Our paths cross in Banlung City, Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.

Banlung Foreigners

Back row:  Canadian English teacher, Australian bomb detonator, Australian heath care NGO worker, me
Front row: Cuban/Nicaraguan via London volunteer coordinator, Canadian English teacher, Irish VSO trainer

I get a text on Sunday morning from an Australian expat in Banlung that I found on Facebook.  She invites me to meet up with her and some others for lunch at a hotel restaurant called Treetop.  I walk because I don’t trust myself enough on a bicycle to be able to look for the landmarks she told me without falling over.  I dodge cars on the main street and walk down a little dirt road until I see a sign in maker with an arrow that says "Treetop.''  I walk down the stairs and am surprised to see there is a really beautiful view over the railling of the restaurant.  In the corner, several British short-term volunteers are smoking and working on laptops on the bar and wooden double-wide chaise covered with mats.  I recognize Sarah, the Australian working at a health care NGO, sitting at one of the long wooden tables I've come to recognize from the prison warden's office and the judge's chamber.  The difference is that these are not covered in a layer of varnish.  Ratanakiri has been hellbent on cutting down its entire forest in recent years, so the wood is probably from that.  She looks up, recognizes me, and flags me over.

Treetop Hotel

Sarah is sitting with a man I'm introduced to named Gary, an Australian bomb detonator.  He's sarcastic and makes a jab at America the first chance he gets.  When I ask why he's here he says, "Well thanks to American there are a lot of bombs around here and my team and I blow them up.''  This isn't the first time someone has made a jab at America to me, but then again it's true so it's not really an accusation...more of a negative opinion shared with me.  Not many people I meet overseas care enough to give me their two cents about America, but some feel the need to get on their soapbox.  Sometimes I am apologetic about my country, other times I am defensive.  I can't tell if this guy is being mean-spirited or joking.  I figure that a guy who spends everyday looking for bombs and blowing them up is probably just a tad gruff, so I don't take it personally.  One by one the others from the picture above join us.  Everyone takes their turn explaining what they're doing and what brought them to Banlung.

There is certainly a different ''feel'' to the expat community in Cambodia as compared to the one I was part of in South Korea for 2 years.  Besides the fact that the majority of expats are not English teachers, European engineers or U.S. military personnel as they are in Korea, expats in Cambodia tend to be volunteers and are much more motivated by a need to ''make a difference.''  The amount of education is really polarized as well, as many of them tend to have either masters degrees or a high school diploma.  But they all seem jaded by the hurdles Cambodian culture puts up in the way of the changes they want to help make.  For example, Khmer people are extremely uncomfortable with giving other people answers they won't like, so gathering accurate data about, say, the use of mosquito nets at night, can be extremely difficult if not impossible.  This makes monitoring and evaluating endeavors difficult.    Second, Cambodia has a culture of non-responsibility.  People are hesitant if not completely resistant to assigning blame.  Men must ''save face'' and so confrontations are highly rare and, when they do happen, have very negative consequences.  A limited sense of national pride and the foreign concept of personal responsibility also frustrates actions undertaken by NGOs.  I see this most obviously in the amount of litter and trash everywhere.  I think of Garret Hardin's essay The Tragedy of the Commons.  Life in Cambodia seems like a rat race without a winner.

We sit and talk for most of the afternoon.  I sip on Sprite and enjoy learning about everyone.  Another girl is also new in town, a Canadian named Liz.  She is here to replace the male Canadian English teacher, Eric.  Since everyone else is pretty established in their group dynamic, it's nice to know I'm not the only newbie.  They tell Liz and I about what to do in town.  There's a good Indian restaurant called Everest, but you need to call ahead because the owner will not buy the ingredients until you make an order.  There are some nearby waterfalls, but you have to go swimming in your clothes to avoid offending the locals.  There is a fancy hotel that lets you pay to use the pool and you can wear a swimsuit.  About 5 kilometers outside of town is a giant crater lake.  A little bit farther out is a really great restaurant owned by either a Dutch man or a Swiss woman (I can't remember).  They said it's good if you're craving Western food.  Trekking is an also an option for an activity to do in Banlung, but half of them have not done it.  Gecks Café, directly across from my guesthouse, is good for cold beers.  Also, there is a nice open air restaurant on the lake where I jog in the mornings that they sometimes go to.  They warn that the market is pretty gross in the afternoon because the meat has been sitting out all day, but it's worth going to in the morning at some point.  They tell me Café Alee is their main hangout.  I ask if they ever get lonely because it seems like they only see each other on weekends.  They say yes, but that they cope by just reading a lot or watching movies on their laptops.  We agree to meet up for lunch the next day to bid Eric farewell.

The next morning there is no power in the entire province or in the office, so I go to work on my research at my guesthouse because it has a generator.  For lunch, I meet up with the expats at Café Alee.  It is owned and operated by an older Canadian man married to a Cambodian woman named Alee.  Eric, the Canadian English teacher, tells me that one of the Khmer teachers at his school runs a trekking business on the weekends and speaks decent English, so an overnight trip in the jungle is definitely in my future.  He recommends buying an army hammock.  I order a chicken salad because I've been warned not to eat lettuce in Cambodia, but I figure that this place is probably OK.  When I order a coffee, I'm surprised to find out that they serve 4 kinds!  How fancy!  Eric insists that I come to his school to meet his principal, because the principal used to be an attorney.  A new foreigner comes and meets us.  Her name is Caroline, and she's a 40 something English linguist studying an indigenous language.  From her talk, it sounds like the Cambodian government is paying her to use the Cambodian alphabet to create a written system for the indigenous language to preserve it.  She is a very interesting woman.  The Australian bomb detonator's wife also joins us.  Apparently she comes up for a few months at a time to visit her husband, and from my understanding she is a doctor.  She told us a lot about TB.

The next day the power is out (again) so I work on research at my guesthouse.  I start to read the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure, because some of the words in a document I've been given to edit seem to be using the wrong English translations and I try to figure out the correct terms.  For lunch we meet again at Café Alee, and I agree to come to Eric's school to meet the principal that evening after work.

I'm surprised by how big the school is.  Kids in navy blue shorts and skirts and short-sleeve white button ups carry on as kids do, shrieking and laughing and playing in the courtyard.  I leave my bike by the security guard hut and walk up 4 flights of stairs to the principal's office.  There is electricity so there must be a generator.  Eric and Liz are in the middle of an English class with some preteen girls.  I go into the principal's office and for the next 2 hours I am completely entranced. He went to law school and was a law professor specializing in developmental law, but after coming to the conclusion that the legal system in Cambodia has never worked, does not work, and will never work, he said goodbye to his legal career and opened up a school.  He says that he wants to instill the values of courage and creativity in his students and fix Cambodia by educating the next generation.  He says he thinks that Cambodians have an ''extremist'' gene and that he wants to temper that by teaching his students moderation. 

The principal believes that the civil law system does not work because it is based on Japanese law incongruous with Cambodian custom dating back thousands of years.  He also says he does not think that the criminal justice system works because it is based on the French system.  He says jail sentences are counterproductive because they do nothing to rehabilitate criminals back into society, not to mention the fact that mostly poor people go to jail since rich people accused of crimes can very easily bribe their way out of any problem.  He says that ancient Cambodian custom did not have the concept of jail.  Instead, it was a system based on compensation and arbitration.  He gives the example of force majeure.  In the French system, if someone borrows their neighbor's cow to plow their land and lightning kills the cow, he or she does not have to compensate the neighbor.  However, such an outcome in Cambodia in ancient times would cause an uproar.  Justice in Cambodian custom would require that the neighbor be compensated for the dead cow.

The principal is very much a renegade.  It is highly unusual to meet a Cambodian who will talk so candidly and frankly about the systemic problems with the country.  He even admits to me that many people do not like him because he is vocal with his unpopular views.  Many of his classmates from law school are now judges in Phenom Penh and he does not like the fact that they, in his opinion, think the whole system is a joke.  He has many legal connections.  As a matter of fact, he even taught Mr. Poa, the attorney's assistant who I primarily work for!  He tells me that Mr. Poa was a good student.  I feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the law after listening to him.  English is his third language after Khmer and French, so the way that he talks is very interesting.  I am amazed to find a man who has thought so critically about social problems and can talk about them so articulately way up here in my little jungle town of Banlung.

Before he leaves, he asks me if I am interested in teaching some English classes in the evenings at his school after work.  I left Korea after 2 years to go to law school in part because I didn't want to have a career in teaching English.  However, at William and Mary I met up with LLM students every Friday afternoon for a few hours for a conversational English class.  I guess I just keep falling back into it!  I agree almost immediately.  I'll probably go to the school twice a week for 2 hours at a time.  It will be a fun way to meet more of the people in the community and a nice break from the legal research I do during the day.  Playing with kids will probably be a little happier than sitting in on client interviews at the prison as well.

Since it is Eric's last night, the class stands up and sings him a song.  He has a sleeve of black and white tattoos and he lets the students color them in with his markers.  I think he is really sad to leave, but he's ready to move on.  I am very appreciative that he continued to insist on my meeting with the principal.  I'm excited about this unexpected turn in my summer experience.  I hope to learn a lot from this former law professor in the weeks to come.