Barang! Barang!

An apology is due for appalling performance in the blog-updating stakes of late. To sum up, I’ve been busy all day teaching English to four classes of children, giving endless piggybacks to hysterical toddlers, gone to a floating village on a river, sat in a waterfall, drunk whiskey and coke out of a bucket, nearly met my demise in a tuk-tuk, and experienced a Cambodian nightclub. It’s been a blast. You know you’re having a good time when there’s too much to put down here all at once. Blogging, e-mailing, and anything at all using the Internet is also not easy here, as the slow internet connections conspire with computers marginally more powerful than a kitchen timer and keyboards stickier than a sticky thing to make using the Internet a truly frustrating experience. I have some beautiful photos, more than I can possibly upload without a full day sitting at a computer, so I promise I will as soon as I can.

I started teaching at the Sangkheum Center last week for two weeks, and it’s been a fantastic experience. Two beginner-level classes a day and two intermediate-level classes a day, along with a computer class, and keeping lots of children amused when they cling to your leg like limpets shouting “Barang! Barang!” – this makes for a fairly demanding day. Barang means foreigner – the students are much kinder and just call me ‘Teacher’. The center cares for around 30 orphans or victims of neglect from the surrounding area, and offers free education to children from the local area as well, when children have to pay for school and most can’t afford to. The children are amazing – they really look after each other, the older ones looking out for the younger ones, changing pants if someone has an accident, sharing food. The older kids are very confident, clever and eager to learn. I’ve been having a blast arsing about with the classes, shouting, singing, dancing and generally acting the fool.

While the children at the Sangkheum Center are well cared for, a night out in Siem Reap is not complete without scores of children who beg for dollars or food – many of whom carry very young babies in their arms at all hours. ‘Pub Street’ in Siem Reap features a drag of bars and restaurants where most tourists and many expats head to eat and drink, and this area naturally attracts every beggar in town. Eating a meal or drinking a beer becomes a slightly odd experience with the sight of a pathetic child or landmine victim staring at you, and brings back for me the dilemma I experienced first in India – what to do, whether to give, how to help. The simple answer is there is not much you can do that won’t encourage begging in the children, and any money they get is likely to end up in the hands of a gang leader or parent with a drug problem. That said, a friend and I bought lunch for two girls the other day, and tourists here occasionally play music and make food for the street kids. Many young street children sniff glue, and some the other night were behaving so oddly I was convinced they were on something.

Cambodia’s history, and its present, is far too complex for me to understand any time soon, but I have spoken with Khmers and ex-pats working and living here, and have read some of the background. One bar on Pub Street shows the Killing Fields on a regular basis. The fact that Khmer people just want to forget the past because it is unbelievably brutal is understandable, and many even deny the Khmer Rouge was ever real, that it was a conspiracy of some kind. It is strange that the Khmer Rouge never really left here – they simply changed their uniforms for those of policemen or army, started driving tuk-tuks or farming. Cambodia should by all rights be as paranoid a place as it was under the Khmer Rouge, but it’s so poor, people have quite enough to worry about as it is. I was giving a computer class the other day and the letter that was in the course manual as practise was from a fictional Khmer girl to her Western boyfriend, asking when he would marry her and take her away to his country.

More soon, including the strange experience of a Cambodian nightclub and a village that moves when the water rises.

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