What we did …

We walked miles of dusty roads through villages and blocks of trash-strewn streets in Phnom Penh. We rode in buses. We rode in vans. We rode in tuuk-tuuks. We played with children in schools. We played with children in orphanages. We played with children in churches. We taught. We painted. We picked up trash. Some of us set up a computer lab. A few of us conquered a mighty root. We bartered in the markets and ate ice cream at the mall. We bought things we later thought were not good buys. We sang. We sang “In Christ Alone” in a couple of churches. We sang “Crocodile” while playing with the children. Some of us sang Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” quite a few times. Others of us listened. We met a lot of people. We checked our e-mail and Facebook accounts. We blogged. We ate pad thai and fried rice and sweet-and-sour something-or-other. Also snake, kangaroo and crocodile. Some liked the food. Some didn’t. We ate bread with peanut butter and Nutella many times for breakfast. This was a good thing. We slept–and sometimes didn’t sleep–in beds (sometimes three to a bed) and on floors and outdoors. And on the last day, we took a boat to a tropical island and snorkeled and swam.

I’ve often felt that Calvin’s students are  the college’s best ambassadors. We had 25 young people on this trip. They were friendly. They were funny (especially Brian DeKock: boy, is he funny!) They were curious and thoughtful and kind. They were open-minded and good-hearted. They sometimes didn’t wear enough sunblock, but they all valued one another and got along, well, swimmingly.

In the end, they were the best thing about going to Cambodia. Thanks to everyone who followed along …


Good development …

“What does good development look like?” David Dornbos asked the students at the two debriefing sessions during the interim. The students’ replies were insightful. One said that she questioned whether it was worthwhile to bring a bunch of people from the the U.S. to serve in Cambodia, given the amount of time and expense it took to transport them and keep them comfortable. Another said that he wondered if it was a good thing for Western Christians to export our inferior (materialistic) brand of Christianity to the country.

After logging hundreds of miles in the van and on foot, visiting many types of NGOs, I find it difficult to conceive a model for good development. But I know there is a guy in Cambodia with a Kentucky accent who will tell you all about the work of RDI, an inter-denominational group that settled here 10 years ago. They make and distribute low-cost clay water filters to the villages. (The leading cause of death in Cambodia is diarrhea, and clean water fixes that.) The group also does water testing and produces a kind of Christian Sesame Street show. “Everything we do, we do to get the message out,” the man with the accent told us. In Cambodia there is also a Korean group, which has founded and maintained Christian kindergartens, a first grade and a prep school. They hope to educate their students well enough to enable them to attend a Christian university–which they also plan to found. I know that the CRWRC is hard at work, developing clean water and small businesses and schools and other good projects, and that a Cambodian pastor is maintaining an orphanage through private donations. “All we care about is their education,” he said of the orphans. I know that Navy Chann and Ly Chay are planning to found a farmers training school.

When I think of Cambodia, one memory recurs. While we were in Krangthnoung village, hanging out in the yard of New Life Church, one of the white vans we traveled in backed over a puppy. The poor, little thing sent up an anguished howling and yelping as it shifted around on its broken hindquarters. Then a little boy ran to the animal and tried, over and over again, to set it on its feet. The puppy continued to howl as its feet collapsed under it. Finally, the little boy lifted the puppy up under its front legs and ran out of the yard with it.

I also remember this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). God is always at work, and He succeeds–despite our best efforts.

On the day we left, Gil Suh and his wife, Joyce, had us over for dinner. On the menu were ham buns 🙂 and soup. On the guest list was almost everyone we had met. Rick DeGraaf, of the CRWRC, and his wife, Edith; James Zwier, also of the CRWRC in Laos, and his wife, Sara; Navy Chan and Lly Chay of GCT. And we met Russ Palsrok, Asia regional director for Christian Reformed World Missions, and his wife Sherry. (Hey Barb: your cousins say, “Hi!”)

We had another debriefing. “I feel more confused than ever,” confessed one student. And all of these people–who have worked at development for many, many years combined–said that this was quite normal.

Course, he’s an excellent driver …

As he puts the van in drive, he typically calls, in high-pitched, nasal voice, “O-kay, O-kay. Le’s go.” He helps the students with their various packs and accessories. And he plays CD mixes he gets from groups from all over the world. He is particularly fond of the song whose chorus goes, “We had joy; we had fun; we had seasons in the sun…” The song makes the students groan, though some of them sing along.

So Tola is a good guy–one of the best people I’ve met in Cambodia. He lives in Preyvang Province with his wife, Sok Pher, and his three boys–“So many boys!” he told me–but he doesn’t see them a lot. Mr. Tola, as Uncle Brian and I call him, is on the road a lot. He’s been driving a van for 11 years.

Three years ago, his pastor led Mr. Tola to Christ. “I change all,” he said simply about that event.

A couple of years ago, he bought his first van, then his second. He hired another driver. He hopes to buy a third. “I have to pay the incident on them,” he said, shaking his head. He is studying English, using a Khmer/English dictionary and a Khmer/English Bible. (And he likes to learn words from Uncle Brian.)

One day, as we were talking, he started laughing, “When you say, ‘Yup, yup, yup,’ I’m thinking you say, ‘Jap, Jap, Jap …” he said.

He wants to be a tour guide and to work in development. In a society still struggling close to the ground, Mr. Tola is determined to rise. “It’s because I understand the book,” he said. “It’s good for everything.”

While studying, Mr. Tola keeps on driving. If you sit up front, he’ll make sure to let you know when you’re driving through the Muslim section of town. “Muslim!”he calls out. Or “Wedding!”when you’re passing one of the pink-and-gold wedding tents that are set up right along the road. When Mr. Tola is driving, every cow, dog and chicken yields the road. He is the only Khmer person I have ever heard mutter (in Khmer) about traffic.

You can’t remember everything about a place. Only the things that have a profound impact, for good or ill, stay with us. But I will remember Mr. Tola. When he drove us to the airport, he slid a CD into the player, and “We had joy; we had fun; we had seasons in the sun …” came singing out. The students begged me to change it. I told them, “Mr. Tola handles the music.”

The thing about mosquito netting …

… is that you have to tie it loosely. Your instinct will be to pull it taut and make a pert little tent, but when you pull it taut, it rides up off the ground. There’s nothing to tuck in around your mat, and the mosquitoes get in, and that kind of defeats the purpose of mosquito netting. Borey, one of the guys who helped us set up our mosquito tents, about fell over laughing at my net construction. Then he swiftly cut it down and re-strung it, cackling the whole time–but he laughs at everything.

We strung up the tent nation–pink netting for the single tents and purple flowered for the doubles–in an open pavilion on Eden Farm, a 25-hectare spread in Koh Kong Province. We slept there for three nights on thin mattresses on the tile floor. “So, which do you hate more, the dogs or the roosters?” asked Theo after the first night. (The answer to this question, by the way, is always “the roosters.”) Eden Farm is owned by Navy Chann, the director of the Genesis Community of Transformation (GCT) and her husband Ly Chhay. Navy and Ly have planted 5,000 Soursap fruit trees at the farm, five hectares of which they plan to turn into the Eden School of Agriculture: a farmer’s training school.

Monday we took a long, wandering tour of the farm. Then the students (working in 95-degree heat) weeded the fruit trees, widened the garden and deepened the new fish ponds. The garden crew sent up a shout at mid-afternoon on Monday when they succeeded in unearthing a gigantic (and intractable) root.

While on the farm, professors and students also did a little research. Leonard and a student team spent two days surveying the property. Their work will be used by a senior design team that is creating an irrigation system. David also did some surveying and some soil testing, funded by a grant from the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. He hopes to found a research station at the training school. (Before coming to Calvin, David worked in the agriculture industry.)

Tuesday brought us to the villages. In Plong Village, home to 107 families, the main problem is water, according the village chief.  A local dam had been damaged by bombing during the war, and salt water is seeping into the rice fields. The farmers there cannot cultivate 83 out of 100 hectares of their fields. “You see, that’s something that community organizing can fix,” said Navy. She registered GCT in October of last year (after 10 years experience in development with the CRWRC), and the village visits were reconnaissance missions for her volunteer staff. In a dusty field nearby, the Calvin students, having exhausted their arsenal of games were playing something the local children taught them. “That is traditional for Khmer New Year,” Navy said.

In Chroy, a village of 270, we sat with a group of pre-teen and teenage children. There were five girls sitting in a row on plastic lawn chairs and three slightly older boys sitting together. The Calvin students addressed the girls first. Did they go to school? No. Had they ever gone to school? Yes. How long? One year, two year. What did they do instead of go to school? Farm. All of the boys were in the 9th grade.

Kunthea, the GCT administrator, cooked for us at the farm. Kunthea is a darling, and she cooked everything in a wok on the floor of the open kitchen. One night she departed from her customary Khmer fare and served spaghetti, which wasn’t to her liking. “It’s too sour,”she said. “Buy Prego,” I told her.

On our final night at Eden Farm, the Calvin students and GCT staff put on a variety show. The closing act was “The Wide Mouthed Frog” as told by Leonard and interpreted by Navy. He indicated that he didn’t want to see it on YouTube …

Those who mourn …

In some of the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, there are iron beds, with shackles and instruments of torture displayed on them. On the walls of these rooms are large photographs of people stretched out on these beds, their bodies contorted and their faces twisted into grimaces of pain. They look shocked at the degree of misery they have endured. These are the people who have been tortured in these rooms. Tuol Sleng was also known as Security Office 21 in Democratic Kampuchea during the years the Khmer Rouge were in control of Cambodia. A former high school, s-21 was where 14,000 prisoners–most of them educated or wealthy people–were tormented with beatings, electrocution and various kinds of water torture. In other rooms of the prison are cells. And in other rooms are the faces–rows and rows of photographs of faces of the slain. They are not contorted in misery. They are beautiful.

At the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, there is a large memorial built in the form of a temple. It is filled with human skulls, 8,000 of them that have been dug up out of the ground. You can see the skulls through the glass walls of the building.

When you walk the grounds around the memorial, the path wanders up and down, and there are bits of cloth sticking out of the ground. They are the remains of the clothes of the approximately 20,000 victims who were killed there. Choeung Ek is one site of the Cambodian killing fields, so when you walk the paths, you are walking in a graveyard.
Keeping pace with you, running along the other side of the fence are the children, and it sounds like they’re chanting. What they are saying is delivered in a low hum, all on one note like Indian music: “Madame, please, yougivememoneyMadame, please, yougivememoneyforschool?Money for the school,forthebook?Please,madame,you give?”

The beds, the cells, the skulls, the bits of old shirts and trousers and the children running alongside all tell the same story. It is because of Tuol Sleng
and Choeung Ek and the begging children that the people we have visited are working so hard in Cambodia during these years. When the Khmer Rouge took power and declared Year Zero, they outlawed everything that makes life worth living: education, religion, art, music, beauty–everything lovely. And the people who were educated or religious or artistic or musical or beautiful they killed in horrible ways.  And the children who run along the fence, chanting for money, children who should be in school, needed the guidance of that generation, a generation that was erased. These children should be artists and musicians and intellectuals people and people of God.

An even larger part of the story remains buried. For Tuol Sleng is only the most notorious of the prisons–mainly because here the crimes were so well documented. There were around 200 such prisons in Cambodia, and at these sites, more victims were killed than were at Tuol Sleng. When S.K. Lee visited Grand Rapids last summer, he was talking about the Khmer Rouge. “They kill their own people,” he said in shocked disbelief.” S.K. has worked in Cambodia for eight years: ‘There’s just no getting used to genocide.

We visited Tuol Sleg and Choeung Ek this morning. Some of our students had a hard time of it today …

We will be at the farm, and incommunicado, until Thursday.


Last week, he came hobbling down the driveway of the Rawlings Center toward the bus, a diminutive Korean man, smiling faintly and squinting into the sun. Suddenly, he bounded up the stairs of the bus and hollered, “HELLO! HELLO! WELCOME TO CAMBODIA!” The Calvin interim group had just met S.K. Lee.

A former engineer and patent lawyer for Motorola and the founder of Handong International Law School (HILS) in South Korea,  S.K. now considers himself a missionary to Cambodia, And since 2002, he’s had his finger in a lot of Cambodian pies. He accompanied the HILS students to Cambodia and helped out with GET 10 (the brainchild of Handong professor George Kim). Soon he will travel to Siem Reap with his group and visit the NIBC. He knows everybody.

A man of considerable warmth and charm, he is given to both godliness volubility. He is passionate and occasionally, unexpectedly, prophetic. S.K., who is 76, lives in Chicago with his wife Helen, the adopted Chinese daughter of missionary Wilhemina Kalsbeek (after whom Kalsbeek residence hall is named.) S.K. is many things, but he is never boring.

In the lab …

Before yesterday, there wasn’t a lab. There were 10 boxes that the group had to haul around from place to place. In the boxes, 15 computers had been carefully packed by Leonard, and they were stowed with our luggage on planes, buses and in vans. “Boy, will I be glad when we get rid of these boxes,”said more than one student as we moved from Bangkok to Poipet to Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

And yesterday, while we visited an NGO, Leonard unpacked and set up the computers at GCT headquarters, and student engineers Theo, Amanda and Chris helped to get them functional. Then, as we waited at a local restaurant, Leonard gave basic lessons in computing to some of the GCT staff.

At the temple …

The head monk and other notables

Yesterday, I was talking with the head monk at the local Buddhist temple. The head monk is a youngish man, wearing a vivid orange robe. We sat on a bench in the complex where the Buddhist temple is located.

Unlike a church or synagogue, a Buddhist temple is not a lone structure. It is typically a very elaborately decorated building located near the center of the complex, and it is surrounded by a collection of equally elaborate sacred buildings–some gilded, some carved stone, some painted in vibrant single shades. It is not uncommon to see one of these ornate sacred complexes plunked in the middle of a row of shacks when riding in rural areas.

“Okay, is this a temple?” I asked the head monk. “No, no,” he said. “This temple,”and he pointed to the beautiful white building near which we were sitting. “Well, then what is that?” I asked him, pointing at the original structure. “This is _____,” he said, using a Khmer word that is not currently in my vocabulary. What all the other structures were in the compound I didn’t ask, but the head monk of the local temple was the head of them all. He indicated the kitchen, where the monks cooked all the meals. He indicated the school, where the children were peeking over the fence at us.

As we talked, Calvin students and Handong students were bustling everywhere in the complex, picking up trash. It was part of an event by the Genesis Community of Transformation (headed by Navy Chann), to raise awareness of cleaning up the environment.

The head monk was gratified that the community would make such an effort. So was Gil Suh, the director of Christian Reformed World Missions in Cambodia. “‘How great is it that we’re in a temple–to bless,” he said of the event. “It’s like ”A Beautiful Day,'” (referring to the practice in the U.S. church of setting aside one Sunday a month to do service projects.)

The temple

The head monk and I finished our conversation, and I stuck out my hand to shake his. “No, no, I can’t,” he said. “It’s against my order.” “Oh man. I’m sorry,”I told him and went away exceedingly glad I hadn’t tried to hug him.

Uncle Brian

Brian Maan

“I’m going up to the farm. Leonard knows, but I won’t be on the bus,” Uncle Brian told me as we were getting ready to leave the Rawlings Center after GET 10.

“You’re going to the farm now?


“Why are you going to the farm now?” He shrugged.

“Are you going to stay at the farm until we get there?”

“Nooo. I’ll be back tonight.”

“Ah, I get it. You’re going to the farm because you’re an adventurer.”

Uncle Brian (Brian Maan) is an adventurer. He’s an explorer. Within a day or so of checking into the Siem Reap Riverside, he had reconnoitered both markets and shopped them both in the early morning and the evening. Within an hour of settling into the Green House in Phnom Penh, he had located the Russian Market. Among the throng of savvy, wisecracking students, he’s the one who knows the way to the restaurant or the NGO headquarters or back to the hotel. Uncle Brian is the first one in the group–composed mainly of fit, young people–to say, “We can walk from here.”

Uncle Brian is an investigator. In a group that contains at least one person who interviews for a living, he is the first one to strike up a conversation with a new person. “Did you see that guy I was talking to?” he’ll ask me. “He works as a tour guide, and he says he couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel here or have a nice meal. He has some bitterness about it …” A lot of times, when I’ve tried to tell Brian about somebody I’ve interviewed, he’ll be nodding his head. He’s gotten there first.

He says the secret to bartering is to state your price and walk away. He offers Dutch licorice or peppermints at just the right moment. He is an insightful critique of life and culture.

When not wandering abroad, Uncle Brian works as a parole officer in a city outside Toronto. Sometimes his work brings him into contact with pedophiles, and he handles that with the same ease he handles negotiations with a tuuk-tuuk driver. “They’re just people, like you and me,” he says.

Uncle Brian went ahead to the farm, and even though it wasn’t likely to happen, he saw a cobra in the road. Of the farm, he told us, “Ït’s rustic.” He’s prepared, if not excited, to sleep in the open air. “Ï’m here for the ride,”he says.

He’s not my Uncle Brian; he’s Leonard’s Uncle Brian, but all of the students call him Uncle Brian too. “Call me Brian,” he said when I met him. “Can’t I call you Uncle Brian?” I asked. “If you must,” he said.

Sleeping arrangements …

So, we were packed to go to this village, and we didn’t know where we’d be sleeping. The guys–both Handong and Calvin–were supposed to sleep on the floor upstairs in the church. After lunch, we were invited to rest at the pastor’s house, a little stucco structure painted turquoise. So, we piled four and five people on a bed and chatted, while the Handong girls draped themselves over chairs and slept.

It didn’t look like we’d get very comfortable berths for the night, so I was thrilled when the pastor asked me during the dance party if I’d like to go to the other house to sleep. A few of us followed him and a his assistants out of the church yard and down a dirt lane. He kept pointing the flashlight behind him and saying, “Look here, please,” to help us avoid the puddles. (Oh, yeah, we have been told repeatedly that in the dry season it never rains in Cambodia, so, of course we got a nice downpour while in Krangthmoung.)

Suddenly,on our right, I saw a capacious house painted pale purple. It was an enthralling sight. How many rooms would this big, purple party house have, and, more importantly, how many beds would be in them? We took off our shoes and ventured indoors. The ceiling was ornate. The columns were purple. There was heavy, wooden furniture in the downstairs rooms.

The Hard-Rest Hotelshoes outside (Khmer culture)

The pastor showed us one room with a wooden slat bed, but we passed quickly on. There was a curved stairway, and we climbed it eagerly. And there we found beds–covered with girls– and lots of bedspreads on the floor. Thanks to the kindness of Julienne Louters, who swapped with me, I got a spot on one of the beds with two other girls. Nevertheless, I didn’t sleep, and when I got up and walked into the hall, I found girls curled up everywhere on the hard tile like refugees. They hadn’t slept either.

So, when I walked back down the dirt lane, just before I got to the entrance gate of the church, I saw a rooster. I’d heard him all night–other animals too, but I think he’s the instigator.”Be quiet!” I scolded him. “You’re the whole problem!” And I rounded the corner to find four Khmer men staring at me like I was crazy.

On Sunday, we go to Eden Farm, where we will sleep outdoors on thin mattresses on a raised platform. We are not allowed to cross the concrete after dark because of the king cobras. We’re a little bit nervous about the king cobras.