Forget every inspirational advert and film you have seen about life in developing countries: smiling kids, appreciative adults, and the joy of helping your fellow man. It’s all sentimental bollocks. After a several weeks in a Khmer village it’s all about basic survival. So, if you ever end up alone in the provinces here are three things you must avoid at all costs.
Cambodian villages overflow with roaming urchins. Upon sighting a foreigner, these semi-feral creatures surround you chorusing, “Hello whatssurname,” “hello whassurname.”
Engaging these tykes is a world of pain. You must ignore them completely. If politeness compels, issue a single “hello” and no more.
Now some readers will peg me as a curmudgeon. “How awful”, they will think. “If I go to a Khmer village I will teach those underprivileged youngsters everything I know.” Well, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
These kids are unaware that after an exchange of “hello” the interaction should end or move onto discussing subjects of mutual interest. They are under the impression that exchanges of “hello” should continue until one of the parties drops dead from exhaustion.
And it’s not just “hello” they are after. Any vocal response will do. Speaking no English, even “piss off” is received with squeals of delight, and once engaged the gang swells with excitement, more kids join until you are trailed by a smelly carnival chanting “hello whassurname.”
It’s undignified for all involved. To avoid this, issue a single “hello” and then ignore them completely. The children will test your resolve but you must outlast them. You must not weaken. Peace will be your reward.
Cambodians approach weddings like a competitive sport. So when the option of inviting the only local barang in the village presents itself, most jump at the opportunity to have a white soul wander amidst their guests like some lost yeti.
After I made the fatal mistake of going to a first wedding, the invites came flooding in. Everyone wanted a piece of the barang freakshow. This would have been fine if Khmer weddings were fun to attend. But each one follows the same dismal routine.
After paying an entry fee worthy of the most exclusive Phnom Penh nightclub a seat at a table is presented. The floor beneath is already awash with balled-up serviettes, beer cans and plastic cups. Then the inedible fare comes – vinegary mango salad, a fish packed with razor-sharp bones, and a pot of gummy beef. Remember, this is the countryside; there are no restaurants and no Panda Marts. You must eat the wedding food or go hungry.
Cans of boiling hot beer are produced and served over ice to create a watery brew that only the most dedicated alcoholics could stomach. Refusing to drink is not an option. You don’t know enough Khmer to give an excuse. There is no option but to guzzle it down.
Now the combination of bad beer and food is fermenting into a poisonous swamp in your belly, it is time to be hit the dance floor. The traditional hand-flipping dance is charming enough but the steps are too fine for the average drunk barang so all that is achieved is a grotesque imitation, like the elephant man dancing salsa.
By now, the substandard grub, beer and dancing has produced a state of intense indigestion. But sitting down is not an option. Drunken relatives are on hand to drag you back into the throng.
Beneath the feet of the guests, the debris from a hundred tables is crushed into the red earth.
Teaching English in South-East Asia is a pursuit favoured by trustifarians, bail-skippers and wide-eyed 20 year-olds. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone apart from properly qualified teachers. This is particularly the case in rural Cambodia where the prevailing pedagogy seems designed to baffle the barang driftwood that find themselves struggling to have their class pronounce the sound, “th”.
Cambodian education is based on repetition. For them repetition seems to equal comprehension. You think that perhaps it’s time to put a stop to this archaic method. Better have each kid talk on their own as if they were having a real conversation.
The problem is, when the English books are removed all that is left is a terrified child with no clue how to form even the most rudimentary sentences.
“I have… have… have… one brother and… two bro- sister.” After two minutes of this, out of pity, you let the child sit down and move on to the next.
“I have… one brother… and two… sister.” OK, that was better. Around the time the fifth child has claimed to have “one brother” and “two sister” a rat is smelled. Once you have chucked a broom at the rat, you begin to realise that each child is just parroting the same answer.
After the failure of your reforms you are asked to return to the book repetition. Now your foray into international development consists of days spent reading paragraphs from tattered textbooks about how Mary wants to buy ice-cream and some Jolly Rancher from the 7-11. The kids repeat it all perfectly. Everyone goes home happy.