People often ask what is most difficult about living in Cambodia. What are the problems we face, the difficult issues we must deal with?
Two weeks ago there was an article in the Khmer Times about a survey of the rule-of-law around the world. In the ranking of 130-plus countries, Cambodia came second to last in the evaluation of the integrity of its legal system.
There are many major issues like that affecting life in Cambodia: the destruction of the environment, especially forests; land-grabbing by officials and the military; inadequate or non-existent medical, educational and social services throughout the country; government corruption; and many other problems.
The list of abuses and tragedies is daunting. But we Maryknollers and others had an idea about them before we came and wanted to help with them. That is why we are here.
While the big issues are really important, the matters that tend to upset people more and become irritants in daily life tend to be less formidable.
Some of them are cultural, for example, constantly needing to remove your shoes when entering a building — and then people leaving the shoes and sandals in the doorway and on the steps so that those following are literally stepping on several layers of sandals and flipflops deposited by those who have gone before. OSHA would not be happy.
Then weddings are held at 6 a.m. on weekdays at the bride’s house in crowded residential areas. Tents are set up in the street — blocking traffic — for the event, and huge trumpet speakers are erected to broadcast — at full volume — the chanting of the Buddhist monks and everything said in the ceremony. The chants can be heard and understood literally a block away. But the speaker is 25 feet from my window.
Some of the irritants are more specific and limited in their impact. In the Maryknoll office where I live, a woman comes in once a week while I am out with the deaf people, to dust and clean and change the beds. I can’t complain too much because I do have someone doing housework for us.
But on my bed, I have only a fitted bottom sheet and a flat top sheet to keep the mosquitoes at bay. It’s too hot for anything else. When I get home on Tuesday nights after the housekeeper has been there, I find that the top sheet is neatly folded to exactly cover the top of the bed. It isn’t tucked in, nothing hangs down.
I have learned that a Cambodian blanket is just the size of the top of the bed, maybe smaller, and Cambodian people sleep with their feet sticking out. At first I couldn’t imagine our housekeeper making a bed that way, but then it occurred to me she has never seen how a western bed is made — and that she may never have slept in a bed in her life.
The list of curiosities and aggravations can be long. The same lady who makes the beds also cleans the toilets. I found that she keeps the toilet brush and the sponge to wash the sink in the same container. Germs? She’s never seen any.
Sometimes people say, “Oh, I could never live in Cambodia.” Maybe not. It’s not for everyone. But it is a fascinating place — the Kingdom of Wonder — and if you learn what’s really important and what’s not, and if you don’t get upset by the trivial, it’s a brilliant experience.
Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.