Conkers, Minnows and Elastic – Childhood Revisited in Cambodia

Posted on by Anna Spencer


Last Friday I sat on the edge of a desk, surrounded by the stench of half-eaten pizzas and sticky pools of splashed Fanta. It was the day of end-of-year parties. The bossiest girls from each class had collected a few thousand riels from fellow classmates and were shouting Pizza Company orders into their pink mobile phones.

I watched them devouring this over-priced, putrid, fake-cheese attempt at Western food with the same speed in which they normally devour their ‘bai chaa sach chruu’. A few genetically tooth-pick framed students rammed their third piece of chicken with gusto into their mouths, all this after four slices of pizza and three cups of coke entered their hollow legs in less than twenty minutes. Their turbo metabolisms will have no problem with some occasional fatty cheese and sugar.

‘It may be different for him’ I thought to myself as I watched the chubby, annoying boy who calls girls names and kicks boys smaller than him. I swear his face was bright red almost as if he was getting drunk on Fanta. I was struck by the image of him in 20 years – a fat bully, driving a Lexus like a fool and drunkenly shooting guns in the air (or worse). I chided myself for the assumption .He may turn into a really lovely young man.

It all reminded me of secondary schools back in the UK – overweight children being coaxed into eating Jamie Oliver’s ‘healthy school dinners’ with tokens that they can save to buy play-station games. Countless TV programmes telling us we should be outdoors and active not inside watching TV. Surely Cambodians won’t fall into the same farcical situation?

The independent, nimble, straight forward nature and inert bravery held within Cambodian people has been a massive eye-opener for me but my eyes drooped wearily after three hours of watching these youngsters feasting on crap Western food and pouring over each other’s I-phones.

However, after I insisted that the students help me clear the mess up and put their I-pads away, something happened that put a smile back on my face.

A group of girls pulled out their joined -up, neon elastic bands and instantly I was transported back to the little playing field from my old primary school. I was barefoot amongst the daisies playing exactly the same game as these girls were playing – ‘Lot Kaosou’ – Jumping with Rubber-band Rope.

The game requires players to complete a sequence of jumps over a long rope made of rubber -bands, which is held by their opponents. Each jump in the sequence is more challenging than the next and only the most agile win. This game originated in China – similar activity was recorded as early as in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC) and it was mentioned in a book written in the 7th century.

Of course, it never crossed my mind as I jumped elastic as a child that the game originated in China or that in twenty years time I would be perched on the edge of a desk watching a group of girls play it in Cambodia. In our little playing field it was our game; in these girl’s classroom in Phnom Penh it was their game.

These games which children rule without adult interference somehow transcend all boundaries. The important things from my childhood – making dens, swimming in rivers, conker fighting, British bulldog and marbles- may have died a death in the UK, but I have found them in some form again here in Cambodia.

Traditional games are still embraced; especially the ones played during Khmer New year festivities. For example: ‘Dandeum Sleuk Chheu – Stealing the Leaves’, which is very reminiscent to me of British bulldog, a game that is now banned in the UK due to Health and Safety regulations.

‘Dandeum Sleuk Chheu’ is a running game in which the players have to try to beat their opponent by running into the game area, grabbing a small leafy twig and making it back to their team mates without first being caught. In British Bulldog you have to run from your line of team-mates to the other side without being caught.

Another traditional game played during Khmer New Year is ‘Ongkunh’. ‘Ongkunh’ is a type of vine grown in Cambodia. It consists of a large stem and contains large and lengthy fruits. Each fruit has several seeds that are circular and flat with 2 to 3 inches in diameter. As the fruit ripens, the seed becomes hard and smooth and turns dark brown. This seed is used for playing the game ‘Ongkunh’.

There are two styles of the game played-the simple and the extended. The simple style consists of just throwing the Ongkunhs to hit the target Ongkunhs. The extended style adds five more stages in addition to the throwing stage. Both styles end with a penalty called Jours- which involves the winning team hitting the losers on the knee with the hard seeds.

This reminds me of conker fighting. The game of conker fighting involves trying to smash your opponent’s conker which is suspended at the end of a piece of string. I remember putting them in the freezer overnight to ensure maximum impact power. Now most schools in the UK are reluctant to allow students to play conkers because they are worried the conkers will trigger reactions from students with nut allergies.

Swimming in rivers has been another of my childhood delights revisited here in Cambodia. You can’t beat splashing in the cool river early in the morning or as the sun lowers; squelching around the silt banks and drying out on cool grass. I spent my childhood down at the river near my home, before the fear of rat’s piss and pedophiles hit. I swam in a river back home with a friend and her little boy last year during the height of a British summer but sadly we were the only people in the river.

I remember spending summer days as a child happily pond dipping, pulling the jam jar up to reveal little minnows in the murky pond water collected in the jar. Not too long ago, I spent the morning with a stick and line fishing rod and a bag of tiny shrimp in Kandal province, fishing in the floodwaters with a group of children from the village as giant dragon flies buzzed around us.

These are the days that my eight year old self would have been excited about living in my adult hood. In Cambodia I think river swimming, traditional games and children’s play without adult interference will still be held tightly in the spirits of children, despite rat’s piss and pedophiles, I-pads and Pizza Company. That’s what I tell myself right now as I listen to the sound of the children on my street playing the ‘throw the flip-flop game’ as the clock passes 10pm.

It may be whimsical or sentimental, but I do believe that the more children around the world who keep up the seed smashing, the river splashing, the elastic jumping and the pond fishing the better the future will be for us all.

Anna Spencer

This entry was posted in Commentary, Expat Life, teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Conkers, Minnows and Elastic – Childhood Revisited in Cambodia

  1. Sateev says:

    I like Pizza Company.

  2. Ray .. says:

    Anna …

    Beautiful sentiments , it brought memory’s of my own summer Holidays flooding back from forty years ago , when i swam in Rivers , spent time on my Uncle and Auntie’s Farm in the South East of Ireland , learning to ride and hunt Rabbits and of course Fishing in clean pristine Water ..

    At the onset of autumn we would go out conkering throwing sticks up into Horse Chestnut Tree’s in the hope of dislodging some of their precious bounty …

    We would then make the Conkers go through an array of Hardening processes , such as baking ! Soaking in Vinegar just a few that i can recollect of hand …

    I think that sadly i come from one the last generations for whom these activities where of the norm , the pre computer play station generation , i thank god that i had the opportunity to play outside in the Sunshine and fresh air , swimming in Rivers , playing British Bulldog , Kirby ( Throwing a ball from one side of the Rd to the other and you got a point if you managed to bounce it off the kirbstone ) Cricket , playing football from dawn to dusk , you only really came home when you were hungry .. Lastly playing Conkers and Marbles …

    Really were the happiest day’s of your life , no worry’s , no cares .. Nothing to worry about until you had to start getting back up for School in September … But even that was fun …

  3. Charlie says:

    a nice tale.

    Like everyone else that reads this, I get flashback’s from my younger years. For me it takes me back to Devon.. fishing for trout, eels and bullheads in the streams and brooks, building camps, games of fox and hounds in the forests and cairns that were so child freindly and only staying indoors when being punished (happened a fair bit..)

    It all seemed to change when technology started insinuating itself into every activity.. around about the same time one of my rich (to my eyes) friends got a sodastream maker and later, a Vic20 computer..


    • Brett Scott says:

      You mentioned a vic20 pc? Wow…does that ever take me back. That was my first pc back in about 1981 or 82, I believe. Then the Commodore 64 etc etc…great article btw…

  4. Dara says:

    Thank you Anna,

  5. anna says:

    I’m a ridiculously nostalgic person – a whiff of rosemary and I am back in Sardinia, of grilled sardines the Costa Brava, cow pats even bring back pleasant childhood memories of going to stay on my Uncle’s farm in Somerset.
    Sorry about the mistake – (pouring/poring).
    I am not a Pizza Compay fan, but I know a lot of people who are!
    I can remember holding out for the school dinner chocolate custard and they used to make this amazing shephards pie with baked beans in it which they called cowboy pie. Not really healthy but then I remember the simplicity of if you have a bit of puppy fat you need to eat healthily and do some excercise – no need for countless TV programmes to tell us what to do!
    Anyway, thanks for the comments… I wonder which smell would trigger my nostalgia for Cambodia if I ever left?!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>