Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
The King will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." .......Matthew 25

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Year of the Ox- Matthew 11:28-30

The Cambodian ox cart

The ox isn't a particularly smart animal. Little more than a walking fermentation chamber that coverts grass into muscle, it invariably ends up in a pot of beef stew, or sentenced to a lifetime of hard labour. So I am really not so sure about the auspiciousness (or lack of!) of entering the Year of the Ox.

Jesus must have had an image in His mind somewhat like the one above when He told His followers to "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I must say I have always had problems with the interpretation of those verses.

The traditional view is that Jesus was refering to our menial and physical labour. I know it is very comforting to imagine coming home to Jesus at the end of the day, tired, weary, all stressed out, laying our physical and emotional burdens at His feet, and finding rest and solace there. There is certainly some truth to that but I am not so convinced that was what Jesus was actually refering to.

The 'burden of being a Christian' is never so easy, and Jesus has never promised us that it will be so. In fact He tells us quite bluntly, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Can such a yoke ever be easy?

So what was Jesus talking about?

Well...this was a time in Jesus' ministry where he was enduring almost on a daily basis, various challenges from Pharisees and traditionalists. Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that, must be like this, not like that...etc etc... I believe when Jesus saw His antagonists, he saw this image of oxen lugging around this enormous burden behind them, ... this enormous burden of their 'religiousity'.

For Jesus, it was never meant to be like that. That's why He says..."Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. "

With Jesus, it was never about the 'religion' or the 'religiousity' of what we do. It was always about our life with Him. When He encourages us to 'take His yoke', He is not speaking just as the driver of the ox cart, but the fellow ox who labours at our side. Our partner at life and work. That's why He is able to say, "... my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

What comfort!

In this very turbulent Year of the Ox, may we find rest for our soul with Him. Have a very blessed and happy Lunar New Year!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Baray weather

For those who are intending to visit Baray (Cambodia/Kpg Thom), here is a nice description I have taken from Note the rainy season from May on through to November. That's why we need to get started on the school pretty soon. Once the rains start the roads get pretty bad and generally become impassable to heavy vehicular traffic:

Cambodia has two distinct seasons -- the wet and the dry -- and you can see them in action on our interactive Cambodia weather map.

Cambodia's wet season comes courtesy of the southwest monsoon which blows from May to October, bringing with it some 75% of Cambodia's annual rainfall. Not surprisingly, wet season is characterised by rain, and in the peak of wet season from July to September it can rain as much as two out of every three days. Rainy days tend to have a few hours of heavy rain rather than being all-day downpours, though the latter do occur -- you will get wet travelling in a Cambodian wet season.

Aside from getting drenched, the main disadvantage of travelling in wet season in Cambodia relates to flooding and degraded road conditions. The bulk of roads in Cambodia are dirt and in wet season they turn to heavily rutted and pot-holed mud-pits. Travelling in rural areas, particularly the north and northeast of the country, can be slowed considerably. You will still be able to go just about anywhere, it will just take longer.

A secondary problem are bridges being out, but this is becoming less of an issue as the quality of bridgework is improving. Cambodia's arterial routes -- namely Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh to Battambang and Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville -- are all-weather, sealed affairs and far less of a problem than the unsealed roads.

On the upside, monsoonal Cambodia is a beautiful country to travel in. The dust is all gone (turned to mud unfortunately) and the lush greenery of the country returns. Angkor Wat in particular can be stunning in wet season -- the birdlife is far more obvious and the ruins have a unique appearance and feel. Observing Angkor Wat with a lightning storm as a backdrop is an electrifying experience (couldn't resist!). There are also far fewer travellers in the country, so if you prefer to dodge the crowds, wet season can be a good time to visit. Regionally, the Cardamom mountains get the heaviest rain in the country, while the entire coastline gets rough seas and a lot of rain.

Cambodia's dry season runs from October to April, when the dusty northeast monsoon arrives. Blowing like a hair-dryer set to high, the northeast monsoon dries out the country fast. While November and January are quite cool (high C20s) by April the weather is scorching and oh so dry it will take your breath away. Characterised by heat and dust, this season coincides with Cambodia's peak tourist season when travellers arrive in their droves between November and January to take advantage of the lack of rain and the relative cool. By March travelling can be uncomfortable and hot while April can be excrutiating.

As the country dries out, badly rutted roads get graded and trip times improve dramatically, though get incredibly dusty. Cambodia's beach strips at Kep, Sihanoukville and Ko Kong bask in brilliant sunshine with clear calm waters -- if you're a beach bum, dry season is the season for you.


Dry season runs from November to April on the back of the northeast monsoon. November to January are cooler while February to April are hot and dusty. November is the coolest month, April the hottest.

Wet season runs from May to October courtesy of the southwest monsoon. Wet season brings some 75% of Cambodia's annual rainfall. July to September are the wettest months.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Isaiah - not just about doing things right.

Sometimes I wonder if our work in Cambodia is too much oriented towards social works.

But last weekend's sermon in church on Isaiah 1 was something of an encouragement as well as a strong reminder of our need as Christians to go beyond just being a Sunday worshiper, or playing mind games with doctrinal / theological issues.

Isaiah ministered to Judah at a time when she was prosperous and outwardly religious. Not unlike Singaporean Christianity. But she came under some very seriously heavy condemnation by the flamboyantly vocal prophet. Did all the things right but missed out on doing the right things.

1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 "The multitude of your sacrifices-- what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations-- I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Aren't our churches mostly like that nowadays? We got all the things right, down to the technology for the sound system, musical instruments...even the settings for the air conditioning (errm...perhaps not quite!). Yes ...and the festival celebrations. All nicely slotted into the church calendar. The offering bag is never empty...and there is always extra for that church building fund, or extension that we always wanted.

Done all the things right. And yet.... have we done the right things?

Isaiah was somewhat of an enigmatic character. We don't really know too much about him. His intimate and intuitive understanding of geopolitical events, and his ability to move comfortably among the ruling elite suggest that he is somehow related to the aristocracy. Yet despite his social status, he identified totally with the common man, and saw right through the sham of Judah's religious life.

The solution Isaiah offered, was to :

Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Yep. Isaiah was right. We need to go beyond the ritualistic worship and sacrifices within the temple, which we tend to be so good at...and start having more of a social conscience...more love and compassion for the marginalized, oppressed and defenseless. The world is becoming an increasingly difficult place to live in. Singapore will have its share of difficulties with the economic recession, the IR coming on board, organ trading, euthanasia etc...and we will need all the love, conviction and resolve as a church to make sure that justice is served, and that the defenseless and oppressed are protected.

Our church priorities currently tend too much towards a centripetal distribution of if God's blessings are meant primarily for us to keep. We need to see ourselves more as centrifugal dispensers of God's blessings. I believe that's how it's supposed to work.

See previous postings on alms and tithing :

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Don Tom Secondary School

During our last trip we had the opportunity to visit a secondary school at a village called Don Tom. This was part of the Project L.O.V.E. programme to teach some basic hygiene classes there.

The school had about 7 classrooms next to a temple. Many of the classrooms were old wooden structures that were falling apart, but there was some construction going on for new classrooms.

Teacher Thong Sok Cheat (white shirt) at Don Tom Secondary School

The teacher there, Thong Sok Cheat explained that there was a lot more he wanted to do with the students but was unable to because of the lack of resources. He appreciated the fun way the NTU students present the hygiene message and he felt he could try and use the same methods. He also explained that the village was in a fairly 'bad' area as the neighbouring villages of Tro Ping Chrey and Chan Ha Long were infiltrated by criminal elements, kidnappers and robbers. Infact, recently the leader of a kidnapping gang was shot dead during a police raid on Tro Ping Chrey.

It kinda broke my heart when he told us that none of the students in that village will ever have the chance to go to high school.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Beneath the line...

The Gross National Product in Cambodia has been estimated to be about US$1266 per year. The percentage of the population living beneath the poverty line was about 35% (2004 estimates). As may be expected, this is worse in rural areas compared to urban centres. Current figures are probably much improved because there has been so much development and economic growth in recent times, but it is still very bad in the villages.

This house where Adrian (NTU student with Project L.O.V.E.) is helping to install a new zinc roof 'belongs' to a gardener who works for Khmer Village Homestay. He earns only US$15 per month and can't afford to own any land, so Ps Savann has let him use a corner of his own land. He had constructed a small hut to house his family but the palm leaf thatched roof has since fallen apart.

This is how many families live in rural Cambodia.

They grow rice in Cambodia, don't they?

The rice industry is clearly going to be severely affected in the developing global economic depression.

Rice cultivation occupies about 90% of farm area and is the country's biggest source of farm income.
In 2003, rice production was estimated at 4.3 million tons. (see IYR 2004). This year, rice harvest has been projected to reach about 7 million tons, and rice exports expected to expand by 1 million tons to about 3-4 million tons. (see China View report). However another report in the Phnom Penh post is abit more gloomy pointing to the global price cuts which have dampened Cambodia's competitiveness. Lower prices also restrict the ability farmers to buy rice seeds.

According to the CIA World Factbook on Cambodia, agriculture represents about 35% of Cambodia's GDP of
$26.19 billion (2007 est.).

How all this will eventually impact the lives of the farmers in the deep rural regions of Cambodia is hard to tell. see Harvest.

Here is a slightly dated but useful explanation of Cambodia rice cultivation :

Cambodia has two rice crops each year, a monsoon-season crop (long-cycle) and a dry-season crop. The major monsoon crop is planted in late May through July, when the first rains of the monsoon season begin to inundate and soften the land. Rice shoots are transplanted from late June through September. The main harvest is usually gathered six months later, in December. The dry-season crop is smaller, and it takes less time to grow (three months from planting to harvest). It is planted in November in areas that have trapped or retained part of the monsoon rains, and it is harvested in January or February. The dry-season crop seldom exceeds 15 percent of the total annual production.

In addition to these two regular crops, peasants plant floating rice in April and in May in the areas around the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), which floods and expands its banks in September or early October . Before the flooding occurs, the seed is spread on the ground without any preparation of the soil, and the floating rice is harvested nine months later, when the stems have grown to three or four meters in response to the peak of the flood (the floating rice has the property of adjusting its rate of growth to the rise of the flood waters so that its grain heads remain above water). It has a low yield, probably less than half that of most other rice types, but it can be grown inexpensively on land for which there is no other use.

Also see the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC) report of The Rice Industry in Cambodia.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

They eat dogs don't they, in Cambodia?

Sadly, Cambodians eat dogs. Although the practice is getting less common, it still occurs in rural Cambodia. In this village we visited, the children have a different relationship with dogs ( least while they are still puppies!). The few puppies there were very much the centre of attention, and the children clearly loved them.

They were a surprisingly happy bunch of kids despite their poverty and looking at them play, I couldn't help wondering why our kids in Singapore don't play with as much abandon and freedom of spirit as these poor kids did. It was certainly food for thought. And perhaps we should be careful about trying to impose our more materialistic ideas about needs and happiness on them. Their zest and joy were quite infectious, and the puppies also became darlings of the NTU students (Project L.O.V.E.).

Clearly happiness and joy are able to cross language barriers, and do not need words to be shared.

Cambodian ox cart ride- the ride you must not miss

The ox is not a distinct species but merely a sturdier castrated male zebu that has been kept for heavy work.

The Cambodian ox is also very much a work animal, and is used extensively for hauling cartloads of produce, firewood etc. These oxen are usually yoked in pairs. As is the case in many cultures, the yoke used in Cambodia is distinctively Khmer and quite attractive in design.

During our stay at the Khmer Village Homestay there is an option of going on an evening ox cart ride that takes you on a rollercoaster experience through the bumpy dirt trails behind the farmhouses in Baray. The ride is quite unforgettable as you get to experience some very attractive Cambodian rural landscapes (while pondering Paul's teaching about not being 'unequally yoked').

The ride climaxes when you are parked in a desolate spread open countryside where you can wait and catch a spectacular Cambodian sunset (if the weather is good!)

Certainly one ride you musn't miss when in Cambodia!

Cambodian cattle - the Zebu

Cambodian Zebu contentedly lazing around in front of the school at O Ta Saeng

Domestic Cambodian cattle are similar to those found in other parts of Asia. They are called Zebus (Bos primigenius indicus). They are characterized by having a hump, droopy ears and a large dewlap. These cattle are one of the major domesticated animals found on many farms, and there is a distinct economy built around selling, loaning and hiring of these animals. They are cultivated largely for meat as this species of cattle are poor milk producers, producing barely enough for their own young.

When we move around the villages, we come across many of these animals, some roaming freely and some being herded. They are rather sad looking as these Cambodian Zebus look particularly skinny.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Home with a view...

There are some very picturesque spots in rural Cambodia. This is one of them. The peaceful and beautiful pastoral setting of this scene with the quaint little hut hides the abject poverty of many of the people living there. The flat lands in the back ground appear barren because it is actually very low lying and much of it is actually beneath the water line. During the rainy period, large swathes of the land will be under water. That's the reason why the hut is on stilts.

We came here because the roof of this hut had fallen in and needed repairs. The single room hut housed a family of six. The family could not afford to fix the roof, so the NTU students were there to help.

Unfortunately, we discovered that the structure of the hut was too weak to support the new zinc roofing the students had planned to install. We understood that the family had gone round to borrow money so that they could install stronger columns that could take the weight of the zinc roof. We all felt rather uncomfortable with the realization that our attempts to help the family would actually put the family under the burden of a sizeable debt. Then and there, the students decided to take up a collection among themselves so that they could contribute to the cost of re-structuring the house support for the installation of the new roof.

The students' spontaneous generosity under such unexpected conditions touched us very much.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Leaky roofs

It's really no fun sleeping under a leaky roof. We had that experience once at the home stay, back when the roofs were still made of palm leaves. It was quite a miserable and stressful night trying to avoid all that constant erratic dripping.

But many of the villagers live with even worse leaks. The palm leaf thatches, though functional, do not last long. Many homes have various degrees of roof leakiness.

This widow and her kids live in a very small hut just off the main highway leading out of Baray village, - a hut with a badly decayed and damaged roof. Everything about the house was almost falling apart, including the wooden front stepst. The NTU students (Project L.O.V.E.) were supposed to construct a new zinc roof for her home. When we were getting acquainted with her, it was obvious she was moved almost to tears at the prospect of being able to get a new roof for her house. As it transpired, the students were not allowed to climb up to the roof as the scaffolding was badly decayed and we were concerned for the students' safety. Then later we realized that the supplied amount of zinc sheets were inadequate. Happily, two Ngee Ann Poly lecturers were visiting at the same time, and coming to know of the students' plight, chipped in and donated money to purchase the additional zinc sheets. Later, the students having chipped in themselves to fund the reconstruction of another house, offered some of that money to reconstruct the steps leading up to the house.

All in all, it worked out well and we had one very happy widow and her family.

Build a School Project - FAQs

1. What is the BASP?

The Build a School Project is a project that was begun about 3 years ago to place schools in very remote villages in rural Cambodia. Many of these villages are kilometers away from the nearest school. Young children often do not attend school because of the need to walk these distances through bad and unsafe dirt tracks.

2. What sort of schools do you build?
We essentially build very basic 2-3 classroom brick schools. The school will have toilet facilities and a bore well in the school premises. We furnish the schools with very simple wooden desks and benches. There is a painted chalk and duster 'blackboard'.

3. What level of education will these provide?
We seek to provide access to schools for the youngest children - so it will be Grades 1-3. We hope that by the time the children complete Grade 3, they will be old enough to be able to travel further to the larger schools, and that they would have learnt enough for them to integrate into the new school environment.

4. What about teachers?
We have a partnership with the Department of Education, so that once the school is built, the government will appoint teachers to the school. So far this has worked out very well.

5. Do you have any ownership or management roles in the school?
No. This school will essentially belong 100% to the community. We seek a healthy relationship with the village so that the village community become committed stakeholders in the school. Our continuing friendship and partnership with the village leadership (through the local pastors) provide a channel for us to support and mentor the community.

6. How much does it cost to build the schools?
Currently (2009) the cost of building the school, toilets and wells, and to provide simple furnishings average about USD$30K. The costs has increased recently. Also, these villages are relatively inaccessible even by vehicular means - via bumpy, pot-holed dirt tracks. This makes it even more costly to bring in construction supplies etc. The Appeal for funds.

7. What other needs do the children have?
The school is very basic and under-resourced. The government does provide basic text books, but often writing materials are inadequate. The children need exercise books, writing materials, other educational aids such as posters, charts etc.

8. How can one contribute?
Donations can be made by cheque or cash. Cheques are to be made out to "Mt Carmel BP Church Ltd". A note should be made on the back of the cheque that this is to be directed to the "Cambodia School Building Project". The cheque or cash can be mailed directly to:

Mt Carmel BP Church
Clementi Bible Centre
152 West Coast Road
Singapore 127370

9. Is this project financially supported by the church?
Currently we do not draw any support from church funds, and the church does not give a grant for this work. Thus, the BASP is entirely funded through private donations. The church office assists us by providing an independent and auditable accounting mechanism for the funds received.

10. What proportion of the moneys received actually goes to the building of the school?
100%. There is no administrative costs drawn from the donations received. All administrative, travel and miscellaneous costs are borne personally. If donations received exceed the budget, the excess is set aside for the next school or is used to support the children's educational needs, e.g. books and writing materials etc.

11. How much experience have you had doing this?
We have been in and out of Baray for the last 10 years. Over the last 3 years, we have built 3 village schools- in Chhom Trach, Ta Peuv and O Ta Saeng.

12. Who are you?
My name's Edmund. Just an ordinary nobody who cares about these kids. You can find out more about me here and here and here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sugar palm (Borassus flabellifer)

The sugar palm (Palmyra; Borassus flabellifer) tree is so iconic of Cambodia. It is seen everywhere in the countryside, and there's hardly a single landscape photo that does not show a sugar palm lurking in the background. It's one of the those trees that is so functional to the lives of the Cambodian villagers.

A description of the many uses of the sugar palm can be found here, at the FAO website.

Its leaves are used for thatching the roofs of the village huts. Unlike other villages in South East Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia) where the Nipah (attap) palm leaves are used instead, the Khmers stitch down the fronds of the sugar palm to make the roofs of their huts.

The fruits are edible, and the flowers are tapped for the syrupy liquid that is concentrated to make palm sugar. Unlike the palm sugar (gula melaka) in Malaysia/Singapore, which is harvested from coconut flowers, the palm sugar in Cambodia and other parts of Indochina is extracted from the Palmyra palm flowers. A detailed description of the process can be found at the FAO site, and some interesting pictures/descriptions can also be found at this Flickr site.