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Reflections

Wow. What a trip! I’d never have imagined you could fit so many experiences in just two weeks. Visiting ancient jungle-infested temples. Trying new foods like crickets and tarantulas (though let’s be honest, calling them food is a bit of a stretch). Witnessing an impressive circus performance that told the story of Cambodia’s tumultuous history. Riding gondolas in a floating village. Flitting through crowded city streets in tuk-tuks. Wading up a chest-high river in the jungle. Learning to cook Cambodian desserts. Motoring out to a tropical island for a relaxing swim in the clear water of its beaches. Teaching Cambodian kids about web development and story writing. These have been some of the highlights of the trip, but all of these experiences are framed by the country’s culture, and Cambodian culture is moulded from quite a storied history. 

We learnt about the country’s ancient history, when the grand Angkor city was built under the reign of the Khmer Empire and Cambodia (then one kingdom with Thailand) was considered the jewel of Asia. We learnt about modern history, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge ravaged one quarter of the country’s population in their barbaric scourge of all outside influence, including anyone educated or using technology as simple as glasses. We learnt about the present culture, a rapidly-developing society that’s pulling together the pieces left in the wake the Pol Pot regime, rebuilding trust within families and communities, and reinstating virtues like hospitality for locals and foreigners alike. 

This all leaves me wondering what my place was in that culture, as a short-term missionary seeking to help in some way, to make a small but tangible contribution to the country’s revitalisation. What help is actually needed? What could I do that would have a positive influence in the long-term?

On that note, perhaps the biggest highlight of this trip has been learning what true missionary work looks like. It’s not throwing money at the poor like a bandaid on a bleeding wound; it’s coming alongside them, loving them, and in doing so showing them what God’s love looks like. Often that just means being there, spending time with them when their own family won’t. It’s harder and a lot more time-consuming than simply sending money their direction, but it’s what’s needed. Quick fixes may bring quick results – give a man a fish and you’ll satisfy his hunger – but actually do more harm than good in the long term. If immediate relief is needed, then by all means, provide that relief. But more often than not, a person needs to learn that they’re capable of meeting their own needs, and don’t need to rely on the handouts of others. Sometimes they need help learning that lesson, which is where missionaries are able to do their most effective work. Just by being there, encouraging them, helping them to get a job or stand up for themselves or manage their time and money better, we can make a real lasting difference.

So the time we spent with the children at Milk and Honey’s English School is the most valuable aid we could give them. Not money, or food, or better housing, but time, attention, and ultimately empowerment that they can handle those needs themselves.

That’s a lesson I had to learn this trip too, and it’s one that will stay with me as I return to the routine of life in Australia. Because the poor are everywhere; not just the materially poor, but the relationally poor, the spiritually poor. The approach to alleviating all these forms of poverty is the same: come alongside them, understand where they’re at, and help them to rebuild their relationship with themself, or with others, or with God – whatever is needed.

I pray for the wisdom and courage to see and grab such opportunities – opportunities to empower others and to help them see God’s will for their lives.

That’s all for this blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our journey and learnt a few things too. 

Julian out.

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Re-entry

Today our aircraft left Mars’ orbit and plummeted back down to Earth. That’s how it felt, anyway, because Cambodia’s and Australia’s cultures really are worlds apart.

We bade farewell to Dan and Renuka at Phnom Penh airport – for the time being at least, as hopefully we’ll catch up the next time they visit Australia. The airport is probably the second-most contemporary structure we’ve seen in Cambodia (after the Aeon Mall) – it’s a fully-fledged international airport complete with air bridges to board planes. 

After a short flight to Singapore (very short, in fact, half an hour less than estimated, which is saying something when the original flight time was only meant to be two hours), we had a good seven hours to kill. Fortunately Singapore airport (or Changi airport as it’s called) is the best airport in the world (yup, they’ve won awards five years running), with plenty of things to see and do at each of the three massive terminals. So we spent a bit of time at each terminal, checking out all the gardens (sunflowers, butterflies, orchids, and cacti among others), the 24/7 free movie theatre, the gaming lounge (advertised as a LAN lounge but nearly all the PCs had different games installed, so that idea fell flat), looking for the giant slide (but couldn’t get to it without leaving through customs), and of course perusing food joints. We had dinner at Burger King, to see if the burgers really are better, and I’ve gotta say my $10 burger meal was better than any I’ve had from Hungry Jacks in Australia. Plus they had grape Fanta. I haven’t had that stuff in years. Also, Matt reckons Sprite tastes better in Cambodia, but I’m not convinced. Maybe I just don’t drink enough Sprite to tell the difference.

Sunflowers and Shane.

A beautiful butterfly in the butterfly garden.

Airport adventuring in style.

“The social tree.”

Oh look, a pedestal for me to stand on.

The flight back to Brisbane was long and cramped, which only means one thing: movies! After watching Kong: Skull Island, Split, eating two meals, and having a bit of a rest (it was 3am by that point after all; 5am Australian time), I finished off with some Fawlty Towers and Westworld as we landed. People must have been so immersed in their movies that they didn’t realise we were coming down, as there were actually a few screams as we hit the runway. Weird.

Thankfully none of us had any trouble going through customs, despite our many foreign gifts. Then we were free! Back in the land of clean roads and sensible traffic behaviour (seriously, Cambodia has a rubbish problem). 

It’s been an amazing trip. I reckon I’ll publish one more post with my reflections and then call it finished with this blog (and return to my regular blog of Observations).

Thanks to everyone who’s been following along with our adventures!

Bussing and bartering

Yesterday we had a long 5-hour drive back to Phnom Penh in an air-conditioned minivan (listening to Christian music and game themes, courtesy of yours truly) and arrived in time for a visit to the Russian markets before they closed for the night. I had my first shot at haggling, and managed to save myself $5 on a gift. The cool thing about haggling here is that even if you’re terrible at it you’re still going to get a much better price than you would for a similar item in Australia – if you can get it there at all.

It’s easy to get lost in the maze of stalls.

So.

Much.

Stuff!

Today was our last full day in Cambodia. How time has flown! It seems so long ago that we trampled through jungle-ridden temples and had fish nibbling on our feet.

We returned to the markets this morning for some more impulse buying (in my case anyhow; some of the others had specific things they wanted like shoes and sunglasses), then headed to Aeon Mall for some more conventional shopping, and had another Brown cafe lunch. 

Afterwards, Dan and Renuka took each of us through a bunch of questions reflecting back on our trip. I’m still writing up my thoughts on the experience as a whole, but in the meantime I will say that doing this trip with the Milk and Honey team has been a blessing through and through. Having someone who understands that us squishy Westerners (squishy: a technical RPG term meaning we’re ill-equipped to handle new challenges) can’t just jump right into the Cambodian climate and culture from day one without ample air-conditioned recuperation time has been a massive boon. Just about all facets of living in Cambodia are unfamiliar to us – using bottled water, crossing a busy street, using the bathroom, hailing tuk-tuks, and much more – and it has been invaluable having people with us who understand all these things who we can defer to in times of doubt (of which there’s been many). We wouldn’t have been able to experience half the things we did even in twice the time without their knowledge of places to go and things to do. Plus their son is adorable.

So thanks for the adventure, guys!

It’s a shame we didn’t get to stay longer at the school; I was just starting to learn the names of the other staff and some of the students. I suppose I’ll have to come and visit again sometime for that privilege.

For now, it’s our last night in Cambodia so I’m going to try and get a good sleep before the long plane trips home. 

Cooking class

When I think about living in Cambodia I tend to think in terms of what I’d have to do without; what it doesn’t have that Australia does. But the truth is there’s a lot Cambodia has that Australia doesn’t.

A rich food culture, for one. Cambodian dishes use liberal amounts of exotic ingredients that are just too rare or pricey for us to use much of in Australia, like fresh coconuts and their products (milk, cream, flour, etc.), palm sugar (sort of a cross between brown sugar and golden syrup), banana flowers, and fruit like mangosteens (like lychees but easier to peel) and dragonfruit (a bit like a melon in texture). 

We had the pleasure of attending a Cambodian cooking class today, where we cooked three full courses for lunch: a chicken and banana flower salad, a green chicken curry, and caramelised rice pudding (there were other choices for each course too but those were mine).

While I probably won’t remember the exact ingredients or method of each dish, I will remember some of the techniques, and remember how delicious the curry was (which is saying something as I normally don’t like curries).

Tabitha looking pleased with her chicken and banana fruit salad entree.

Hats off to the most (over) confident chef in the room.

The first course: sliced banana fruit, cabbage, carrot, an elaborate lime/garlic/sugar dressing made from scratch, and a garnish of crushed peanuts.

The second course: a green chicken curry with the curry paste made from scratch with fresh tumeric and herbs. Cooked with sweet potato, zucchini, beans, and onions, and served with steamed rice.

The third course: sticky rice cooked with palm sugar and coconut cream and served with mangos.

Somehow I managed to eat everything, but felt like a stuffed turkey afterwards. 

Then we had a party to plan and prepare: our farewell party with the kids. (Those lucky kids must get a lot of parties with all the teams coming and going!)

We decided it would be medieval-themed, so we made some bunting and hung it around the foyer, chose some appropriate music (celtic rock fit surprisingly well), planned a few games, and organised for a pig to be brought for the food. A whole pig, spit-roasted.

That’s a pig. Stuffed with carrots. Weird, definitely, but pork is pork and this pork was delicious.

Dan munching on the pig’s foot.

Dan giving Norea an offer she couldn’t refuse. Now there’s a prank waiting to happen…
Our three games were “knights, mounts, and cavaliers,” straw fort building (and slingshotting the enemy team’s fort), and crest drawing. I was leading the fort building, in which the students had to build a free-standing fort from just straws and tape, then launch paper darts at the enemy fort with rubber bands. Some of their forts were quite impressive structures, but once the nuking began their durability was really put to the test. Or not really, if the kids were poor shots. I had four groups come through (for 15-20 minutes each).

Eventually the time came to say goodbye to the kids, clean up, have a staff meeting, listen to Tabitha give her testimony, say goodbye to the staff, clean up some more, and retire to bed where I now reside.

Toodles!

Story-writing

I think I have the daily Milk & Honey routine figured out now.

Wake up at 6:30am, do personal devotions, scramble eggs for breakfast, do group devotions, run any necessary errands, work on projects around the building, set up for play group, entertain toddlers for a while, cook and eat lunch, prepare lesson plans for classes, pray and worship God together, take classes (up to three hour-long classes back-to-back), cook and eat dinner, do the dishes, enjoy a small amount of free time or play a board game together, shower and brush teeth, and hit the sack around 10:30pm.

Today I had two classes to teach, a group of five then a group of about 20 students. I got them writing short stories again, this time explaining the structure of that so many stories follow: orientation, initial event, complication, resolution, conclusion. We looked at an example story and most of them managed to write a simple story following that structure within the half-hour timeframe. 

One girl mentioned “John 3:16” as I was talking to her, so I asked if she knew it. Her and her friend both recited the verse verbatim. Then she asked me if I believed in God too, to which I said yes, and she showed me how she likes to pray but explained she only prays when out because at home she’s afraid her parents might see. I told her she could pray with her eyes open and no one would know. 😉

Later on, when I was checking what everyone had written, that girl and her friend had written a story about a magic forest where their (unnamed) character is chased by a lion but they pray and the lion’s mouth is closed and an angel of the Lord delivers them from harm – no kidding, they used those words. They sure know their Bible stories. It’s good to know there’s something akin to Sunday school in Sihanoukville.

The local supermarket has quite the selection of two-minute noodles. We’re lucky if the supermarket at home even have mi goreng. This photo doesn’t really have anything to do with teaching, but it’s the only one I took today so I’m using it.

Tomorrow’s our last day in Sihanoukville – time flies fast!

Food!

It’s high time I wrote an entry on food. I certainly have enough photos for it!

But first, currency. The official currency of Cambodia is the US dollar. Price labels in supermarkets and on cafe menus and bartering in markets is all in USD. When you need change for less than a dollar (the smallest USD note), however, you use Cambodian riels. At the moment, 1000 riels is almost exactly US$0.25, and most cafes price things in multiples of 25c for ease of payment (though you can get as small as 100 riel notes if needed). There are no EFTPOS machines in shops (except some larger supermarkets) – everything is paid for with cash, and all the cash is paper notes, no coins. 

Now, prices. In terms of restaurant and cafe food, everything here is about a quarter of the price in USD as it would be in AUD in Australia. So meals are pretty cheap! Usually just $5 USD or so. Of course, due to the nature of supply and demand, there are some things and are about the same price as in Australia (such as nuts, honey, and Western chocolate bars and snack foods) and some things that are comparatively dirt cheap (bottled water, limes, dragonfruit, local snack foods, most clothes and electronics, and medication). 

While we’ve been here we’ve eaten out at restaurants and cafes, had a meal in a village, gotten takeaways, and sometimes even cooked our own meals. Restaurants do lime juice really well – it’s often the cheapest drink on the menu, but quite tasty – and the fresh juice options generally offer more exotic fruits than you’d find in Australia like passionfruit, watermelon, coconut, and some I’d never heard of. Dishes also have a tendency to be quite spicy, and be served in ways you don’t expect, like with the onions raw, or the eggs scrambled, or with chili. Did I mention they like to put chili in things?

Street food is the siren’s song of Cambodia – it smells delicious, but in Dan’s words, it’s basically death on a stick. Meat sits out in the open all day – or longer. Sanitation standards are nonexistent in markets.

If I was living in Cambodia long-term the biggest difference to adjust to would probably cleanliness. Tap water isn’t safe to drink (which in itself requires a lot of adjustment, using bottled water for everything). Fresh vegetables always need to be washed – again, with bottled or filtered water. Everything in the kitchen needs to be kept meticulously clean – yet personal hygiene takes a back seat, because when you’re sweating due to humidity from the moment you step out of the shower, keeping yourself feeling fresh becomes a futile effort. So you have to raise your standards of cleanliness while lowering your standard of hygiene, if that makes sense.

Now for some food photos! Hurrah! These are in reverse chronological order, because I’m working backwards through my phone’s history.

Home-cooked chicken, chips, and zucchini (thanks Dan).

Chicken and coconut rice (with a chili sticking out of it), and a strawberry and coconut milk smoothie at The Secret Garden restaurant.

Hawaiian pizza that we got delivered in Sihanoukville one time.

Just about everyone sells pineapples cut like this. I’m not sure why. But it’s really cute. Plus those are ladyfinger bananas in the background – here, unlike Australia, they’re the cheap bananas. Still delicious though!

This burger may not look like much, but it was seriously one of the nicest burgers I had because of the quality of beef in the patty. It was almost steak. Dan commented that a lot of Cambodians have no idea which parts of the animal are the highest quality, so they might put a cut like ribeye fillet through the meat grinder for making mince.

This was one of the stranger meals I had. It was called Singapore chicken, and I got it at the Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh. The chicken was cooked but stone cold, and cut with marrow exposed and everything. Perhaps that’s how Singapore eats their chicken, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Some of the snacks you can buy in supermarkets here. They have a lot of weird snack foods, like packaged cupcakes and, uh, “Blasto”… logs?

An ice cream from Swenson’s. They have that too, at the Aeon Mall.

Dan and Ben enjoying some ice cream from Swenson’s.

Beef, egg, and rice from some place I forget. They often tend to serve rice in a round shape like this.

Deep-fried tarantulas. Surprisingly tasty, especially with the provided dip.

Black rice pudding and ice cream. Delicious!

A caesar salad from the Brown cafe in Phnom Penh.

Cocoon worms. It’s important to keep your mind open to new things… And your mouth. 😋

Breakfast at a different Brown cafe in Phnom Penh. Ordered pancakes, got two pikelets and a mound of fruit. The dragonfruit was nice, though.

The “Red Piano burger” at The Red Piano in Siem Reap (yes, there was a red piano there). Double beef patties, double bacon, double cheese. Double delicious!

It’s common to get your drinks served in jars in Siem Reap. Whether it’s an artsy thing or a budget thing, I’m not sure, but the drinks are good either way.

Gourmet pizzas at an Italian restaurant in Siem Reap. 

A typical breakfast at the first hotel we stayed at in Siem Reap. It seems the French passed on their secret to good pastries when they colonised Cambodia, because the croissants and pain au chocolats (here called chocolate croissants or chocolatines) you find around the place are the genuine article. Sadly the baguettes are still the crunchy Western kind, not the soft delicious French kind.

Plane food on the way here. Usually I like plane food, but the scrambled eggs tasted like rubber this time.

Aaand that’s all, folks. It’s hard to believe that in just a few more days and I’ll be back to eating weetbix and swilling milo. I’m going to miss Cambodia’s cheap restaurant meals. 😋

Island cruise

Yesterday we visited a tropical beach; today (Sunday) we visited a tropical island.

Sipping a strawberry milkshake in the shade of a veranda on Koh Rong. This is the life.

We sailed out there in the morning on what transpired to be the fastest boat at the docks – we took about half the time getting there that Dan says it usually takes. On the island, we basically just walked to the nearest restaurant to set up base, went for a long relaxing swim, then returned and bought drinks. Being a missionary doesn’t always have to be hard work, right? You gotta take breaks sometimes.

Sunday afternoons are when Dan and Renuka run the Milk & Honey version of church – a few games and a message. More of a youth group, really. They have looked around for actual churches to go to, but the only decent one turns into a “please the Westerners” show when they attend, so they decided their presence was more disruptive than beneficial. Thus the Sunday afternoon services.

Tabitha took the lead on this service, though, and did an admirable job speaking about friendship and fruits of the Spirit. 

Tomorrow’s our second and last day teaching, so I’d better get some sleep.