Another folk tale from Cambodia. You can’t please anyone!

But here’s a mystery.



This story is from the 1993 collection of Cambodian folk tales entitled Cambodian Folk Tales from the Gatiloke.  I should preface the telling of the story by explaining a little bit about the Gatiloke: it is a vast body of hundreds of folk tales that has existed in Cambodia for many centuries and not committed to paper until the late 19th century.

In 1993 and American academic Muriel Paskin Carrison interviewed Cambodian refugee to the USA the Venerable Kong Chhean, a Buddhist monk who shared with Muriel a number of these folk stories. Coming in 1993, this set of stories provided one of the first glimpses of Cambodian culture available to the west since the tragic wars of the 1970s. The book is still available, and the stories are timeless, though many of the footnotes compiled for the volume have since been overtaken by modern history. For anybody wanting to teach in Cambodia, this volume is well worth reading, and I have often thought that it would make a great basis for a set of teaching modules.

In this particular tale called A Father, a Son and a Donkey,  a farmer and his son wish to take their young donkey to the local market to be sold. It is a long way to the market, and the father is concerned that the donkey will grow skinny and lean if they walk it all the way. So he comes up with a great idea; he will string the donkey upside down from a pole,  and carry it in the same manner as farmers might carry a squealing pig. So far so good.  His son agrees to carry the other end of the pole. They also have a heavy pack and several bags to carry, so they string these up as well.

However the father and son don’t get very far when they start drawing jeers and laughter from other farmers also en route to the market. ” I think you’ve confused your donkey for a pig!”  yells one farmer. ” I would hate to taste the pork from that pig!”  laughs another farmer. “What a pair of idiots,”  calls another.

Embarrassed by all this attention, the farmer lowers the donkey to the ground and un-strings it from the pole. ” I suppose we look pretty stupid,” he admits, “so let’s untie the donkey, and son – you ride him.”

” But won’t the donkey lose weight?”  asks the son.

” That’s okay, I’ll carry the pack as well as our other bags so that we don’t overload the donkey,”  explains the father.

” Good thinking,” says his son.

They set off, but again they don’t get very far before other travellers start to react. These other people look angry at the son and tell him that he is very ungrateful; riding in comfort on the back of the donkey while his father is forced to carry the pack and all those bags.

“What a terrible son!  No respect for your father!”

The father and son come up with a good solution. This time the father will ride on the donkey while the son carries the bags.  Surely this time everybody will be happy.

But no! As they approach a village they come across several young women washing clothes in a stream. The women look up and smile and remark what a handsome boy the son is. They also remark what a beautiful donkey he is leading.  The son smiles proudly. But then the group of young women turn their attention to the father sitting astride the donkey. ” He looks like an old monkey up there,” says one girl. Another calls out to the boy: “why don’t you get up on the donkey, you would look like a king.”

The boy is embarrassed and he whispers to his father,”we just don’t seem to do it right! Should we change places again?”

The father is getting clearly frustrated. “First we carry the donkey and everybody laughs at us, then they get angry when you ride the donkey, and now they seem to be upset when I ride the donkey. There is only one other option, and that is for us both to ride the donkey.”

“Great idea,”  says his faithful son. “Dad,  you always have the answers!”

So now the father and son ride the donkey carrying the heavy bags on their shoulders. As they approach a village they come across a customs officer who appraises the sight of the  father and the son and all the bags loading down the young donkey. “That’s just not right,” he tells them. “That donkey is very young and little and you two are cruelly weighing that poor little donkey down.”

“To be honest,  I agree with you,”  says the father. He turns to his son and says, “forget the pole, lets just carry the donkey instead.”

Now the father and the son are taking turns carrying the young donkey over their shoulders. They don’t get far, as they cross through a field of high grasses, when a local farmer calls out: “Hey you two! That field is full of  thorns and you could easily cut your legs. You really ought to ride the donkey and protect yourselves!”

The father lowers the donkey down, and the donkey starts chewing happily on the grass. ” whatever we do, we never seem to please anybody,” sighs the father. “what on earth are we going to do? How are we ever going to get to the market?”

And that is where the story ends. The moral is clear. If you rely solely on the opinions of other people, then you will never get anywhere in life.

I love this story, and it reminds me that Cambodians respect those who use their intelligence and possess a healthy dose of self-esteem. These two, the farmer and his son lack both.  But here’s a mystery: when I read Aesop’s Fables recently the same story was there!  Has somebody ripped-off Aesop – or have these stories traveled the silk road over the centuries?

You want another tale? For another folk story about the mischievous Judge Rabbit: click here.

Or how about the Nervous Rabbit and the Earthquake?

A collection of folk tales, on-line, has also been published. Cambodian folk tales.

World War 2 deeply affected Siem Reap


Ahh! The romantic French influence. In WW2 the Vichy-led French rulers handed over much of Western Cambodia to Thailand. For 5 years Siem Reap lived under Thai rule.

The history of Cambodia is a pulsating story in which for well over 1000 years the Khmer people have both embraced and occasionally repulsed the influence from outside kingdoms. Even today Cambodia sits uncomfortably with Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east: uneasy bedfellows in south-east Asia.

Visitors to Cambodia reflect chiefly on three historic periods from Cambodia’s past: the most recent being the rise of Pol Pot.

But tourists also focus on the great Angkor empire from 10 centuries ago. Historically, apart from the stone inscriptions and carvings found on the temples themselves there is little written evidence of the life or politics of Cambodia at the time. Historians can only bravely guess at what society must have been like 1000 years ago. There were royal families, and there was the patronage which even today is a hallmark of Cambodian life. There were slave owners, but evidence also that some slaves themselves owned slaves. All that remained certain of this era is the glory of the temples themselves. They embrace mystery, and they suggest a very sophisticated society. The temples themselves also reflect a collision of cultures including Hindu as well as Chinese.

Then in the mental map of the tourist in a hurry, we skip forward several centuries to the end of the 19th century when the French colonised Cambodia.

Ahh! The romance of the French influence! We see traces of it in the grand hotels, and we taste remnants of the French influence in the fresh and fluffy French bread as baked by locals. Older generations are still fluent French speakers.

But just as the British in the late 19th century absolutely plundered the wealth of China, so to the French plundered Cambodia for its riches. Priceless statues from Angkor Wat still reside in Paris, I think, to the shame of modern France. Historians suggest that there was little real resistance to the French rule however, and the bureaucracies and governance imposed by France appears to have added a layer to society, rather than  to have directly challenged the Cambodian way of doing things. Cambodia might be said to have absorbed French rule.

However in World War II the story changes abruptly. For a start, back in France, the government was overthrown and France was put under Vichy rule: a government that was compliant and sympathetic to the objectives of the Nazi government of Germany. In Cambodia the French control changed hands similarly. And the new Government was nominally sympathetic to Japan. It was in the interests of France, as well as in the interests of Japan to do a deal rather than to fight. Colonial authorities signed over the rights for Japan to use Cambodia as a highway to other battlegrounds.

Meanwhile the Thai government, which itself was now also pro-Japan, decided to use this moment to recapture lands that had historically been in dispute with Cambodia. The Thais, under the strongly nationalistic Prime Minister Phibul Sangkram had been hostile to French colonial forces already and, abetted by the Japanese who turned a blind eye, the Thais first conducted random border attacks in late 1940, then more daringly invaded Cambodia’s Western provinces in March 1941 following a brief war with the French. The Thai PM, a military man, had visions of creating a unified Thailand that included Laos and Cambodia. The French were outraged and, despite being short of resources conducted strong counter-attacks and executed a remarkable naval victory, with four shabby gin-boats sinking the pride of the Thai naval fleet.

Historian C. Peter Chen sums up the military casualties of this Franco-Thai conflict:

The war saw the French suffering 321 dead or wounded, 178 missing, and 222 captured; the majority of the losses were French, Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian, with a small number being North African. The greatest loss suffered by the French was in the domain of the air force, which saw 30 of the already small 100-aircraft fleet being destroyed. Thailand suffered 108 killed, 374 wounded, and 21 captured.

War histories seldom assess the civilian losses. The war included aerial bombing and strafing raids on cities and villages by both the Thai and French colonial air forces. The Thais bombed Stung Treng, Battambang, Siem Reap, Sisophon, Ream and Mongkolborey.  Offers of money were used by the Thais – largely unsuccessfully – to encourage Cambodian troops to desert with their weapons and defect: to join Thailand. Much of the fighting took the form of bloody skirmishes along the Thai-Cambodian border and echoes of these disputes flare-up from time to time, decades later. Accounts are mixed over which side emerged victorious. In the end it didn’t matter because Japan had it’s own agenda to roll-out.

The Japanese mediated negotiations in Tokyo in May 1941 and French Indochinese colonial officials, who did not have the available resources sufficient for a military vistory, were compelled, despite their erstwhile victories, to sign over roughly one third of all of Cambodia to Thai rule. This included Battambang, Siem Reap, Koh Kong an extension of land between the 15th parallel and the Dangrek Mountains in Stung Treng Province. The number of Cambodian citizens who were now under rule from Thailand were in excess of 500,000. The annexed provinces were now called (at least by the Thais,) Phibul Sangkram Province. What Thailand gained was the bulk of Cambodia’s rice harvest as well as fishing resource of Tonle Sap. In return for the favour Sangkram pledged loyalty to Japan, though privately he was willing to side with whichever force was going to win WW2. “Whoever will lose: that is our real enemy,” he once confided.

Phibun Songkhram province
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.

This signing-over of land to Thailand inflamed Cambodians, and ultimately gave birth to the modern Cambodian government, free from foreign rule. Thai troops recall the uneasy time they had – receiving much verbal abuse from Khmers.

As World War II ground on, the Japanese found themselves stretched too thin, militarily, and they began doing deals with local leaders. By 1945 Japan removed the French control from Indochina, and French military forces were disarmed forcibly. The objective of the Japanese was to put countries such as Cambodia back into local hands, and thereby win the loyalty and support for the rest of the Japanese war effort. So it was that on March 9, 1945 the young King Norodom Sihanouk became the head of the new Kingdom of Kampuchea. He was expected to be a puppet leader, but a few months later, by August 1945 Japan had surrendered to the Allied forces.

The political landscape of Southeast Asia was now quite different to that prior to World War II. However with the ending of the war, the French government – aided by allies who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Thai annexation – reimposed control over Cambodia, and punished heavily, those protesters who had been so inflamed by the sell-off of the western provinces to Thailand. In forcing Thailand to hand back the western part of Cambodia the French facilitated what they imagined would be a welcome return of French rule by the general Khmer public. Again, they probably saw Sihanouk as a puppet figure. By now Cambodians, in increasing numbers, were beginning to think of independence.

It would take just another decade for Cambodia to truly become independent, and part of this process, utimately, involves the story of the Khmer Rouge and the rise of Pol Pot. But that’s another story, and one I’ll write about later.

The point of this piece, however,  is to alert readers to the idea that there is a rich and complicated history to Siem Reap before Pol Pot ever came to power, and well after the French first arrived.

Siem Reap today welcomes visitors from all over the world, and it exercises a pride for its past, and a sense that whatever happens in history, the Cambodian people are able to absorb the impact and weather the storms. I should very much like to interview locals who lived through the world war two years. What was the impact of Thai rule? What was the reaction of locals when the citizenship was signed over to neighbouring Thailand? These aspects of history need to be captured while survivors are still alive. The monuments and temples of Siem Reap are staggering to see, but do they speak as loudly or as clearly as the voices of people who there to witness history take place?

For more detail of this history click here. I also referred to this Wikipedia entry here. More on the Franco-Thai conflict here.

New Year – 2009, an emotional memory


The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.

New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.

At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is  two senior friends of Savong’s father.  One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.

So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.

I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.

At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”

But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.

Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”

Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”

It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.

This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.






Can’t wait for the new film: Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.


That cool guitar group above is Baksei Chan Krung who are thought to be Cambodia’s first rock ‘n’ roll guitar band. In January this year film maker finally called ‘it’s a wrap’ on his documentary 10 years in the making called Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

Long fascinated by the golden age of Cambodian pop music in the 60s, Pirozzi tracked down surviving footage, recording and survivors from the Pol Pot era that all but obliterated the energetic pop legacy. It was an exciting time with many young Cambodians adopting – and adapting – the guitar-driven sounds of the era.

Pirozzi  held a preview screening in Phnom Penh while the official launch of the movie takes place later in 2014.  For a news account of the preview Click here. I’ll keep readers posted but to get a feel for the movie visit the trailer on YouTube.

Meanwhile the Phnom Penh Post article covering the preview pulled together an excellent article on the pop era. This is well worth a read.




Education under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s new order in the classroom.


Pol Pot traded in his comfortable French education for a radical repudiation of all critical thinking. He wasn’t against literacy – but he demanded a certain type.

I think in a year of blogs about Savong’s School in Cambodia I’ve referred to the Pol Pot years only sparingly. I refer only cautiously to those years because we are at risk of focusing on the Khmer Rouge as if this was the single shaper of today’s Cambodia. Just as surely today’s culture has been influenced by more than 1000 years of history, and by the French Colonial rule, and by the years immediately after Pol Pot when Cambodia lay adrift, deliberately rejected by the western world, during years of crippling poverty.

But today I thought I’d reflect on education during the Pol Pot years in order to fill a gap in my own understanding. One of the most destructive aspects of the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to disassemble Cambodia, was to attack three pillars of their society: religion, family and education. Sources reveal how they implemented many illogical laws to terrorise the population. You could be arrested for averting your eyes to the left rather than right. If you wore glasses, a sure sign of being a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia, you could also expect to be arrested and executed. Teachers were routinely rounded up, often in front of their students who later reported hearing rifle shots in nearby fields. Their beloved teachers never returned.

For teaching life before 1975 Mitty Steele’s excellent and deeply personal essay is an excellent place to start as she retraces her own father’s history.


In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Paperback by Frank Stewart (Editor), Sharon May. A compelling account of the survival of literature in Cambodia during and after the Pol Pot years.

In the book above, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia the contributing writers provide not only tastes of modern essays and poetry, but also the recollections from those who recount the elimination of the educated “elite” during the time of Pol Pot. Many writers survived by feigning illiteracy. Even so, by some estimates fewer than 60 academics are said to have avoided execution or death through starvation. Sixty.

What is important to understand is that the Khmer Rouge did not wish to destroy literacy: but they wanted their kind of literacy. By that, say authors George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov in their study: Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge (written as part of the The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University,) the Khmer Rouge wanted an education system that was strong on unquestioning literacy: the blind acceptance of propaganda without critical doubt. For this reason there were people classed as “correctly literate” (for example peasants who could scarcely read – and who accepted what they read,) and those that were “incorrectly literate.”) This latter class were seen as a threat to the revolution and the emergence of the new Kampuchea. So they started eliminating those with a traditional French-style education (most schools in Cambodia still reflect the educational template of the French,) and those who spoke foreign languages such as French. (Today some of the older generation are still fluent in French – though they would have hidden this in the late 1970s.)

A quoted goal from the Grand Plan, put together in 1976 by Pol Pot and eight other leaders stated:

Continue the struggle to abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously one after the other from 1977 onwards.

The educational policy of the Khmer Rouge was also very strong on “technical skills” namely the skills required to grow rice, to fish, to farm, as well as to share simple medical knowledge. The goals were not about personal advancement but, rather, the advancement of the collective. The new school system was designed to “teach” not only through classroom activities but through physical labour.  As the plan said:

Daily Education Methods.  Half study, half work for material production

The Yale authors research shows how Individualism was seen as a threat to the Party’s ideology. In the same section of the document that calls for dividing the day between study and work, they found this statement:

“In our educational system there are no examinations and no certificates; it is a system of learning through the collective and in the concrete movement of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism in the specific contexts, especially the co-operatives, factories, and military units.”

The general school syllabus – at least that proposed for 1977 – included:

  • reading and writing
  • arithmetic
  • geography (importantly that of the nation)
  • history of the revolutionary struggle of the people, the revolutionary struggle for the nation, the revolutionary struggle for democracy, the revolutionary struggle for socialist revolution, and the struggle to build socialism.
  • natural sciences, physics, chemistry (as base)
  • the Party’s politics, consciousness, and organisation

That was the stated goal anyhow. In reality the school system was collapsing and the much vaunted revolution ended up an economic disaster. Grand plans, modeled on Chinese efforts under Mao and dubbed The Super Leap Forward failed miserably. The lofty objectives for rice production per hectare and for a bounteous agricultural  production to be shared by all were never even approached. Very soon the nation was cast into famine conditions and the dream to build a new school system never advanced past the opening of a handful of model schools, if that.

What I find amazing is how, through all this, the DNA of the educational system even survived. The collective memory of the education system, as it existed prior to Pol Pot remained loosely intact due I think to three things. One was the capacity of educated people to feign illiteracy and to simply survive by staying quiet and compliant. Next was the escape of Cambodians, mostly to Thailand before locating – mostly to France and the USA – in the aftermath of Pol Pot. Within the Paris and Long Beach communities existed survivors who later helped resurrect the fragments of the education system.  And finally the re-emergence of an education system came from the people themselves – people who had been through school as children. People who knew the value of what they’d lost.

I don’t think of the Pol Pot years without ultimately thinking of the courage of those who faced the terror. Today’s education system in Cambodia is developing again. We now have a cohort of teachers who have had teacher training. There are Khmer text books and universities. I think of today’s system as not only preserving the DNA from earlier times, but also being a system fueled by a deeper thirst for education, and a system laced with resilience and courage.

For more history of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures about present day Education in Cambodia

Crackle and Pop. Restoring Cambodia’s precious vinyl history.

I collect vinyl myself and know how hard it is to track down pop 45s from the 1960s. But I’m blow away by the music restoration process happening in Cambodia thanks to the courage of collectors (under Pol Pot music was banned) and the dedication of new curators. An excellent video.