholarships or pay for their own education. In my previous post, I spoke about some of my strong friends who went against their parents to pursue their passions.

Socially, my modern Khmer friends are very outspoken, don’t take BS from anyone, especially men and earn their own money to live the way they want and learn whatever they want. We see each other at least twice a week and always enjoy a good laugh and be as loud as we want. They are one of the funniest people I’ve met in my life of all the places I’ve been in Europe, Mauritius, Asia and North America.

I know my friends will educate their daughters and their sons to respect women and I hope in the next generation this mentality spreads in more parts of the country.

 

 

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This generation of inspiring Khmer women

Apologies again for delayed posts, it’s been a crazy two weeks of life transitions, getting a bad cold in a country that is at least 27 degrees on any given day and social obligations.

I’ve met some more inspiring and strong Khmer women on my soccer team that plays games weekly. In many traditional Cambodian households, particularly rural areas of the country, which over 85% of the population lives in rural areas, many Khmer girls and women are expected to become housewives and are often not supported to attend school.

When I joined my first game, we did the usual introductions then one of my friends told me, “I’ve been playing football since I was small. But when I was young my father cut my ball in half because he said women do not play soccer and should learn to clean and cook. But he could not stop me and after a long time, he finally understands he cannot stop me. Women empowerment!”

I learned that this same friend was sponsored to attend a five-day program that uses football to also empower women too, which is amazing. When I first joined football, I wasn’t expecting to as many Khmer people playing as there were. But I’m very happy especially to see more women playing than I expected.

Another one of my teammates told me that her family often discouraged her from going to school and only supported her brothers’ education. But she found her own scholarship that enabled her to go to university. She was the first woman in Cambodia to graduate at the top of her marketing class at her university. Now she earns much more money than most of her male colleagues and uses her extra money to buy good books for her younger siblings.

Another teammate is raising her niece in addition to her own children but she keeps reinforcing the important of working hard and always learning. She provides everything that her niece needs to thrive.

While there may be some NGOs that have some impact with advancing women’s rights, it’s ultimately the women like my friends who will have the biggest influence to change the mentality of the next generation and their siblings to value education and support the empowerment of women.

 

Daauw homestay guesthouse in Huay Xai, Laos

This is where people can relax, buy the women’s handmade crafts and enjoy a wonderful meal.

Now I’m backtracking to October 2013 when I was in Laos. I stayed alone in Huay Xai to do a three-day ziplining tour. I stayed at a random guesthouse the first night I was there. As I walked up to the temple, I saw a sign that pointed to a homestay, which always appeals to me.

When I went, I met the family who runs it. The family is originally from America and they run this wonderful guesthouse in collaboration with other Laos families. They teach the women life skills, women’s rights and sell the women’s handmade products at their Women Empowerment Shop. It’s a beautiful environment they’ve created and all of the revenue from the guesthouse is invested in empowering the families.

These are the daughters of some of the women who participate in the workshops.

In Laos, many women, especially in rural areas, don’t have many rights or a space to express their opinions in their lifetime. They are second class citizens and very submissive to men. The legal marrying age for girls in Laos is 15 years old and they often stop school as soon as they become a wife.

Given the challenges girls and women face in Laos, I was impressed that Daauw Homestay was running these programs for women because these kinds of projects can be controversial among the local people or condemned.

I enjoyed dinner with the founders and other guests.

The couple has an adorable story themselves. The guy was traveling for years and when he only went to the U.S. for a few weeks, that’s where he met his wife and she continued on the journey with him. Now they have three beautiful children who attend a local school and learning Laos.

Because they’re just across the border to Thailand, they have been renewing their visa for years by taking the boat ride across the water every month.

A family’s kids who were playing with Laos kids.

Around dinnertime, I walked back to Daauw Homestay to have dinner with the family. For about $4 US, you could eat as much as you wanted of whatever they were serving that night, which included rice and several stir fried veggies.

I spoke with the family and a few of the other guests who were at the home. While we ate, their children were playing with the children of the Laos women who lived and worked at the guesthouse. It was a beautiful and open environment.

These are some of the beautiful crafts made by the Laos women.

After my 3-day ziplining tour was over, I stayed one night at the guesthouse with a woman who was on my tour. She was from France and was traveling around Asia long term.

We got along well during the tour, she was very easygoing. During our dinner with the family and guests, I chatted with another retired French couple who was traveling in Asia. They were going to make their way down to Siem Reap so I told them a bunch of advice on places to go.

These are some young girls taking one of the classes.

The room was very comfortable and it was about $8 US for the entire room. There was a fan and clean bathroom. It is probably the nicest place to stay in the Huay Xai, which is a very small city, not only because of the cleanliness but the people there who create a welcoming and warm environment.

I love places like Daauw that create an open environment and attract a certain type of guest and it’s an easy place to come alone. I encourage any person to say here if they want a comfortable place to stay, meet wonderful people and also support the women who are gaining valuable life skills.
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DSC_0472 He is one of the founders of Daauw Homestay.

When tourists get priority over mothers and babies

It was on my adventure bucket list to do zip-lining and I heard decent things about The Gibbon Experience in Huay Xai in northern Laos. So I went up to do the three-day trip that combines trekking, zip-lining and sleeping in the jungle treehouse. Yes, every child’s dream right?

I have A LOT of recommendations that I will send to the company on how to improve the tour and make it more worthwhile for what people pay. But what upset me more was on our truck ride to the jungle, I didn’t notice right away that a mother was sitting with her few-month old baby and young son were sitting outside the truck with strong winds and rain coming soon while three of us foreigners were in the sheltered part of the truck.

While the driver was getting gas, my friend and I asked him to ask the mother if she and her kids wanted to sit inside the truck in Laos. He just said, “No, it may rain, they are ok.” I didn’t believe him, so I turned to the mother and child and gestured, “Do you want to sit inside the truck?” And she immediately nodded her head and went to the back.

The driver looked displeased and said, “It may rain,” and I said, “I’ve been in Siem Reap with flooding, I can handle a little wind and rain. She has a baby who could get sick with this weather.”

What irritated me even more is on the two-hour drive to the jungle, the driver stopped by his village and we learned he himself has a wife with two kids and felt no sympathy for the mother and child in his car or to bother to ask if we can all squeeze in so they wouldn’t be exposed to the cold and rain. My friend also told me while he was seeing his family that the little boy in the car was smiling and playful until the driver yelled at them after the baby took a pee. To me, that’s just karma at it’s best.

When I went to say hi to the mom and the boy, they looked so sad and the boy didn’t want to engage anymore. They looked traumatized from the way the driver spoke to them.

Do tourists usually get priority over locals or was this another example of an aspect of Laos culture where women and their children are not as highly valued?

Unfortunately, I’ve learned in many parts of Laos, in the name of tradition and culture, Laos women do not have as much power in decision-making, especially once they are married. Often once women marry, they stop their education. I was very sad to hear it is still common for children as young as 13 years old to get married.

On an upside though, I have met a few strong women during my two weeks in Luang Prabang and Huay Xai who will be great role models for women of this generation. Change in cultural attitudes will come from within the communities as these women raise their children with the same openness and assertiveness they possess.