Making Khmer Lunch

Today, we got to make our own lunch! Our teacher and the housekeeper for the Center for Khmer Studies helped us to cook.

We had four dishes:

Two varieties of green papaya salad. The first had dressing made from chili, salt, sugar, shrimp, and lime juice. The second used crab instead of shrimp.

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Char kway teow, a dish with noodles, fried egg, meat (we used pork for one plate and meatless for the other), green onions, and bean sprouts.

And mine, a mango slushie! I used mango fruit, sugar, lime juice, club soda, and ice. It turned out pretty sweet, but the cold frozen drink was so refreshing in the heat!

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Why Study Khmer Language, of All Things?

When people find out that I’m studying Khmer language, their first question is always “Why?” This is closely followed by “How many letters are in the alphabet?” (The answer to which, for those who are curious, is 111.)

To be fair, it’s definitely an unusual language to study and one that’s significantly less useful than something like, say, Spanish or French. Even in my fields of journalism and political science there’s a whole host of languages that might serve me better than Khmer, ones that are more common or more necessary in a political sphere.

So why did I choose to study this particular language?

Part of my answer stems from my very first experience in the country. At age fifteen, I went on a service trip to Cambodia with a group called Youthlinc. It was my first trip across the sea, and the first time I was exposed to a place and culture so different from my own. It was a place of learning, where I saw poverty for the first time, talked to people who had experienced genocide in their lifetime, and kids who went eight hours in the sweltering heat with no water just so they could go to school. I was impressed most by their kindness, welcoming us naive students into their country and teaching us patiently.

When I first began my time at the University of Utah I discovered, much to my surprise, that they offered Khmer language classes. I took this as a sign, and began my two years with Professor Tol. He paid close attention, patiently tutoring my language, teaching me more about the culture, and talking with me about life in Cambodia and here as well. Unfortunately a third year class was not offered, and so my only option for continuing was this six week study abroad.

Truth be told, I have no clue what I plan to do with my knowledge. Maybe I’ll find a way to apply it to my career, or maybe not. All I know is that I have fallen in love with this country and it’s people, the knowledge they have given me, and what I believe will come to feel like a second home. Whether or not this may come in handy some day, learning this language is something I hold a passionate love for, and will keep close to my heart always.

Micro-finance in Cambodia: Beneficial or Detrimental?

Yesterday I was able to attend a panel held by the Center for Khmer Studies about micro-financing and loans in Cambodia. The speakers were Maryann Bylander, who is a professor of Sociology at Lewis and Clark College. She has been studying Cambodia for the last decade with a focus on migration. Three of her students have been researching with her for three weeks: Andrea Blobal Perez, Peter Bradley, and Lacey Jacoby. Additionally, they included a guest speaker, Nathan Green, who has been working on his PhD dissertation on micro-finance.

The group was looking at micro-financing, which is very common in Cambodia and other developing countries. However, the average loan balance is growing much faster than the average wages, at a ratio of 3 to 1. The loans are intended to assist struggling individuals to build a business as a way to get on their feet. However, this frequently does not happen.

Micro-financing organizations tend to look in a narrow view of a relationship strictly between the individual and the lender. Instead, the process of lending develops in the context of complex social structures and obligations amongst families, friends, and neighbors. Additionally, circumstances may make it difficult for those borrowing money to pay back the loans, or even to use the loans for their intended developmental purposes.

For example, the speakers told the story of a father who took out a loan to pay for his daughter’s health care when she fell suddenly ill. Since healthcare in Cambodia is not always the most reliable, it was necessary for him to take this loan if he wanted his daughter to have access to proper care. Use of a loan like this is necessary, but it is strictly against the intended purpose of the micro-finance loans and without a reliable way to make money back from the loan it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to pay off. People frequently take out a second loan to pay off the first, and so on and so forth.

What’s the solution? Perhaps financial literacy, perhaps consumer protection standards, perhaps a system of credit history… Certainly, I don’t know. I’m no economist and the nuances and details of lending and borrowing lie beyond my knowledge.

If nothing else, the talk was very thought-provoking. As a person who has been involved with organizations who provide micro-financing, and as a humanitarian, I think that topics like this are very to consider going forward.

The Weekend of Tourism

This last weekend, I finally was able to go out and see some of the sights in Phnom Penh! It was a welcome break from studying, to be sure.

A classmate of mine found a smaller tour through a local arts college called the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Our guide took us around to see twelve old theaters in Phnom Penh, telling us a bit about the history of both the theaters and the surrounding neighborhood. Unfortunately, most of the theaters have been destroyed to build new structures, residences or shops mainly. Our guide had pictures to show us of some of the old buildings, and the comparison was quite interesting.​ I’ve included some of the before and after pictures.

I was also able to visit the National Museum, which featured hundreds of statues and carvings from Cambodia’s history. Most of the statues depicted figures from Buddhist or Hindu religions. They came from all over the country, including private collections and Angkor Wat (among others).

My last stop was Wat Phnom, a large temple from which Phnom Penh got its name. Phnom translates to mountain, which is a bit of a misnomer. The whole “mountain” was perhaps seventy feet tall, and maybe just as many steps to the top. Khmer music drifted from the courtyard to the surrounding area, and the smell of incense wafted through the air. I sat inside the temple for perhaps twenty minutes. A pair of Khmer people engaged me in conversation, pleased to learn I speak Khmer. We talked for a while about their families. One of them, a middle-aged woman, had a daughter just my age.

Sitting in the temple is awfully relaxing. I’m not sure if it’s the atmosphere, the incense, or simply the presence of so many people paying their respect.

I did spend some time hanging out outside the royal palace, but I have yet to visit inside.

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The Khmer Rouge Trials: 002/01

Today we had the privilege to attend part of the trial for two Khmer Rouge generals at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. These courts were developed specifically by the UN and the Cambodian government to try individuals in charge of the Khmer Rouge regime and the damage it inflicted on the country.

If you aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge, here is a very brief summary: in 1975 the Khmer Rouge communist group took over Cambodia with the goal to purify the country. They committed numerous crimes against humanity including enslavement, forced marriage, torture, and genocide. They targeted individuals such as teachers, doctors, government officials, people with education, Buddhists, etc. By the time the regime was overthrown in 1979, 3 million people had been killed.

This particular trial is the second of its kind and has lasted 283 days. Two men stand accused: Nuon Chea, the former chairman of the regime, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state.

This was the last day of the trial, and so we were able to witness the final statements of the defense.


First, the defense lawyer for Nuon Chea spoke. His main argument was that the case had been decided from the beginning, that “the trial against him was nothing but a show trial.” He also argued that the jury refused to listen to the facts, preferring instead the more popular “fake history.”


Nuon Chea chose not to speak.


Second, the lawyer for Khieu Samphan spoke. (It’s important to note that the quotes are from the interpreter, as she spoke only in French.) She focused on legal proceedings, charging the courts that “it is your duty” to follow strict court procedures. She said that the court had failed to produce evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Samphan as an individual had been directly involved.


Samphan did choose to speak. (Again, quotes are from the interpreter.) He opened by saying “I know that they really suffered.” It wouldn’t have fixed the travesties that occurred here, but an apology or acknowledgement of his wrongdoings was something I had been subconsciously hoping for. He went on to blame Vietnam and the war for a desperate situation in Cambodia which allowed and even made necessary the sacrifices. As a high-ranking official, he claimed not to know about what was happening in the country. And finally, he closed with a “bow to memory of innocent victims, but also to all those who perished by believing in the idea of a better future,” referring, of course, to the Khmer Rouge.


As my classmates discussed it, the scary part was that each of us could clearly see Samhan’s persuasive abilities. He was an eloquent old man who spoke of uniting against an enemy for the common good. One of my classmates even commented that she could see why people believed him.


I don’t know why I had hoped so much that Samphan would show even a small sign of remorse. Perhaps the fairy-tale ideal of a happy ending, or human redemption. I’ve always thought that at the heart, people were good. I suppose now that not everyone is. 

Pagoda Etiquette

Cambodia has a very respectful culture. Those who are seen as higher rank than yourself are addressed and treated differently. Before going to the pagoda yesterday, we were briefed on some etiquette and I thought it may be useful to some people to share.

  1. Always ask before taking a picture of a monk. (This isn’t bad advice regarding regular people, as well.)
  2. Take off your shoes and hat when entering a pagoda.
  3. Dress modestly and appropriately when visiting a pagoda. Men should not be shirtless, and women should wear a longer skirt and cover their shoulders.
  4. Use both hands when giving an offering to the monk or pagoda.
  5. Women should not touch monks or give them gifts directly. If you want to give a gift to the monk you should set it down within reach.
  6. Treat monks with high respect.
  7. Don’t sit higher up than a monk.
  8. Don’t point your feet at a monk. Women should sit with their legs tucked to the side.

Truly, just do your best to be as respectful and polite as possible. If you are a Westerner, people tend to be very understanding of the fact that you aren’t familiar with the customs, but you should still strive to follow the rules and etiquette.

Classes Have Begun! 

I’m three days into class, and it is intense! 

On the first day, I came down to go to school in a pair of leggings and a nicer t-shirt. My host family gave me a funny look, and that’s how I learned that skirts are expected every day in class. I don’t mind, because skirts are a lot more comfortable in the hot weather.

We study for four hours in the morning, have a two hour lunch break, study again for another two hours, and then go out on a cultural adventure. Since it is an advanced-level class, it is very rigorous. Every day we’ve been given around 30 new vocabulary words, in addition to readings and worksheets. I spend most of my free time studying right now. I think that the things we learn in class are extremely valuable, but I feel that I benefit even more from simply talking to real people.

I’m in a class with two graduate students, both of them studying South East Asia. After the program, they stay for a year to do their graduate research. It seems so cool to be able to do something like that, and I think I might like to go some day.

The part of school that I’m most excited for is our daily cultural field trips. Yesterday, we took a trip to the Russian Market (ផ្សារទួល​ទំពូង)​​ which is near our school. It’s an indoor market with really crowded and narrow pathways, lined with tightly packed booths. There is food, cloth, souvenirs, work tools, household goods, clothings, etc. all within stalls of each other. You could find anything there… if you took the time to search.

Today we went to a pagoda (វត្ត)​ to talk with one of the monks. Visiting the pagodas here has been one of the things I’m most excited for because of how interesting I find it to learn about other religions. Although I myself am not a terribly religious person, I think it’s important to understand different faiths, their beliefs, and their place and influence in the world. Besides, the different stories from religions fascinate me.

It’s traditional to bring a small gift of something useful, so we stopped by the market to purchase incense and candles.
We were lucky enough to be able to meet with one of the high monks, the Venerable Khy Savanratana, at this particular pagoda between his journeys to several other countries for workshops, speeches, and the like. He’s been a monk for 27 years, over half his life. He was born in a small district town on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. His mother and grandparents encouraged him to become a monk, and so after he completed high school he began his life in a Buddhist monastery. He believes the most important thing he’s learned as a monk is patience and tolerance when going through life, because “If you want hot, you get cold. If you want cold, you get hot.”