Tag: Cambodia

Khmer Folktales or In Which There is Always a Clever Hare


A recent Ricochet Dueling Book Club question asked about children’s picture books, and it occurred to me that I had never read any Khmer children’s books, picture or otherwise, growing up. I don’t think there are any worth mentioning. But what we have, though, are folktales.

Khmer people have always prided themselves on being clever. And they took great pleasure in cleverly composed discourses. The use of words and witticisms, riddles, rhyming, and quickly formed punning and spoonerism were and continue to be a Khmer national habit. And this habit is reflected in our folktales. Khmer folktales are classified into two groups: children and adults, and wit and cleverness reign supreme in both. Though wit and cleverness aren’t necessarily used in the pursuit of justice, they are used for self-preservation and sometimes for pure pleasure. Folktales are full of mischief and humor. They have lively spontaneity, vigor, and realism. To Khmer people, folktales, along with songs, are considered to be the real literature of Cambodia. Their style is quite simple, with plenty of colloquial speeches. A lot of tales are concerned with stupidity. Some are quite dark, with chaos and exploitation as the main themes and talking animals as the stars. Cynicism and satire abound. Puns and sophistry are very common.

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Just like everywhere else on the planet, the Chinese virus wrecked Cambodia as well. People’s livelihoods were destroyed. Festivities, religious or otherwise, were canceled. The Water Festival is likely to be canceled later this month. Pchum Ben was shut down after the first few days early last month. Pchum Ben, better known as Festival of the Dead […]

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A Day in the Lives of Monsieur et Madame Mak Sean


They had her kneeling on the shore facing the water. “I was waiting for the blow” recounted my grandmother of that mid-December day in 1978. 

A few days before, grandma and several other women in the village were ordered to the river to make prohok, as it was prohok season. The morning of that fateful day, one of the women was granted permission to go home later in the day. Grandma stashed away three fish carcasses to send along with the woman to my mother and her siblings. Mom and her brothers could salt and grill them to eat in the morning, all in secret of course. The village official found out and the security force brought grandma to the shoreline. As recounted later by survivors, one method of single killing, if one lived near a river, was to bash the head or slash the throat of the victim and push him/her into the water (bullets were too valuable). Another method was to take the victim to the middle of the river and drown him/her (happened to the daughter of our family’s friends, her father watched quietly from the shore). 

QQ For You and Me: Bubble Tea, Diplomat


You may know it as bubble tea, tapioca tea, pearl milk tea, or boba tea. You may not know it at all. But, like popcorn chicken and scallion pancakes, bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention that’s grown to be beloved worldwide. And it’s not just a culinary triumph for the tiny democracy; it’s also become a symbol of important, and strengthening, international ties in the modern age. 

Group Writing: The Road to Perdition


The Road to Perdition was a short one for my family. April 17, 1975, the day after the country finished celebrating a very tense Khmer New Year, Phnom Penh residents were greeted with the sight of black-clad soldiers pouring into the city. My mother remembered having watched, along with her brother, from the balcony as soldiers who were not much older than her then ten-year-old self were welcomed by some city dwellers. 

“They said it’s just three days” recalled my grandmother of the day’s event. “They said we have to leave as the Americans are going to bomb the city.” 

This week on “The Learning Curve,” Gerard and Cara talk with Loung Ung, a human-rights activist; the author of the bestselling books First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Lucky Child, and Lulu in the Sky; and a co-screenwriter of the 2017 Netflix Original Movie, First They Killed My Father. Ms. Ung shares her experiences living through genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, which resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Loung talks about the experience of working with Angelina Jolie on the film version of First They Killed My Father, and the role that documentaries like hers and the award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields, can play in portraying the human stories behind historic events. They explore Ms. Ung’s life in America, and the support she received from her secondary school teachers in Essex Junction, Vermont, her professors at St. Michael’s College, and from local and religious institutions. The episode concludes with a reading from Loung Ung’s memoir.

Stories of the Week: A new poll shows that nearly a third of parents may continue with remote learning after COVID. According to a new report, only one in six Indiana college students who study education actually join the teaching profession. How can we remove barriers to entry, especially among people of color?

Group Writing: Fish’s the Season


To outsiders, Cambodia has two distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season. But to the Khmer people, there is a third one, rdauv prohok, a prohok season. Prohok is a fermented fish paste. It is the heart and soul of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines, and yes there is a difference between the two cuisines, but that is a topic for another day. Prohok season generally starts in December and ends in February, coinciding with the fishing season (November to March). This year, the first phase of the season began on December 20 and ended on the 29th.

To understand why a fermented fish paste is so important to our food culture, one has to understand Cambodia’s geography and its dependency on fish. I mentioned Boeung Tonlé Sap, also known as the Great Lake, before in one of my posts here. As the largest inland fishery in the world, the lake has been sustaining the Khmer people since the beginning. It is integral to Khmer food culture (we eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually, compared to the global rate of 64 pounds). Lives in Cambodia essentially revolve around this abundance of fish, with 45% of the population working in fish related employment during this short peak fishing season. People from all over the country travel to the Great Lake, the Mekong, and every waterway to buy or trade rice for fish to make pha’ak (fish fermented with sweet fermented alcoholic black rice), sun-dried salted fish, smoked fish, and of course to make prohok, to ensure that fish products are available throughout the year.

The Sound of Melancholy and Nostalgia


Released in 1962, “Champa Battambang” was a big hit for the composer/lyricist/vocalist Sinn Sisamouth. But the song would be immortalized in the Khmer psyche in the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. We’ll get to that part in a moment, but first the song and its title: champa is the name of a flower (magnolia champaca) and Battambang is the name of a province in northeast Cambodia.

Sundays Are Red, Fridays are Blue, Pumpkin-Spice Colored Skirts Are Totally in Too


Red is for Sunday,
Monday is orange that looks truly like the divine Moon,
Purple is reserved for Tuesday,
Wednesday is the beautiful green of the liep plant.
Thursday is the yellowish green of the young banana palm,
Happy Friday is blue, and must be neat and tidy,
Saturday is the color of ripe pring,
As passed down by the ancients.

According to Khmer tradition, each day of the week is associated with a certain color. And that color is linked to a certain divinity that is venerated on that day. People are advised to dress each day according to the color of the presiding divinity to bring health, prosperity, and happiness to their lives. In the olden days, women would dress accordingly every day. Nowadays, this doesn’t really occur except at formal functions where you would see women wearing the same color of skirts and shawls.

Group Writing: The World’s Largest 3D Jigsaw Puzzle


Right in the center of Yaśodharapura (Angkor), the second capital of the Khmer empire, stood Baphuon temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva and consecrated in 1060 with an installation of a shivalinga in the central tower, Baphuon was the state temple of King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1066). Measuring at 130-meter long by 104-meter wide at its base, Baphuon was the largest temple in the empire at the time of its completion, making it the largest temple on mainland Southeast Asia, until one of the king’s successors out-built him a century later.

Baphuon was a favorite of Zhou Daguan, the Chinese emissary to the Khmer court in 1296-1297. Zhou described it as “the tower of Bronze, higher than the Golden Tower (the Bayon), a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.” Built in the Khmer temple-mountain style, five tiered pyramid in sandstone, Baphuon’s central pyramid soared at 50-meter high. Built on an unsteady foundation of sandy soil and coupled with the temple’s massive weight, Baphuon became unstable for most of its history. Throughout the Angkor era, regular maintenance had been done to prevent the temple from collapsing in. After a period of political and civil unrest combined with attacks from recent migrations from Southern China, the empire came to a close in 1432, which also gave rise to Theravada Buddhism in the country. The Buddhists, led by monks, damaged some Hindu temples including Baphuon. Near the end of the 15th century, they tore down the central tower and some sections of the temple. The stones were used to build a 9-meter high by 70-meter long reclining Buddha on the second level of the west side. The weight of the Buddha exaggerated the problems that the temple had been facing from the start. The Buddha sculpture was never finished and the temple was abandoned.

The Khmer Holy Trinity: the Mother, the Father, and Lord Shiva


“Venerate the Gods in your home before the one in the vatt (Buddhist monastery).” — Khmer Proverb

Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia, where 96% of the population consider themselves practitioners of Theravada Buddhism. But when it comes to veneration, the mother and father always come first; veneration of the Buddha is relegated to the very back of the line. To us, our mother and father are what we refer to as the Gods in our home.

And Justice For All


The killers of my maternal grandmother’s cousin are still alive and kicking, living just a walk away from most of grandma’s relatives. On November 16, 2018, 39 years after the Vietnamese forced them out of power, two Khmer Rouge senior leaders, Nuon Chea, aka Brother Number 2, and Khieu Samphan, its head of state, were sentenced to life imprisonment by the UN-backed tribunal for genocide against the Cham and Vietnamese minorities during their reign of terror.

Chea, who is already 92, and Samphan, 87, pleaded not guilty and are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity from previous verdicts. The new verdict for Nuon Chea also includes crimes committed at S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prison where more than 20,000 people were tortured and killed; among them were two of my maternal great-uncles.

Cambodia: The Times They Are a-Changin’


Cambodia’s sixth general election came and went on July 29. Unsurprisingly, Hun Sen, the world’s longest ruling prime minister (33 years and counting) and the ruling CPP won in a landslide. The result was never in doubt given the crackdown on civil society and independent press leading up to the election. This culminated in the dissolution of the main opposition party, the CNRP, last November with its leader thrown in jail on bogus treason charges. Hun Sen now has more power than he has ever had. But in the country, the worry now is what will happen next?

After the CNRP was disbanded last year, the US imposed visa bans on senior Cambodian officials, while the the EU said it would review its trade agreement with Cambodia. In June 2018, Hing Bun Heang, chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, was sanctioned under Global Magnitsky Designations. A few days before the election, the US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act to target sanctions on individuals responsible for undermining democracy in Cambodia. After the election, Washington called the electoral process “flawed” and said it could take “additional steps.” While the EU stated that the electoral process was not legitimate.

The Milky Ocean, Tug-of-War, and a Few Games


This year, on Saturday, April 14, at 9:12 AM, the angel Mahodara Devi descended to middle earth on a peacock holding a trident in one hand and an auspicious serrated wheel in the other. The angel delivered the blessings from Lord Brahma to the Khmer people. It’s the start of the Khmer New Year.

The New Year lasts three days. Families from all over the country are gathering to welcome Mahodara Devi with a white tablecloth, two bottles of perfume, five candles, five incense sticks, 11 types of fruit, and two glasses of clean water. But they’re also gathering to enjoy food and drinks, singing and dancing, and paying a visit to the monasteries. They play traditional games and strangers are welcomed to join in.

Cambodia’s Crackdown on Dissent


The Government of Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen conducted a midnight raid on Sunday, September 3. Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition party CNRP, was arrested and taken into police custody. He was accused of treason, what the government said was a US-backed plot to destabilize the country’s leadership. This is just one of the many examples of the crackdown on dissent carried out by Hun Sen, ahead of the general election next year.

Democracy in Cambodia had been making quite a progress since the coup in July 1997. Decentralization reform over the past two decades had strengthened political accountability. Khmers were able to hold local leaders accountable through local elections. The economy has performed very well; it’s been growing at a 7% rate annually since 1993. And inequality has dropped perceptibly, according to the World Bank. After thirty plus years of trying to dig themselves out of the abyss, Khmers could finally see a good future without chaos ahead.

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There is a Khmer saying that translates to “a mountain cannot be ruled by two tigers.” And that saying manifested in a coup d’état in Cambodia twenty years ago. It all started with the result of the UN-backed Cambodia’s general election in May 1993. The country elected the royalist FUNCINPEC, led by Norodom Ranariddh. But […]

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Group Writing: Angkor


Thveu sre ning tuk, thveu suk ning bai” is an old Khmer adage, which roughly translates to “grow rice with water; wage war with rice.” And the Khmer Empire certainly needed a lot of rice to feed its growing armies to continue its prior polities’ campaigns of expansion.

Between the 9th and 15th century, Angkor served as the seat of the Khmer Empire. The word Angkor itself means capital city, derived from the Sanskrit word nagara, meaning city. Scholars and researchers refer to Angkor as a hydraulic city.

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Cambodia is dotted all over with temple ruins, big and small. Some of you might have heard of Angkor Wat or recognize the giant faces at Bayon. Most of the temples are congregated at Angkor, modern day Siem Reap province. Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire (802 CE to 1431 CE), where naturally […]

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