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Family photo in Siem Reap


By: Thomas Weber Carlsen

Thomas Weber Carlsen is a Danish architect who has been living in Cambodia with his Cambodian wife and their two children for over 10 years now. Apart from designing and building his own house, he has been working with humanitarian projects, worked as a tour leader and made video documentaries about the Khmer Rouge and indigenous people under the influence of globalization.

His first literary work Third World Man (Out of Denmark) is the personal account of his journey from Denmark to Cambodia and the various impacts it has had on his life. It is also a critical comment to the divided and unsustainable world we live in today. Thomas is now looking to have Third World Man (Out of Denmark) published in hard form and/or as an e-book. This article, “Chan”, is based on the second chapter of the book and is the first in a series of three articles, all taken from chapters in the book, to be presented on in the near future. “Chan” relates the story of how Thomas met his wife, how their fates intertwined, and what happened then.

Family photo in Siem Reap

Family photo in Siem Reap

My marriage with Chan is a typical third world affair. She wanted something and I wanted something and so we struck a deal. That is not to say that we don’t like each other and these days we are even attempting to love each other.

She comes out of a family with eleven children, born on the threshold to the national holocaust, the disastrous rule of the Khmer Rouge. Through the following decades of war and turmoil she and her family survived by sticking together and making ends meet one way or another and, with the combined effort of everyone at hand, they succeeded in that.

This is how I see her in my mind:  a young girl with a large tray on her head from which she sells fruit and things on the street while smiling all the while. A busy bee, in many ways the pride and certainly the main asset of her family, and in that sense it is no coincidence that it was her I met at the market in Battambang those many years ago when I walked in there with my trousers torn looking for somewhere to fix them. She was there in her family’s flower shop and characteristically the only one around who spoke any English, which is why she could guide me to the nearest seamstress, and while the job was being done we – me with a scarf wrapped around me – started getting to know each other. I guess it is fair to say that we are still in that process.

Chan has told me that she once saw a young Cambodian thief being burned alive by the Thais just across the border in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime. They stuck him inside a car tire filled with gasoline and let him burn to death in front of a large crowd of Cambodians, to teach them all a lesson not to steal. She still remembers his screams. I sometimes wonder what it does to people to be exposed to violence of that severity.

I had hoped that she would be sweeter and softer than she is – I like girls to be very sweet and very soft – but I guess that is part of the deal, because I also need her to be a hard working housewife, a good mother, a tough negotiator when we have to confront the local authorities, and someone I can rely on in general. She is all of that.

Chan wanted a way out of poverty and a ticket out of Cambodia. Like so many other third world people she firmly believed that the United States and Europe were where the rainbow ended and everything turned into solid gold. She could have chosen between any of a number of western men who came to work in Battambang in the nineties to lead her there, she was exposed to a lot of them as the caretaker of a child of an Italian/Belgian couple, both of whom were working as administrative personnel during the United Nation’s peace keeping mission to Cambodia.

But she chose me and I could not have been a less suitable candidate.  For one thing I have never really cared – or been able – to make a large sum of money, and secondly I also wanted a way out of my troubled past and had decided to try my luck in Cambodia. Clearly Chan must have brought this irony of fate down upon her by some serious wrongdoing in an earlier incarnation. Our mismatch has created monumental clashes and disillusionments over the years, but for better or for worse we are still together and still in Cambodia.

In Denmark on Midsummer's Eve in 2006

In Denmark on Midsummer's Eve in 2006

My relationships with Danish girls never worked. I knew plenty of girls once I had overcome my initial shyness of women but never anyone steady enough to be called a girlfriend. There was a good reason for that. I was always looking for an opportunity to leave Denmark, so whenever a girl came too close I backed out. There was no way I wanted to get trapped there. But I had been searching for a Cambodian wife for quite a while when I met Chan.

Was it just luck that led me to her house that late evening after having hitchhiked all afternoon on a petrol truck along the bumpy road to Battambang for a quick goodbye before setting off in the early morning to shoot my first video documentary in the remote province of Ratanakiri? I had been to the house of her family before, but only during the daytime and I did not remember the exact way through the maze of little paths of this typical Cambodian village, having gradually been absorbed into the urban structure of the country’s second largest city. At any rate, there I stood outside the big iron-gate where she came up to meet me in her pajamas surrounded by a pack of fiercely barking dogs. And it is a fact that we left together the following day against her father’s will, after she had asked me if I needed someone to cook and clean and assist with the translations and everything once I got to my destination. I thought it was a brilliant idea.

In Ratanakiri we became lovers from the very outset. It was such a sweet time. We were surrounded by the remains of one of the greatest rainforests in Cambodia and a lot of miserable looking ethnic minorities, the so called hill tribes, whom I had come up there to record on video before their ancient culture completely disintegrated. And we proved to be a very efficient team together. Her father incidentally is a video maker as well – wedding videos and Buddhist ceremonies and all those important occasions that need to be preserved for eternity – so the work as my assistant came quite natural to her. People liked us there, especially the ethnic minorities for whom I felt a lot of compassion, and Chan has a way with people to make them think that she is so adorable – and she really is, mostly. It is hard to imagine a more promising start to a lasting relationship.

The first time Chan came to visit Denmark more than ten years ago was something of an eye opener to her. I remember with delight those early days and the way I too began looking at my own country through her eyes. One of the first strange things she noticed was the dogs and how they were treated with constant attention and intimate affection by their owners, and then she said something I’ll always remember with a particular fondness, “In my next life I want to be a dog in Denmark!” This tells something about Chan and the conditions of life in the third world and the beliefs and aspirations of the people. But it also tells something about the Danes and their extraordinary attachment to dogs, perhaps as a substitute for the lack of any deeper relationship with other human beings. I will let you in on a terrible secret: there is a numbing loneliness among people there. Believe me, I know.

She said something else that I remember well, “In Denmark the women are stronger than the men”. She sensed that very early on and I guess it is true. Feminism has a long and exceptional history in that part of the world and we consider it progress, the ultimate achievement of a strong democratic and egalitarian tradition, a proof of the prowess of our highly advanced civilization and a tribute to the virtue of our enlightened women. In my younger years I felt intimidated by these aggressive women, demanding ever more rights and freedom. I wasn’t too sure about my own rights and my own freedom back then.



Chan changed when we married and she became a mother. It was as if she started rebelling for the first time in her life and suddenly regarded me as her oppressor. She probably never had the time or the opportunity before and now for some reason I became the target of a lot of negative feelings. The early years of Amanda’s life were filled with painful incidents and accusations that I do not want to relate here in detail. Maybe she felt trapped. Maybe she was losing that maiden dream of the white knight in the shining Mercedes Benz and realizing that she would never come to live in California. Whatever the reason, this is when the hard times began and I had to learn to stand up to her and shout her in the face whenever I felt she had gone too far. And that is not an easy thing to do with a one or two year old baby girl staring at you in surprise and fear.

I am sure somebody has been trying to tell you that there is such a thing as love at first sight and that someday you’ll just fall into it. It is all first world talk. Let me tell you that love is hard work, every day and every night. Love is a commodity here in the third world, something to be advertised at the sumptuous wedding party and afterwards ignored as an expendable luxury in the everyday struggle to survive. But Chan takes her love and her life seriously and she is not easy to please in that respect. Maybe the same can be said about me, so naturally we have our ups and downs. I could write pages about her imperfections, but I won’t. It would be disrespectful to her, and besides I have my own shortcomings too. You will learn about them soon enough as you turn the pages of this book. Our marriage is a never ending process of grinding away edges. As the years go by you can almost feel getting rounder and softer, and that is a good thing. But underneath that roundness and softness you must be as hard as any rock. How else can you endure the trials of a life in the third world?

Chan is like that and it is not easy for me to find a way into her heart. There is something wild and shy in there. But my destiny is bound to hers and I am wild at heart too. I am a son of the Vikings, their blood runs in my veins and I am not sure if that is a quality. She is a daughter of the old Khmers who for centuries ruled over most of Southeast Asia with an iron hand under the guidance of great warrior kings before they were ultimately subdued and thoroughly humiliated. We are kindred spirits she and I and in the process of creating something extraordinarily beautiful together here in this fantastic country so rich in opportunities for pioneers and searchers of truth.

She is the mother of my children, the most precious belongings I have. She walks faithfully by my side through this crazy life, smiling as she goes and with a song on her lips. And that is something to be treasured. She stands by me, so I stand by her. How would I ever be able to do without her, this third world woman of mine!

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