Three things to avoid in the provinces

Cambodian children excited to greet visitors


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.


village wedding

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.

wedding feast

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

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.

cambodia girl in school

“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.

26 thoughts on “Three things to avoid in the provinces

  1. Cody Reply

    Teaching English in Asia isn’t about teaching it’s about business. I had to learn that the hard way. Doesn’t matter what country you’re in. If you don’t learn to accept this you’re gonna stay frustrated.

    • davy Reply

      hi cody, agreed, but its not just asia. its almost everywhere. Almost all countries have private schools staffed by tefl teachers. Bums on seats = coin

  2. Bryan Reply

    Are you the guy who during the last election, ran back to Phnom Penh because you thought the local CPP were out to get you?

  3. NeedNot Reply

    Common Nathan, the rural Khmer children, the rural Khmer wedding, and the English Teaching are your pet peeves. Your head is too big and your horse is too high. Given a chance in your home country, these people and children of substandard values will excel in no time. Do you know why, Nathan? While you are stuck on your high horse, these people are adaptable to whatever presented to them. If you want those Khmer kids to learn to have a conversation in English, why don’t you slowly wean them off the rote memorization strategy already. Give them some blank sentence frames or starters for a start. Why don’t you try teaching the English-speaking inner city kids in America and see how far you can go with them. To understand a conceptual understanding, one must first memorize some facts. Have you ever heard of a story about a fox and a cat? The fox was bragging to the cat one day that he had a bag of tricks to help him solve or get out of any problematic situations. The cat did not say a word. Then the hunting party with dogs approached the two animals out of nowhere. The cat remembered only one trick and that was to climb up the tree to hide among the leaves. The fox with its so many strategies and tricks was still trying to find the right one to use in respect to the situation at hand. The rest was history since the dogs got his pointy face in vicious bites.

  4. Brett Scott Reply

    I agree with Nathan 100%…I’ve gotten to the point where all I want to say to the kids is “Jeng thou!” I don’t even say hello…just wave and they shut up. Also, I’m getting tired of seeing references of “barang” with all these articles…unless you’re a frog (french) you are NOT a “barang”…that’s the term Khmer people called the French occupiers. Wise up…

    • Mark Reply

      Brett, you must not have been here long, because otherwise you’d know they call us all barangs, the original meaning of french has been extended to all foreigners, even those of colored skin. This is how words evolve, get used to it, you’re not going to be able to change the current meaning of the word.
      As for the kids, this is ridiculous. If you don’t like kids and can’t deal with the fact that you’re the most interesting thing in their little worlds, just do avoid the Cambodian countryside.

    • warren chapman Reply

      You are wrong on the “barang”term. It used to be only French but now includes all westerners. Times they are a changing.

      • Glenn Reply

        Guess it is more likely the word originated from the Latin word Franci, who were a Germanic tribe living around where thee city of Frankfurt now stands ( ford over the Franci’s river)

        The Francis were the ancestors of the Crusaders ( Franks).The Persian and Arabian Muslims defenders pronounced the word as Farangi.

        Throughout the Indian subcontinent, North Africa and into Thailand there are many derivatives of the word farangi, which traditionally meant white skinned Christian over the last 1,500 years .

        Into the Pacific Islands and the word becomes Palangi.Following roughly the equator the same word has localised pronunciations all the way and I would submit that Cambodia’s barang was part of the evolution of the Latin term Franci, meaning foreign barbarian 2,000 years ago.

  5. Timothy Scott Reply

    I wear my t-shirt with great pride. It says, “I do not need or want your expat advice.” This article proves exactly why I made the shirt. Talk about a weak, thin skinned, glass is half empty, winging yab.

  6. kris Reply

    >Cambodian education is based on repetition

    well gee, isnt ALL education based on repetition? that’s the only way your remember anything!

  7. dusty Reply

    Repetition is quite OK. It’s the way I learned my 30 – 40 words of Khmer.

    And you over there, if you don’t favor barang, try honkey. They mean about the same thing. I quite revel in my honkitude, especially during Honkey History Month.

  8. dusty Reply

    At first glance I thought this was a satire on limited nasty desocialized barangs. On second glance I hoped it was. Depressingly it probably isn’t.

  9. Boring Old Fart Reply

    It is as ill-bred to call a napkin a serviette as to call a sofa a settee or to refer to school dinners or horse racing.

    Just saying.

  10. Province Girl Reply

    What a load of Tosh (except the food bit). This is just one person personal experience.
    I travel to OuYaDav in Ratanak Kiri and a small province commune of nothingness in Kandal.
    The children sit and teach me Khmer, I have been to weddings and funerals, the hospitality is great. You do not pay to eat, it is a gift for the newly weds or to help the deceased partner. I agree the food is suspect and have once made a special bonding with the communal toilet.
    I sleep on outside balconies with the smell of cow dung from below, bitten by spiders, woken up at 4am by crowing cockerels or sleeping in a room with 20 gallons of petrol beside me. Nobody speaks English and my Khmer is very beginner level, so its great fun expressing yourself with handwaving and strange face pulling.
    I live and enjoy PP but enjoy going to the provinces just as much, its more real life.

  11. Kneel Reply

    Wow, some people need to grow a send of humor. Seriously.

    Or… not seriously. That’s the point: this is just an amusing, possibly helpful, tongue-in-cheek piece. I thought it was pretty well done, and bits like the wedding advice just might be a lifesaver.

    I also think it’s great to add your own advice, but just go ahead and go that. No need to run down the original, because it actually doesn’t disagree with you – it’s more caring and appreciative than some of these commenters seem to get.

    Sigh. End of lecture…

    • Dennis Reply

      I have to agree, It made me laugh out loud. I suppose if you are new to the developing world and haven’t done the NGO and save the world thing yet you might take it hard. Neednot’s comment:

      ” If you want those Khmer kids to learn to have a conversation in English, why don’t you slowly wean them off the rote memorization strategy already. Give them some blank sentence frames or starters for a start.”

      Tells me he/she is ether a monument to patience or just left home and has never been surrounded by a hundred kids all craving your attention.

      There is a lot of need here and IMHO the best one can do is take it on a one to one basis. I can only affect my square meter of space and I try and make it positive.

      Good piece

  12. Boonard Reply

    I don’t agree with anything anybody on here says. I’M A BLACK MAN! Licking cowboy’s butts is my only aspiration in life. I gotta pinch a loaf.

  13. Boonard Spell Reply

    Just to let yall know, my full name is Boonard Spell. Spell is my last name. For reals yo. My name be Boonard Spell, and if ya don’t like it I’ll send ya to hell.

  14. Claptrap Reply

    I found this text amusing because it reminded me of all those ill-adjusted foreigners who have no intention to learn to fit in and who would be better off staying in their own country where things are cosy and rosy. The locals would also be better off.
    OK., I haven’t lived in the countryside but I have visited villages several times, staying 3-5 days at a time. Nowhere I’ve had the kind of trouble that this writer has with kids – it must be his carma. Sure they come at first and ogle, so do the adults, but they soon get used to my presence and bugger off to play. I talk to the kids in Khmer the few words I know and always smile respond to them, unless I’m being addresses by an adult… I think this isthe point: the harder you try to get rid of the kids, the more fun it is to try and get a reaction from you. (My dogs were the same, they would always bug the one guest who didn’t like dogs. )
    I can’t say anything about the food, as I don’t eat animal products and possibly because of that the accept I don’t drink beer either… but you can always cover the glass with your hand if you don’t want ice. Khmers even in countryside understand more than you think.
    As for dancing, try to understand that you are like a film star: everyone knows who you are, eventually, although you don’t know anyone, and your dancing is the major attraction. The entertainment being thin on the ground, and as you can’t join in the conversation at the table, what else there is to do but dance? Dancing is their form of fun and has the same function as it has always had everywhere, that is mating ritual or to be seen as potential mate by and for the unattached. Especially if you arrive alone you are free game.
    Last but not least: in the west you are expected to buy a wedding gift in form of goods and nowadays giving money is also often acceptable. So what’s so bad about giving money? At least you don’t end up being the fifth person to buy the same pan from the local market or something that the couple really don’t want but have to look happy and grateful. In funerals we are also expected to bring a gift, usually something like flowers, which if you think is much more stupid than giving money.

  15. john kerr Reply

    Hi my daughter lives in PP and l am relocating soon. l am an independant forex trader and would like others in PP

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