Posted by: chandnidhingra | February 3, 2014


“Barrang”(foreigner), is what we get called, all of the foreigners here in Cambodia.

Despite having lived in a collection of vaguely ‘cultural’ countries (the UK, Australia, Thailand (for a short period) and the Netherlands), and having travelled to many more places, settling into Phnom Penh has been an experience like no other.  In the last two weeks as a “barrang” here, I have experienced things that have made me want to know more about who I am, what my place is in this crazy and diverse world we live in, why mosquitoes are necessary in our eco-system, and why people ever thought it was a good idea to eat fried tarantulas (even though they apparently remove the venomous fangs).

Phnom Penh is a chaotic, cultural cocktail. Take the flavours of a developing country caught somewhere between tradition, progress, and the subtle impact of the Khmer Rouge, and combine this with a colourful expat or “barrang” community. Stir gently. A gradient of passionate youth will emerge and smoothly toy with the collision of flavours, but never quite settle. Add a splash of political unrest (just to shake it up), then garnish with shavings of French colonial buildings, street-side shanties, an undying love of karaoke and an entire family of 6-and-a-half (mother, father, four kids and their dog) on a moto. Serve cold in a fresh coconut.

Nobody knows exactly how much of each ingredient to add, so no doubt it’ll be different each and every time you dare to take a sip… And every time you think you have it figured out, a new combination of flavours will prove you wrong.

Fortunately for me, every sip of interning at Equitable Cambodia has been just as unpredictable and exciting. Being the only “barrang” at work has certainly had its challenges, mostly because my terrible sense of humour is even more pitiful with a language barrier. But jokes aside, I have loved the variety of work I have been involved in so far.  I have gone from researching and helping to write reports and media publications, to rushing to monitor community petitions at various embassies, all before 10am!

Most of my work involves cases to do with land-grabbing and forced land evictions that have resulted in communities lose everything. I have seen communities protesting with their hearts on their sleeves, tears on their faces and flags in their hands to fight for the land that was taken from beneath them.  In Cambodia, land is not only for farming, but the main source of livelihood for rural communities. Land gives families a home, access to food and water, grazing space to raise animals, a source of traditional medicine, a place of education for their children, and more. When land that has belonged to these communities for generations, is suddenly declared by the government as “public land” and leased to industrial giants, the first time the communities hear about it is when bulldozers, protected by the military, come to clear the land.

I am working on a number of land-grabbing cases including those related to sugar and rubber. I travelled with a member of the European Parliament (MEP) to one of the affected provinces to show him the impacts of the forced evictions on the communities. The land-grabs here were largely triggered by companies seeking to take advantage of the tax and profit benefits conferred by the EU’s ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) initiative, so the European Parliament holds a key role in pressuring the European Commission to launch an official investigation into the matter.

The day was a tapestry of languages woven together with translations from Khmer to French to English and every combination in-between. Even my rusty French ended up playing a large part in translating for the MEP! We met with representatives from the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, saw the plantation, talked to workers in the field, and then went to a community meeting at a nearby village. The community visit was bittersweet. The people are so incredibly kind-hearted and genuine, but they have suffered so much. I feel so lucky to have been able to talk with them, share their stories, see their homes and be a part of their fight for compensation.


On another note, I will also be attending a meeting with the IFC about their involvement in funding investors in the Ratanakiri province land-grabs, this time to produce rubber.

My work at EC has already taught me so much, and the team here are absolutely wonderful. Being a “barrang” means everyone makes an effort to take care of you, and proudly show you the Khmer culture. I have travelled to a colleague’s famiIy home in the provinces to celebrate Chinese New Year, the celebration of another colleague’s newly born nephew and more. Being a “barrang” also means you have to bargain extra when vendors and tuktuk drivers try and push higher prices on you, but it’s all part of the fun. Though I felt like I was still settling in, yesterday while showing around a visiting friend, I realised (with a huge amount of glee and relief) that I’m getting to know this city and culture. So even though I still (and always will) look like a “barrang”, Cambodia is beginning to feel less foreign to me as each day goes by.

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