I took these photos this morning at the Cambodian/Thailand border crossing in Poipet. Thousands of Cambodians are leaving Thailand because of the military coup there. They’re coming over by the truck load.
The heat in Poipet these days is so intense that it penetrates everything. I put my hand on my laptop and worry about the heat it’s giving off, but then put my hand on the desk’s surface to discover it’s radiating the same amount of heat. The brick walls project heat. The feverish wooden doors. Lying on the couch is like dipping into a sauna. My pillow feels like bread freshly taken from the oven. Heated toilet seats are overrated.
So, the favorite part of my day has become the early morning just after the sun comes up and hasn’t had a chance to infiltrate anything yet. This is when I can jump on my mountain bike and hit some trails before our students start showing up for school at 6:30.
I live on the northern edge of the city so I don’t have to go far to be in the bush. Once the rainy season really kicks in I’ll probably be forced to head south onto the city’s pavement. But as long as it stays dry I’ll keep riding on what was not too long ago Khmer Rouge mine fields.
Here are some pictures…
I’m writing up some articles about life in Cambodia. I don’t know when I’ll be done with them, so I’ll just keep posting them in these segments as I go. This article is number two. Click here to read part one.
Fast forward to the future, and I’m raising a family in Cambodia. Cambodia: one of the poorest countries, sub-standard schools, unnerving health care, corrupt law enforcement, and dirt roads.
In Cambodia I encounter a whole new kind of poverty. This is third world poverty. This poverty is deeply pervasive, affecting the whole culture. If western poverty were compared to a light sunburn on one’s arm, Cambodian poverty would be a full body, third degree, heretic’s execution burn. And it’s not just material poverty, in fact materialistic lack is the smallest part of the problem. This is a deep spiritual poverty. If you’re hungering for a spiritual experience, don’t waste your time at the Angkor Wat temple, just visit a slum. The material world and the spiritual world intersect more strongly at places of extreme poverty. The utter spiritual poverty of man is seen and understood most clearly in places riddled with garbage and open sewage.
But I don’t want to portray too dismal a picture. Here’s what else you’ll see in the slum…
I actually don’t live in the slum myself. My family and I live in a house that’s nicer than what we would live in if back in Canada. There are some missionaries who feel its necessary to live right in the mud with the locals, and that’s cool, I’m just not one of those missionaries. I don’t need to change who I am in order to share the gospel or make disciples. I’m not one of those prosperity gospel guys, but I’m not one of those poverty gospel guys either. Rich or poor, you’ve got to go where God calls you. Wealth is a relative concept anyways.
This brings me to my son, Noah–the slum dog missionary kid.
My wife’s parents, Noah’s grandparents do live in the slum, right in the heart of it. They have had opportunity to get out of it, but I think it is where they feel they belong for now. Noah’s grandmother, Srai Sim, serves God in her own way there. Noah spends a lot of his time at their home, eating, sleeping, playing with the oodles of kids in the area. He gets right into it and couldn’t care less about this place or that place. Noah, when he grows up, will be able to spend time with the rich and the poor, and not feel out of place in either situation. A long-term missionary friend told me recently that the US military likes to recruit missionary kids because they grow up in difficult, poverty stricken situations, and won’t be taken off guard when encountering it in some overseas combat mission. Makes sense.
It is not a sheltered life, thank God. Noah is being, and will be, exposed to things that the wisest of the west have never dealt with. I’ve seen near mega-church pastors mortifyingly stripped of their “know-it-all-ness” when crossing the Poipet border into Cambodia. It’s very refreshing. A well rounded wisdom–that’s what Noah is growing up into here in the third world.
to be continued…
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh. Over the next few frantic days, journalists covered what they saw before they were forced to leave. They watched, astounded, as Khmer Rouge soldiers, young peasants from the provinces, mostly uneducated teenage boys who had never been in a city before, swept through town. For them, Phnom Penh offered many mysteries. The boys didn’t know what to make of telephones, or toilets. But they set to their job right away, evacuating Phnom Penh, forcing all its residents, at gunpoint, to leave behind everything they owned and march toward the countryside. Hospital patients still in their white gowns stumbled along carrying their IV bottles. Screaming children ran in desperate search for their parents.
~Joel Brinkley, “Cambodia’s Curse”, pg. 40
I wrote up this article a while back, but this is a story worth reposting…
Srai (sister) Sim is my wife Makara’s mother. Here is her story of survival from the Khmer Rouge…
Srai Sim was born in 1954 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. She grew up as the only daughter in a family of five children. Her father was a government worker and her mother was a home maker.
At the age of sixteen Srai Sim got married. Her husband, a sergeant in the army, was a good hard working man. Soon after the marriage this young couple had their first daughter, Srai Dtop. A hopeful future lay before them.
It was during this time (1975) that the United States was in its last days of war with Vietnam. Cambodia was a nation in turmoil, partly as a result of that war, but also because of a politically unstable history. In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge (the Cambodian communist party) sent its soldiers into Phnom Penh in order to evacuate the city. The residents of Phnom Penh were told that the evacuation was for their own safety as American planes were going to bomb the city. They were also told that they would be able to return in 3 days. But the truth was that the Khmer Rouge (KR) saw all cities as a capitalist threat to their communism. It was the mission of the KR to turn Cambodia into a total agrarian society completely under KR rule. Emptying the cities was their way of ending any non-agricultural lifestyles.
At that time Srai Sim was 7 months pregnant with their second daughter and their oldest was 3 years. Srai Sim’s family was forced out of Phnom Penh, and along with many others, they were driven like cattle to the province of Kampong Speu (see map below). They were made to walk the entire distance. In Kampong Speu their second child, Srai Owne, was born and one month after the birth they were relocated to the village of Moung Roussei in the Battambang province. Here the family was given one week to rest. Afterwards they were sent to work in a village called Phnom Thippadei, near Moung Roussei. They were told to cut down some trees and make a home for themselves. Work was difficult. The family had to depend entirely on the KR soldiers for food. All the people were given such small amounts of food that there was not enough to keep their families healthy.
About two months after completing their home KR soldiers began asking the people who had had a government job in Phnom Penh before the evacuation. Srai Sim’s husband was a soldier for the previous government, so he was included as being a former government worker. All those who had had a government job were being allowed to return to Phnom Penh. Srai Sim was happy that their family would be able to return home, but they were told that for now only the men would be going back. Her husband was taken away.
One month after Srai Sim’s husband went home their oldest daughter became very sick and was unable to recover due to the lack of food and medicine. Srai Dtop died never seeing her fourth birthday. Srai Sim was being given so little food to eat herself that she was no longer able to produce breast milk for baby Srai Owne, and 3 weeks after Srai Dtop died so did little Srai Owne. Soon after Srai Owne’s death one of the KR soldiers came to visit his mother in Moung Roussei. The soldier told his mother that all the men who were taken back to Phnom Penh were actually taken out to the forest and executed. The mother told Srai Sim, and so Srai Sim then knew that her husband was dead also.
Soon the KR soldiers noticed that Srai Sim no longer had any children to care for, so they assigned her to hard labor in the rice fields. Srai Sim would begin work at 6am and work until 10pm each day, with 3 hours’ worth of break time in between. During her breaks she was given only rice soup to eat. She was given a quota of how much work she needed to do each day, and was threatened death if she didn’t meet her quota. The KR followed through on these death threats with workers who could not keep up. Often Srai Sim had difficulty just to keep standing. As a result of the relentless labor, and the lack of food, Srai Sim began to lose her eye sight. Her friend needed to guide her around as she worked. Srai Sim was afraid that if the soldiers saw how blind she was becoming they would shoot her because she could no longer work.
When the rice season was over she was then assigned to driving a cart pulled by cows to haul wood and other building materials. The people were being forced to build new homes for the KR soldiers. The work was easier for Srai Sim, and she recovered her eye sight. She hauled the wood from the forest to the construction site each day.
One of the home builders was a man named Heang. Heang was a farmer before the KR took control of the country. He too was a forced laborer. The KR foreman of the construction site noticed that Srai Sim and Heang were both single and he decided that the two of them should marry. It was the plan of the KR to force farmers and city dwellers to inter-marry. When Srai Sim was told this she refused. When asked why she refused she said she had a husband waiting for her in Phnom Penh (she knew he was dead). The soldier told her that her husband would already be remarried himself. She still refused. The soldier said he would kill her if she continued to refuse. She told him to kill her and that she’d rather die than remarry. Thankfully Srai Sim’s friend stepped in and spoke some reason to her by saying that someday the KR would be gone and she would be free to do what she wanted and wouldn’t have to stay married. Srai Sim agreed to the marriage. So, along with 22 other couples, they were all forced married on the same day.
Although Srai Sim was dead set against the marriage, Heang was very happy to have a wife. He was afraid of Srai Sim leaving her. He would hold onto to her very tightly at night so that she wouldn’t sneak away. Soon Srai Sim was back in the rice field again, and Heang was sent into the forest to cut trees 40 km away. Whenever Heang was given some days off he would walk the 40 km, night and day, to visit his wife, and then walk the 40 km back again.
Towards the end of 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia in order to topple the KR government. The fighting made its way to the Moung Roussei area. KR soldiers began killing many Cambodians rather than letting them escape during the chaos of the fighting. The KR soldiers rounded up Srai Sim and all the other workers and took them into the forest where Heang was working. They sent everyone up a small mountain to create a stronghold against the Vietnamese soldiers. It was extremely hot up the mountain, and they began to run out of drinking water.
Some of the Cambodians couldn’t take the heat and thirst anymore and ran down the hill to escape. They were killed in Vietnamese/KR crossfire. If the KR soldiers saw Vietnamese soldiers taking Cambodians to safety they would open fire. Srai Sim and Heang realized that they were going to die on that mountain. They decided to make a run for safety. As they ran the KR soldiers began to fire at them. Thankfully they were not hit. The Vietnamese soldiers saw them and yelled to them to keep running. Srai Sim and Heang made it to the Vietnamese and were taken to safety. The Vietnamese defeated the KR and by early 1979 the Vietnamese took control of the country. The town of Moung Roussei was now relatively safe from the KR so Srai Sim and Heang settled there together.
In 1980 Srai Sim and Heang had their first son, Sarin. Later they had more children: a daughter, Makara; two more sons, Petra and Seyha; and then two more daughters, Gunya and Dtolla. When Sarin was 17 years old he began attending a Christian church in the area. Sarin became very involved in the church and began to invite others his age to attend.
Srai Sim herself was not interested in Christianity but she didn’t mind that her son was involved. At this time Srai Sim was a financially successful saleswoman. She was also a strong Buddhist and she would give offerings regularly at the local temple. Sarin would often encourage his mom to come to church but she would always refuse. Soon hard times fell on Srai Sim again as she fell into serious financial problems. Heang himself was only able to do small jobs here and there and could not raise enough money to support the family alone. Srai Sim began to question her Buddhist faith. Sarin again invited her to come to church and this time she accepted. At the church service Srai Sim felt the touch of God and she cried throughout the entire service. She didn’t know why she cried, but she knew she was encountering God. She began to follow Christ.
In 2002 the entire family decided to move to Poipet. They knew that Sarin could get himself a job at one of the casinos. He could then make good money to help the family. Sarin did get a job at a casino and soon Srai Sim’s other children were able to get jobs as well. Srai Sim was now totally trusting God for all her needs. She knew that God was with her. She started a small house church out of her home and began to teach her neighbors about Christ.
Today Srai Sim is still serving God and is the director of our school in Poipet. She is strong in her Christian faith, and works hard to lead others to the truth she has found in Christ.
I often think about how it will be for my children to grow up in Cambodia as it is so different from where I grew up. So, I thought I’d start writing about that here…
I grew up in a privileged home in Canada. Canada: one of the richest nations, good schools, “free” health care, quality law enforcement, and clean streets.
One can be quite sheltered living in Canada, but they don’t have to be. There is still the abusive family, alcoholism, homelessness, drug abuse, etc… But one can easily turn a blind eye to all of that and focus on entertainment and self fulfillment. And you don’t need a lot of money to do that; it is a mindset that makes people selfish and inward focused, not an abundance of, or lack of, money.
When I lived in Canada I would often volunteer for an inner-city church which would serve dinner to the poor every Friday night. It wasn’t a soup kitchen, it was a restaurant. The patrons would arrive, be seated, given a menu, and served by a waiter. Most of the food came from local grocery stores giving deli-made sandwiches, donairs, microwave pizza, sometimes a cake or two; all the stuff, while still good, that was no longer sellable from the store’s counter. There was rarely a shortage of that food. There was a professional chef who would cook up one special meal for the night: spaghetti and meatballs, or pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, something good like that. Those chef specials were always 86’d first.
Sometimes I worked as a waiter, but usually I was given doorman duty. My job as a doorman was to let people in as the empty tables allowed. And, more importantly, my job was to keep anyone out who was visibly drunk or high. Those who were denied access were given a bowl of soup, a bun, and a coffee at the door. Occasionally a disallowed customer would gladly accept his soup and toss it all over the doorman. That never happened to me though, it only happened to the doormen who got too preachy about the evils of alcohol. The key word was ‘visibly’ drunk or high. I once had a man show up wearing a jester’s hat. I told him I couldn’t let him in (I was sure I could smell booze coming from his long beard too). He asked if he could come in if he took off the hat and behave himself. I thought for a second and said yes. He went in and didn’t make any problems.
The restaurant was in the basement of an old Catholic church. The church had a rectory, then used for storage, towards the back and up an old narrow staircase. The rectory was painfully small with space for no more than a bed and a table. A pocket-sized bathroom with defunct plumbing was situated in the corner. The sanctuary was used on Sundays by the church running the restaurant. The floor of the sanctuary was old wood, uneven and wavy, covered with dirty carpet. I feared my foot would go through if I stepped on a particularly weak spot. The whole place smelled of moth balls and old plaster. It was one of those old buildings that is both alluring and repugnant at the same time.
I enjoyed working the door. As a waiter I was too busy to talk to anyone, but as a doorman I was able to have many interesting conversations. Street people don’t bother with small talk, you get all the gritty details from the start. “Hi. My name’s Joe. I’m a recovering cocaine addict. I had a relapse last week. I just got to take it one day at a time”…”My name is Steve. There are bad people trying to get into my room at night. I hear them talking in the hallway. Last night they were banging on my door. I don’t open it though. I told the landlord, but he won’t listen to me”. Often they would ask me to pray for them, which I did.
In Canada there are different kinds and levels of poverty: there is college student poor and “going out on my own” poor, which are just temporary situations; there is poor due to a lack of self esteem or ambition, in which the person will have a low paying job and a small apartment, maybe an old car, but not much beyond that, and not much hope it’ll ever get better; and then there is the deep poverty where one doesn’t have a home, or a job, or even a change of clothes. This deep poverty is not caused by laziness or lack of ambition–there are other factors, like mental illness.
My first encounter with this deep poverty happened when I was 19 years old. I was an electrical apprentice. My boss, a Christian man, would often do work for inner city businesses at a discounted rate. One of these businesses was an old hotel, maybe one hundred years old or so. Now it was being used as an apartment building for street folk. Have $50? You can rent a room at the York Hotel for a couple of nights. A ‘No Knives’ sign hung at the front entrance. The reception desk was worked by a perpetually tired woman. The wide staircase leading up to the rooms had a dusty carpet which I’m sure at one time was plush and luxurious. Each single room was just that: a single bed in one corner, a small wall-mounted sink in the other, a cheap light above the sink and one on the ceiling, both with an off-white glass shade with blue floral design, hundred year old paint job on the walls. Bathrooms were common-use down the hall, four urinals along the wall and two stalls with wooden dividers and doors. No showers. I never looked into the women’s washroom.
My boss, Bert, and I were there to fix some lights which had stopped working in four rooms, two rooms above the other two on different floors. Three rooms empty, one occupied. The problem in all four rooms was related so we started in the one closest to the electrical panel and worked our way through the other rooms in succession, and finally to the last room where the guest was staying. Bert knocked on the door and an old man answered. The man was completely naked. My sheltered 19 year old brain didn’t know what to make of that. Why would he not put clothes on before answering the door? Does he not care if a woman was knocking? What if it was the receptionist? Maybe she’d be too tired to care. The old man appeared to be half asleep. Bert, who was himself past 60 years old, calmly and politely explained why we were there and suggested the man take a moment to put some pants on before we came in, which he did.
Bert left me alone in the room to investigate above the ceiling light. The old man, wearing dingy grey pants now, lay on the bed with his back to me, sleeping. One ratty small black bag sat on the floor beside the bed. It slumped in on itself, mostly empty. Before getting on the bed, before Bert left the room, the old man did not once make eye contact with us. He always looked at the ground and nodded to whatever Bert spoke to him. There was nothing in his eyes or facial expression to show that he cared much about anything. It’s as though there was a continuous sighing coming from him, not audible, just there about him. I finished fixing what didn’t really need fixing and quietly let my self out, closing the door behind. After we’d gone I regretted not leaving some cash on his bed. I thought about that old man a lot. I still do.
To be continued…