An Interview with Chris, a 2017 SALTer at BCV

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Chris is a participant in the MCC exchange program Serving and Learning Together (SALT). He will be competing his 11 month term in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in July. We recently met with him at BCV:

What is your SALT position?

My position is the Advocacy Program Assistant at Building Community Voices. And I mainly write grants and help with editing English.

What sort of insights have you had this year?

One main insight was that because this year has been a chance to make many mistakes, I’ve learned that people are accepting of mistakes and forgiving of them. Like, you know, all the cultural mistakes or misunderstandings at work. Just in general that people are pretty forgiving and understanding.

What’s been a highlight of your year?

Getting to see many parts of Cambodia. I got to go with BCV to many of the locations where it’s been working and that’s been cool, and also with MCC to many different areas. In the city and also in the provinces—it’s just been cool to see all the different areas within Cambodia.

What was your favorite trip with BCV?

I think the time I got to go to Ratanakiri. It was the first time I got to travel in Cambodia. I didn’t even know where Ratanakiri was—I hadn’t looked at a map. We stayed overnight and got there the next day, and had a lot of stops on the way also.

What did you do when you got there?

The first time we went, BCV was facilitating media training so they taught Indigenous people from the villages about the recording equipment and the computer software. The first purpose is to train them in the area of media. BCV provides them with equipment like computers, computer programs, and recording devices so that the people can create radio programs and other media to voice their concerns. They train them on how to interview and on different media techniques among other things. The second area is mobilizing, where the BCV employees train community members on their rights and how to advocate for them. The goal is to inform these people so that they can go to their villages and train others.

Can you remember all the different Provinces you’ve been in Cambodia?

Kampong Saom, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu, Takéo, Prey Veng, Siem Reap, Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Stung Treng, Kratié. It’s a lot!

How have you grown or been challenged this year?

Seeing different approaches to different things this year has challenged how I’ve approached day to day life and religion. It’s in some areas made me more accepting of my differences but also its caused me to reflect more on what’s different. Like coming from my college, work was viewed a certain way. Assignments were viewed…less enthusiastically I guess. But here its not that same. The university students seem really committed to their learning a lot more than in my environment at my school.

What has surprised you about Cambodia?

I was surprised by the amount of people from around the world that come to give aid to Cambodia. Whether it is Christianity-based or not, Cambodia seems to be a center of attention for NGO activity. I’ve met people who come as missionaries or to help in NGOs from places including Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the U.S., Singapore, and Sweden. When coming to Cambodia, I didn’t really expect to be meet people from so many other countries.

What are you looking forward to when you return home?

I’m definitely looking forward to the food. There are U.S. style foods available here, but it is often a treat to have pizza or a hamburger. So I’m ready to have that kind of thing more often. I also am looking forward to being able to drive, after using a bike to get around this past year. Finally, more generally I’m looking forward to being in my familiar culture. I’m not having culture shock like at the start, but the difference in culture is definitely still a challenge.


An Uprooted Canadian in Cambodia

An Uprooted Canadian in Cambodia

By Rachel Bergen, SALT participant and Writer/Editor for Interfaith Cooperation Forum

I remember stepping off the plane and exiting the Phnom Penh airport already starting to sweat. I squinted in the bright sun as my eyes adjusted and strained to hear the MCC Cambodia representatives greeting me over the roar of traffic.

Prior to moving to Cambodia to participate in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program, I lived in Saskatoon, Canada. This small prairie city experiences more winter than any other season.

It’s basically Phnom Penh’s complete opposite.

Needless to say, the prospect of living in such a busy, loud, hot place for an entire year, although exciting, made me anxious. That is, until I met my host family.

I’ll never forget the day I met the seven people I would share a house with. Many things were changing at that point and I was feeling overwhelmed with it all. In Khmer one would saykhnyom sompeat cheran to explain this feeling. I felt as if I was a plant uprooted too early in my life cycle.

I approached my new home in a sputtering tuk tuk filled with my belongings, a mosquito net, and a fan (essentials for life in a tropical country), and was greeted at the door by my new family. They embraced me and gave me a laminated sign that read, “Warm reception you Rachel. Make yourself at home.”

I was a stranger and they welcomed me.

I came to Cambodia with the intention of using my gifts to be a small part of MCC’s peacebuilding work. I was excited to work as a writer for an interfaith peace and justice movement MCC Cambodia partners with. The Interfaith Cooperation Forum brings young adults from all over Asia to live and learn about peace together at their semi-annual School of Peace. I felt honoured to be chosen to bear witness to accounts of conflict, and inspired at the thought of hearing about how these people impact their communities.

All these things are still true. I knew I would be changed by my SALT placement, but I had no idea how much my host family would factor into the change.

When I was uprooted, my host family re-planted me, cared for and nurtured me. They helped me learn the Khmer language, participate in important cultural practices, and become integrated into a Cambodian church community.

This support allowed me to establish a new routine and to find a place in the family. I fit in and can contribute to the wellbeing of the group, too.

This time in Cambodia has been an education, but paramount are the lessons of humility and hospitality modelled by my host family.

Photo caption: My host family and I visiting a pagoda during the Khmer holiday Pchum Ben. On the left is my host mom Keo Sina; next to her is her daughter, Ke Chanmonyreaksa and son, Ke Kakada.

This was originally written for the April edition MCC’s newsletter In Touch on the theme of uprooted people.

Bombs of the Past, Bombs of the Present

Bombs of the Past, Bombs of the Present

By Audrey Thill, Peace Program Support Worker

This past week, Cambodians discovered two unexploded bombs, in two separate locations, all while going about their normal business. Both bombs were made in the United States.

A team of elite Cambodian divers dragged the first one out of the river near Phnom Penh. They were alerted to its existence by local fisher people who noticed their nets were catching on the bomb. Experts believe it was dropped by the forces fighting for General Lon Nol, a US-backed military man who briefly and brutally ruled Cambodia in the early 1970s.

The second was a 500-lb bomb lodged in the Tonle Bassac riverbank in Kandal province. Once again, a team from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), a de-mining organization supported by the US, responded to a tip from local residents who discovered the bomb. They removed the explosive without incident.

The photo below is from the Phnom Penh Post and shows the CMAC divers who retrieved the first bomb from the river. The “related articles” column on the Post’s website let me know Cambodians have been picking out bombs from their fields for years.

Photo courtesy of the Phnom Penh Post.

I have many reasons to love where I come from, but foreign policy like the secret bombing of Cambodia, is not one of them. I think few people in the US think about Cambodia on a regular basis, but here are two instances in one week where Cambodians had to confront the legacy of US foreign policy that was decided on over 40 years ago. That is incredible to me.

a998cambodiabombings_2050081722-20753From 1965 to 1973, the US dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on Cambodia.
The total amounts to more bombs than the Allies dropped during World War II. The goal of US leadership was to target North Vietnamese forces who were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Cambodia’s eastern border, and later, to target Cambodian communists. The secret bombing (not secret to Cambodia) campaign was indiscriminate and even focused on heavily populated areas like Phnom Penh. The photo to the right shows the targets of the airstrikes. Want to know something really chilling? This mission was callously called “Operation Menu.” Each phase of the attack was identified like your daily meals: breakfast, snack, dinner, supper, and dessert. When US citizens eventually found out about it and began to protest the covert operation, tens of thousands of Cambodians had already died.


I am sure you can imagine how pleased Cambodians were when they heard US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders denounce Henry Kissinger and his Cambodian military campaign. As a side-note, Cambodian scholars would say Sanders was off on his causal explanation of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. But I still think his overall message was on point.

On numerous occasions I have been asked by Cambodian friends, farmers, a teacher, and colleagues about what motivated US leaders to attack Cambodia. They have asked me, “What did we ever do to deserve bombs raining down on our homes and fields? You know, so many people died.” I want to say: “You did nothing! It’s awful.” or  “I’m so sorry!” But those words  are empty and meaningless against the dark backdrop of history.

Beautiful places like this may still contain explosive reminders of the past.

People have also told me their personal stories about what it was like to hear the bombs exploding in the distance or to see the aftermath of a demolished marketplace.  Someone told me their whole family fled their village to seek shelter in the bigger city. Cities were not necessarily safe either. When I asked my host mother (last year) what she remembered of this time, she said, “Oh so many bombs! It was everywhere, so awful!” One person told me that the bombs killed alligators living in a nearby pond. I have no idea if that story is true, but my, what a story.

Bombshell jewellery from Rajana Association (an MCC partner), possibly sold in your local Ten Thousand Villages Store. 

Like the recently discovered bombs, other remnants of the past are more common than you might imagine. Two college friends of mine who lived with a Cambodian family in eastern Cambodia were show the bombshell that demolished the house of a relative. Their host family held onto it for so many years. In other instances, people have transformed the bombs into jewellery, in an act much like beating swords into plowshares.

Sadness tinged with guilt sits heavy in my stomach when I imagine my host mother experiencing the terror of a bombing raid. I cannot fathom what it was like for my colleague who huddled in darkness wondering if his family would make it through the night. We should also not forget the pilots who flew those missions and likely experienced trauma as a result. Who in all of this did not take a blow?

To me these unearthed weapons are not just water-logged relics of the past but a reminder of the current destructive power of my home country. When people ask me about this history, I am also quick to think about my country’s current involvement in many violent conflicts around the world. I think of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, and all the people today who wonder if their lives will ever regain a semblance of normality and safety.

I do not pretend to have solutions complicated and protracted violent conflicts. I do know, however, that this story of Cambodia, where US political strategies were pursued at the cost of innocent lives, continues to play out over and over again. We seem so easily seduced by the power of weapons and misguided to think a bit more firepower will finally create peace. There are better ways to use our resources, better ways to build peace. Granted, we (the US public) do not always know what happens in our name, nor do we fully understand the rationale behind those decisions. Nevertheless, our drones and weapons continue to disrupt and destroy life. If we do not speak up, are we not culpable as well?

[Seriously, click that last link and check out the MCC advocacy offices.]

I admit that I often feel hopeless and resigned to the fact that our great war machine is unstoppable. Then I hear stories like the unearthing of 40-year-old bombs in Cambodia and realize my complacency is not okay when our decisions can cause destruction that lasts decades. Those bombs could have killed people today, though thankfully, they did not.

Us ordinary people do not see or feel the impact of our leaders’ decisions. We can live quite happily without knowing what happens. That does not, however, mean that people like my host mother, friends, and so many others do not experience the consequences.

All of this is my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the stance of MCC.

This blog was originally published on Audrey Thill’s blog. To read more of her reflections, click here.


“It’s our forest, too”

“It’s our forest, too”

By Rachel Bergen, SALT participant, and Writer/Editor for Interfaith Cooperation Forum

They laid out on hammocks deep in the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province. MCC service worker Audrey Thill remembers how pristine and quiet it was inside the giant forest.

All Thill could hear was her own breathing, the people around her, and the sound of locusts and birds in the trees. But when the sun went down, everything changed.

Thill and MCC SALT participant Madeleine Yoder heard chainsaws in the distance as they camped in the forest.

“It’s happening. It’s happening right now,” Thill thought as she heard the distant sounds of loggers start up their chainsaws and chop down trees one by one. At one point someone from the group said they could hear a tractor hauling felled trees coming their way. This is because illegal loggers work under the cover of night.

Thill takes a dusty ride on the back of a koo yuun (cow machine) to get to the Prey Lang forest. (Photo by Madeleine Yoder)

Yoder and Thill took part in a learning tour with 10 other expats and 33 Cambodians to the Prey Lang forest in March along with MCC Cambodia’s partner organization Peace Bridges and members of the local Christians for Social Justice group. They met with activists from the award-winning Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) who are non-violently working to stop loggers from desecrating this rare, sacred place which 200,000 people depend on.

Prey Lang stretches over three provinces and is the largest, most biodiverse evergreen forest in Cambodia and even in the Indochinese Peninsula. However, the agro-industrial encroachment has destroyed vast areas of the forest.

Members of the local communities have taken up the responsibility of protecting the forest and advocating for it — all for great risk and no pay.

“For me it was a learning experience. I wanted to see Prey Lang and that area and meet with the activists and forest protectors,” Thill says.

The PLCN is comprised of volunteer members who protest, patrol the forest, organize petitions advocating for the protection of Prey Lang, confiscate and destroy chainsaws, negotiate with logging companies (non-violently), and map the area using smartphone technology.

Yoder stands next to a stump in the Prey Lang forest. (Photo by Audrey Thill)

Yoder works as an advocacy program assistant for Building Community Voices (BCV), which, among other things, works with people who are victims of land-grabbing and economic land concessions (ELCs). These concessions are long-term leases allowing companies to clear land to develop industrial-scale agriculture given to businesses. Many times these ELCs are done without consulting or adequately compensating those who depend on the land or without an environmental impact assessment.

BCV helps community members know and exercise their rights.

“I feel like sometimes with my work or reading the news and learning more about this huge issue in Cambodia, it starts to feel hopeless,” Yoder says. “I think it was kind of inspiring to meet the activists. They shared what their hopes are for the forest and how they want it for the future generation. They’re just volunteering themselves, too.”

Peace Bridges personnel train the activists in non-violent peacemaking to de-escalate potential conflict situations with loggers.

“(The loggers are) unarmed, they travel through the forest and when they meet people they’ll approach them, take away the chainsaws or weapons first and then sit down and talk to them. Some of the activists used to be in the tree cutting industry, but for different reasons that changed. They sign a contract promising not to cut trees again,” Thill says.

Still, the risk is great.

Chut Wutty, a prominent environmentalist was murdered in 2012. He had been working to stop illegal deforestation in Cambodia since the 1990s, including in the Prey Lang forest. He also supported the PLCN. More recently, PLCN activist Phorn Sopheak was attacked by a person wielding an ax while she slept in a hammock deep inside the forest in early April. Death threats are common.

A deforested area in the Preah Vihear part of Prey Lang. (Photo by Audrey Thill)

Prey Lang means “our forest” in the Kuy indigenous language spoken in the region. So many people depend on the forest for their food, livelihood, and even spiritual practices. Many indigenous people believe the trees have spirits and when they are cut down, the spirits are destroyed.

Cambodia’s rate of deforestation is among the fastest in the world. There is even forest loss inside sanctuaries and national parks, much of it is due to ELCs.

Thill and Yoder marvel at the dedication of the Prey Lang activists who risk so much for their communities and the forests they depend on.

“The scale of logging is so huge, but they don’t give up,” Thill says.

Get to know the MCC Cambodia YALT crew (finally)!

Get to know the MCC Cambodia YALT crew (finally)!

You may not have known this, but MCC Cambodia currently has six volunteers working with partner organizations throughout the country who are participants in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) programs. These six wonderful folks have been here for eight months already and only have three more to go. Still, we thought you should know a bit more about our fearless SALT and YAMEN (or YALT for short) participants.

Tyler is about to indulge in a feast of seafood at a small Khmer restaurant at the Crab Market in Kep. (Photo by Rachel Bergen)

Tyler Loewen, SALT participant, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Agriculture Development Worker, Organization to Develop our Villages (ODOV), Prey Veng

Tyler is based in the Mesang region of Prey Veng province and works for ODOV. This organization works to increase community food security and incomes through better agriculture practices, local community organization, and promotion of democratic governance.

MCC: What’s a funny or memorable experience you’ve had during SALT?

TL: One of the most memorable experiences was one of the haircuts that I got whilst living the village life. Normally, I went to a specific roadside haircutting stand; however, on the particular Saturday that I wanted my haircut the owner decided to close early (at ten in the morning). I proceeded to a stand named “Free Wifi” which evidently did not have free Wifi but was rather a catchy name for a stand. I began explaining the haircut that I wanted, in Khmer; however, the barber chose to ignore me and began showing me different hairstyles from a book that he was able to do. I chose one that I liked and the barber proceeded to give me a haircut nothing like the picture. At one point he began laughing and told me that it was going to be nothing like the picture. He was also incredibly rough and I felt like he was tearing chunks of hair of my head. After he finished cutting my hair he asked if I wanted a shave, a common practice in Cambodia, I hesitantly agreed and immediately regretted doing so. Again, very rough, I was stressed throughout the entire process but at least I ended with a haircut, albeit a pretty poor one, and a shave for less than a dollar. Throughout the entire process a group of high school boys, from the school across the street, watched.

MCC: What’s been the best part of your SALT term so far?

TL: The opportunity to live, interact, and work alongside Cambodians has been a really enriching and humbling experience. I truly feel like I have been constantly learning, both formally and informally, which has likely been the best part of my SALT term this far. Also, I really enjoy trying new foods which I have been able to do a very regular basis.

MCC: And what’s your favourite food?

TL: Baj sac chruuk (a common breakfast food in Cambodia which usually comes with an egg, and a special Khmer relish consisting of carrots, cucumbers, and ginger) and the fresh fruit (except durian), especially mangos.

Binu poses for the camera on Kep Beach. (Photo by Madeleine Yoder)

Binu Rai, YAMEN participant, Itahari, Nepal

English Teacher, Develop Our Village Economy (DOVE), Phnom Penh

Binu teaches English at DOVE, an organization that works to equip emerging church leaders, but also to provide stable environments for young people to hang out, learn, and grow as individuals.

MCC: Whats your favourite part of living in Cambodia?

BR: I think knowing the Khmer culture and also travelling around Cambodia. I think also working with the MCC team, that’s cool.

MCC: What’s your funniest memory from living in Cambodia?

BR: I laugh when I don’t pronounce things the right way in English or in Khmer. People think I look Khmer and then laugh that I have a funny accent. My students always they laugh when I try to speak Khmer, haha.

MCC: What are you looking forward to over the last three months here?

BR: I’m having a good job with my job these days because I’m also teaching the students about self esteem, values, and sexual education. i will be teaching them about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. I’m enjoying my job.

Jessica 1.jpg
Jessica living in the lap of luxury in Kampot province. (Photo by Rachel Bergen)

Jessica Sosa, SALT participant, Fresno, California, U.S.

Program Assistant, Precious Women, Phnom Penh

Jessica works for Precious Women, a partner organization that helps women transition out of the sex trade. The organisation offers transitional housing, counselling, and vocational skills training. Many go on to work in cosmetology or cooking.

MCC: What’s your favourite Khmer word?

JS: I say “to dok skal” a lot — It means “don’t put sugar.” Khmer people put sugar on everything and I just don’t want more. As long as they tell me they’re doing it, I’m happy. I really don’t know if they’re doing it or not, haha.

MCC: What’s your favourite Khmer food?

JS: I really like bon chao. It’s like a thin, yellow Khmer pancake filled with veggies and meat. It’s delicious. I really like the dipping sauce. It’s a peanutty chilli sauce.

MCC: What’s one of your best memories from Cambodia?

JS: One of the best experiences was when Rachel (Bergen, fellow SALT participant) and I were living at Dorm Home (a dorm for Khmer students) and it was rainy season. We played volleyball in a monsoon and got soaked. It kind of reminded me of childhood and it was a good way to bond with the people at the dorm.

MCC: What’s been the best part of your SALT term?

JS: I think it’s been getting to know my coworkers at Precious Women. They are really cool and really dedicated to the work of the organisation. One coworker is really passionate about learning. She wants to learn English. She works full-time and takes English classes twice a day. A lot of my coworkers are really dedicated to learning and improving their quality of life. I never hear them complain, either.

Madeleine Yoder, SALT participant, Goshen, Indiana, U.S.

Madeleine cuddles an adorable puppy at a pepper farm in Kampot province. (Photo by Binu Rai)

Advocacy Program Assistant, Building Community Voices, Phnom Penh

Madeleine works for Building Community Voices, an organization which aims to empower community members to know and fight for their rights, form networks, and communicate with each other and outside stakeholders through community-based media production.

MCC: What’s your favourite Khmer food?

MY: My favourite khmer food is called sach koo laeng phnom, which means the beef climbed the mountain. It is  fried vegetables and beef eaten with a delicious fish, garlic, and chili sauce. My favourite dessert that my host mother makes is called bobo lephiw, which is a sweet coconut milk porridge with pumpkin and tapioca-like pearls.

MCC: Tell me about a funny moment in Cambodia.

MY: One night at dinner when my host mother was eating chicken heads. She was picking at hers for a while then looked up at me with a smirk and said, “This one has a brain,” and started laughing.

MCC: Any advice for incoming SALT and YAMEN participants?

MY: Go with the flow, say yes (most of the time), and eat everything. Also, don’t be shy to initiate things or even invite yourself! Cambodians are generous and hospitable and would love for you to visit their home, experience a Khmer wedding, etc.

Mojesh Marandi, YAMEN participant, Katihar, Bihar, India

Mojesh at Kep Beach before taking a plunge in the beautiful water. (Photo by Binu Rai)

Office Administrator and Child Support Worker, Let Us Create, Sihanoukville

Mojesh is based in Sihanoukville, Kampong Saum right near the ocean. He works for LUC which serves as a drop in centre for youth in the Sihanoukville area. LUC encourages youth to stay in school, provides classes after school for children wanting to bolster their education, and provides art supplies and classes.

MCC: What’s your favourite Khmer food?

MM: Pork and rice.

MCC: What’s been your favourite part of your time here in Cambodia?

MM: I like my work at LUC and have many children and I enjoy with them.

Rachel relaxing back at the bungalow in Kampot province. (Photo by Jessica Sosa)

Rachel Bergen, SALT participant, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada

Writer and Editor, Interfaith Cooperation Forum

Rachel helps promote the work of Interfaith Cooperation Forum, a movement which works to build up a network of people from different countries and faiths who are working for peace and justice in the world. The Forum hosts a School of Peace which brings about 20 young people together to live and learn for three months. These people then go on to serve with their country’s local chapter of ICF.

MCC: What’s a memorable or funny experience you’ve had on assignment?

RB: I’ve had a number of funny language blunders. At the beginning I kept mixing up the Khmer words for cucumber and cold. I would go to the market and ask to buy cold or come home and say, “Canada is very cucumber” in Khmer. Recently when I returned from a trip to Malaysia, I told my host mother “I ate plane” instead of “I ate on the plane.” Although learning a new language is very difficult, it’s important to laugh at yourself and not take these things too seriously!

MCC: What is some advice for someone contemplating a SALT position in Cambodia?

RB: Like I said, don’t take things too seriously. You’ll make mistakes, mispronounce words, get frustrated by the traffic and overwhelmed by the heat, but just take it in stride.

If you’re anything like me, you think a good relationship with a host family means talking all the time and doing lots of activities together. In reality it’s different. Understand that being present is the most important part of a host family relationship. You won’t be able to understand half of what they say and most families don’t go on many outings, except for weddings and stuff. Go with them whenever they do go out, but most days you’ll probably be home watching a Thai soap opera. It’s okay to read while they watch.

Oh, and pack at least one or two formal outfits. Khmer weddings are really fancy and I was not prepared for that! Especially in the countryside, you’ll be invited to several. I’ve already gone to two and was invited to two more.

The Legacy of Christianity in Cambodia

The Legacy of Christianity in Cambodia

By Binu Rai, English Teacher at Develop Our Village Economy (DOVE) and YAMEN participant from Nepal.

As a YAMENer from Nepal, I came to Cambodia with many similarities to the people here. We typically have similar facial features, colour tone, height and a few cultural values. At the same time we have completely different languages, accents, food, festivals and some social values. I was welcomed into Cambodia for both my similarities and differences.

As I landed in this beautiful country, I was touched by the sad history of the Khmer Rouge regime. As person interested in theology, I have chosen to write about the faith that helped the Khmer people through the dark period of genocide.

An Overview of Christianity in Cambodia

Cambodia is traditionally Buddhist, but there is a growing number of Christians in the country. Many were accused of betraying their country by accepting a foreign religion. Bible translation work began in 1902 because until that point there was no access of Bible in Khmer language. 20 years later, Christian and Mission Alliance sent missionaries into Phnom Penh and Battambang to plant a Bible School and prints and distribute Biblical texts. There were only about 700 Christians in the country at that time. In 1965, King Sihanouk had expelled all the missionaries, but between 1970 to 1975, missionaries were allowed to come back again and the church grew to about 10,000.

A memorial stupa stands prominently at the Cheong Ek Killing Fields memorial just outside of Phnom Penh. (Photo by Binu Rai

The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge

Life became very difficult for Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. In early 1973, about 85 percent of Cambodian territory was in their control. Under the Khmer Rouge, two million people in Phnom Penh and other cities were forced to leave their homes to go to countryside to work in the field. Approximately 1.7 million people died during the evacuation, starvation, torture, execution, disease, overwork and mass killings over four years of the regime. Most of them were educated people, teacher, doctors, engineers, military personnel, and a few foreigners and Church Pastors. The Khmer Rouge implied radical Maoist strategy where they abolished money, markets, school, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, foreign clothing, and religious practices.

The director of the organization I work for, Develop Our Village Economy (DOVE), Uon Seila remembers the day of Jan 31,1971 well. At around 2:00pm two American aircrafts bombed Cambodia and his house and village were blown up. Since that time the villagers were displaced in their own country. His hatred towards Americans grew in his heart. Soon after, the Khmer Rouge took place on April 17, 1975 and sadly, he lost his father and many relatives. The loss the Cambodian Christian church faced was big, too. He says in nearly four years the church lost 38 pastors out of 40, almost 10,000 believers and 31 churches. About 90% of church died in the genocide. Only 2 pastors and around 200 Christians lived to see 1979.

“I stayed 12 years in refugee camp in Thai border to get into abroad but ended up deciding to return home and started working with Youth Ministry under the EFC (Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia),” Uon says. Later, the EFC split to form DOVE, the NGO I work at today. From 1979 to until 1989, Cambodian new government did not allow people to meet together as a group. Therefore, the remaining Christians and people who converted at border camps started underground churches in Phnom Penh and a few provinces.

Uon states further, after years of brutal persecution, starvation, loss of family, hatred, and pain, the church started giving people hope for a new life and teaching them about forgiveness. There was a lot of work to do, though. Some children were orphaned, trafficked or begged on the street. Some couples were forced to marry during Khmer Rouge and divorced after the fall which broke up families.

In spite of all the bad circumstances, Uon and Brian Maher, an advisor, worked together to help young people coming from different provinces by giving them hope for new life.

The Khmer Rouge regime was one of the worst human tragedies in our time and still causes problems now. As I was visiting the S21 museum, Killing Fields and hearing different stories that took place during those times, it literally brought me to tears as I sat and listened. Meanwhile, I am very honoured to work and to be a part of  DOVE which works to heal the community and different church groups in both provinces and city.

Leadership Club
A leadership class meets regularly at DOVE. Binu is pictured in the back row under the television. (Photo courtesy of Binu Rai)


DOVE works in four different provinces Kompong Thom, Kompong Chhang, Kompng Cham and Phnom Penh. It works to transform and shape young emerging leaders beyond denominational barriers, and provides education, skills and training opportunities. DOVE also runs a drop in centre in each satellite provinces where high school and universities students are free to come and learn English, Thai, computer, music and other extra courses during the weekend.

I work at the drop-in centre in Phnom Penh. There are more than 60 kids and young people come each day to learn English, Thai and Computer. I am delighted to see them growing in safe place where they make friend, play, learn, share, relax, and jokes around. They love this place and their friends.

The most amazing part of DOVE’s program is the safe space that they provide for young people to share their feelings, aspirations and pain.

DOVE volunteers help guide them a right direction and to forgive their past through inner healing, social justice lessons and Bible lessons. I have been thrilled to hear many young people’s stories since I began volunteering with DOVE six months ago. They seem more positive, motivated, hopeful, courage, empowered and transformed because of the influence of DOVE.

I am very hopeful for this country that these young people will be a great tool to establish peace and justice in this country. Their faith in Christ is more strong and rooted because of the legacy of violence in Cambodia and their voice for justice and peace is loud. As I see, Many Cambodian Christian cost their life for the sake of faith in Christ. Yet, more young leaders are rising as a fruit of their sacrifice. I believed a legacy goes continue through tremendous work the people at DOVE have been doing.

I hope my work helps to build sontephea knong protes Kampuchea, or peace in Cambodia.

In the featured image, Binu Rai poses with her English class. Binu is pictured in the back row in a pink shirt.

Dancing in the Street

Vince Stange (in the middle) poses with the bride, Cheou Mary and the groom, Hen Dara. He served as groomsman on their wedding day. (Photo submitted by Vince Stange)

By Vince Stange

Cambodia’s streets serve many purposes, possibly more than any other streets in the world. In Phnom Penh, during the morning and evening rush-hours, the traffic spills-onto the sidewalks with motos, tuk-tuks, cars, tractor-trailers, food carts, and everything in-between. Meanwhile the quieter streets are filled with children playing “flip-flop football,” Khmer BBQ grills, families engaging in “ankgoy leng” (play sitting, or relaxing in chairs), and stray dogs keeping watch over their domain.

In the country, the scene is often different, but no less busy. Water buffalo and cows seem to come out of no-where, emerging from the ditch onto the road with their human herders. Chickens cross the street (literally to get to the other side), tractors putt-on-by, and motos weave in-and-out of it all. In the evenings, the countryside roads are pretty much empty by 7 p.m., with very few vehicles passing by after that. By that time, the sun has completely set, and families are eating, with most folks in bed by about 9 p.m., only to rise at 4:30 or 5 a.m. the following morning.

There is one thing, though—one thing, that will get everyone into the streets after 7 p.m. Not only will they come, but they will dress to the nines, and they will dance. That’s right, they will literally dance in the streets. That one thing, of course, is a Cambodian wedding.

The bride and groom get showered with silly string and glitter. Weddings are very formal affairs, as you can see. (Photo by Vince Stange)

Now, as rare as this event may sound, it is not nearly as rare as it may be in many other places.

By 2020, it is projected that 40% of Cambodia’s population will be between the ages of 15 and 30, making it one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world. Combine that with the fact that most Cambodian’s are married before the age of 30, and, well…you get the point. Weddings happen really often. This is especially true between the months of November and March (also known as wedding season), because it is not rainy season, nor is it hot season. It’s an ideal time to get married outdoors.

Now, for the wedding itself. Most traditional weddings consist of a number of ceremonies, including a fruit-carrying ceremony, a hair-cutting ceremony and a more formal time of parents consenting their permission and “handing-over” their children in marriage. All of these ceremonies have great significance, both in Khmer culture, and also in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Christian-Khmer weddings, of which I have attended three already, are composed of an interesting mix of traditional Khmer attire and ceremonies along with Western Christian traditions (including a feet-washing ceremony). The reception is almost always held in the middle of the street (both in the countryside and the city), with a five or six course meal served and a “dancing circle” (with fruit in the middle) accompanied by a band (sometimes with live dancers).

Khmer weddings are a far cry from Western weddings in that they are community events and not simply a gathering of some family and friends, if the whole getting married in the middle of the street thing doesn’t emphasize that fact enough, consider this—on average, 500-1,000 guests attend each wedding—with some weddings surpassing that. Pretty much any acquaintance with the groom, bride, or their family is invited.

I have had the pleasure of attending five Khmer wedding so far (in just seven months), and recently served as a “Neak Komdol” (groomsman) in two of them. While I was honored to be asked to participate—it was quite a long day. It starts at about 5 a.m., with preparations for the fruit-carrying ceremony, and concludes with lots of “cheers-ing” and circular dancing around 10 pm. The day starts even earlier for women getting their make up done.

The entire wedding party wears traditional Khmer clothing—similar in style to the bride and groom. It is hard to state how colorful and flowery everything and everyone looks, it is a quite distinct look, yet beautiful in its own right. It’s also hard to grab onto all of the visual adjectives you could use to describe a Khmer wedding—loud, boisterous, metallic, flashy, over-the-top, maybe even ‘bumping.’ The non-visual adjectives? Tasty, hilarious, welcoming, and so quintessentially Cambodian.

So, if you ever find yourself in Cambodia, do yourself a favor and follow the crowd towards the ginormous metal loudspeaker blasting out Khmer melodies, and take your one chance to do a little dancing in the street.

Vince Stange is serving as an Education Program Facilitator in Prey Veng province in Cambodia. Prior to moving to Cambodia he worked as a teacher in New York City.