Vice and Slate writer Nathan Thompson explains how he coped with life in an isolated Khmer village.
Living solo in a Cambodian village is like being addicted to hard drugs – an interesting experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I should have followed the experienced example of the American Peace Corp. Their volunteers are given three months of cultural acclimatization and language lessons before being assigned to live with an English-speaking family. I just walked off a plane and moved into a monk’s house.
I was volunteering for a new NGO set up by my brother’s university friend. The NGO works in conjunction with the village pagoda which is why I was living in the head monk’s house. I was supposed to work with the founder but she was called away by a family emergency and with much bravado I told her that I would hold the fort alone. Eventually the founder decided that it would be easier to raise funds in the US and she remained there and I remained in the village.
At first the villagers were staggered that a foreigner would come and live there. “You won’t last two months” said one woman echoing the sentiment felt by most other villagers. It’s not that they were unfriendly – far from it; I think they couldn’t understand why a barang would choose to come and live there. This white giant was clearly a few pickles short of a jar and for the first few months, the villagers who weren’t directly involved with me kept a safe distance.
This left me to try and figure out how to live there on my own. With no running water, baths are taken using a plastic bucket and a water tank. The head monk thoughtfully allowed me access to a concrete out-house with a sit-down toilet – it was much appreciated during those first diarrhea-ridden months.
Swimming was done in a reservoir and provided a much needed respite from the dry season heat that sapped energy from bones. During sweltering nights where the sheets would cling to me like a pastry to spring role I wondered if I would make it. In the end I got rid of the mattress and slept on bamboo mat on the wooden bed frame – it proved a lot cooler and not that uncomfortable either.
The traumatic culture shock subsided a little after three months and I began to feel comfortable after six. Now, eleven months later, the villagers and I have acclimatised to each other. I can string some Khmer sentences together and they treat me with a mixture of condescension and fascination that Westerners reserve for idiot savants.
I pay a family to cook dinner for me every day. Despite my odd penchant for third-world living there were a few families vying for the role. In the hierarchy of the village I am quite high because I am a teacher and a foreign guest so hosting me is something of a privilege. I chose one family for two reasons; firstly, the mother is an excellent cook and secondly, I had become friends with their 19 year-old son who was intelligent and spoke excellent English.
The son has since left home and is hacking his way through the Phnom Penh undergrowth seeking his fortune leaving me to eat with his mother, father and sister none of whom speak English. I have been very impressed with the way the mother has treated me. She is one of the few villagers who has learned that she needs to speak… very… slowly… and… clearly for me to understand. Most villagers use the old “increase the volume” tactic which usually serves only to frighten and confuse.
Take the elderly woman who does the temple cooking. When I first met her, she locked my gaze with her beady eyes; her shaved head infinitely wrinkled, and bellowed unintelligible syllables at me. After that, I avoided her. Now I realize that she just didn’t know how to communicate with foreigners; and why should she? Apart from a handful of American medics who come every five years she had never met a foreigner. That and she was incredibly high on the Betel nut she perpetually chewed.
The temple cook and I get on well now. She’s a friendly lady with a wicked sense of humour. When you’re sat on the floor eating rice she will sneak up behind you, yell “chingan eh?” (delicious?) and slap your shoulder with enough force to leave you coughing grains into the bowl; then she exits chuckling.
Life here moves at a pleasantly sedate pace. It helps that I am a morning person. So I wake, like most Cambodians, between 5 and 6am. After breakfast at the temple food hall (rice and fish-bone soup) I make money by writing stuff.
Then I teach English two hours a day. One hour for the kids and one hour for the monks. I practice yoga and meditation. I read and watch TV. I learn Khmer. And that’s how my life works.
I plan to leave in March 2014 after 13 months in the village. I would like to stay longer seeing as I was traumatised by culture shock for the first six months. I have had only a brief amount of time to enjoy the fruits of my assimilation. I am now an accepted member of the community – albeit a strange and comparatively enormous one.
But, as my friend said to me, I would get too comfortable. And perhaps she’s right. In my more pastoral moments I imagine marrying and living in a traditional wooden house, a couple of kids, a wife selling trinkets outside. It’s a comely fantasy but it’s probably one of those things that comes with a lot of unforeseen problems. But it seems to be a better option than living in rainy workaholic Britain.