My Cambodia Stories on Medium

Tom Nickel
7 min readSep 11, 2021

Events in Cambodia have influenced the world in big, unpredictable ways for the past six decades or more. Sihanouk had style and part of it was non-alignment. Then came ‘secret bombings’ and the Khmer Rouge. The image of an entire national population being put into forced enslaved labor still haunts us as a nightmare scenario that actually happened.

One of my best friends was deeply involved in the rebuilding of Cambodia beginning in the mid-1990s. He worked under difficult conditions to support a young man, Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Killing Fields, who had made it his mission to find any Cambodian Master Artists who were somehow still alive — so the culture itself could be kept alive.

I traveled around the country with both of them in early 2017 and returned for months at a time until the pandemic forced me to stop. Since then, I have continued to work closely with friends and colleagues there, primarily through Virtual Reality.

These articles describe the experiences I had working with people here and there producing VR content and events.

Raising Funds in VR

Raising Funds in VR

November 29, 2020

What helps convince the brain, and surprisingly it doesn’t take much, is interacting with another person in that new environment. The fact that someone else is there too, also buying into that same new environment and talking to you like everything is normal — the brain goes, ‘done, I’m here.’

If that doesn’t scream, ‘Fundraising,’ I don’t know what does.

Playing the Kse Diev in VR

Playing the Kse Diev in VR

November 21, 2020

I didn’t think the sound would be loud or clear enough to make out the twelve or more individual notes he can produce. I had a short video of him playing all cued up.

It wasn’t necessary.

With the microphone right at the gourd, a very pure and distinctive sound somehow made it along a digital pathway to the AltspaceVR servers and from there into our ears as disturbed air caused by Sinat’s control of the string back in Phnom Penh.

Stay Home and Go Out!

Stay Home and Go Out!

October 30, 2020

The music didn’t die from Covid, but live entertainment did.

Cambodians know what it is like for the music to die, all the music and all the musicians. Back in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge knew that artists were their natural enemy, their biggest threat in the long run. So they killed them. Every one they could find.

Taking the Bus into VR

Taking the Bus into VR

October 19, 2020

It takes a certain kind of artist to be willing to try out new venues, new formats, whole new ways of performing. Very few have been willing to try virtual venues, VR as a stage where the world can come together.

Arn and Seyma drove into AltspaceVR in July to put on four shows that were something like a dress rehearsal.

Where Can Performers Peform?

Where Can Performers Perform?

July 2, 2020

What do John Legend, Reggie Watts, Lady Gaga, and the Khmer Magic Music Bus (KMMB) have in common?

They are all performing artists who are working in Virtual Reality.

Which one has made the move with the teeniest budget, the least tech support, from the farthest away? That would be the Khmer Magic Music Bus.

On-Boarding Arn

On-Boarding Arn

May 2, 2020

This was his first time in social VR, interacting with other people, speaking in a virtual event. His on-boarding happened in front of a live avatar audience. Getting used to the virtual world quietly for a while was not an option.

I had hoped and planned to meet him privately first, before the event, but it didn’t go that way. Introducing someone to VR and/or Social VR, is important. And it wasn’t going the way I’d hoped.

Another Astonishing Lesson

Another Astonishing Lesson

May 1, 2019

There’s a lot I didn’t know about northern Malaysia, but I did know one thing — I was getting out of Phnom Penh and going there. I had a ticket that said I was.

My ticket got me checked in, got my bag tagged and sent rolling away, got me through Security and right up to Boarding when the Malaysia Airlines Customer Service lady appeared and said my valid US Passport actually is Valid but Not Valid Enough and so I couldn’t get on the plane.

Non-Stop New Year

Non-Stop New Year

April 18, 2019

We’d driven twelve hours from Phnom Penh, northwest through Siem Reap and Angkor. Stopped a few times and played for people. Chapei mostly, because Sarath makes up funny Khmei rap on the fly and everyone has a good time.

The Khmei Magic Music Bus was in Uddar Meanchey province, a little chunk of forest, with one town, a few villages, and Thailand on the other side of the mountains.

Old Guy on Tour

Old Guy on Tour

November 7, 2018

When I learned that CLA was coming to the USA, renting an American version of the Khmer Magic Music Bus and playing an Arts4Peace Tour from Vermont to Virginia, I knew I wanted to be part of it. They didn’t need me. I’m not some savior they couldn’t do without. I just figured I could make things a little smoother, a little easier.

Language Learning Later in Life

Language Learning Later in Life

January 19, 2018

Learning a new language is especially foolish when you’re old, because fluency takes years and who knows how long the commitment can be sustained? Something new that can be mastered in a few months makes more sense.

But everything doesn’t have to make sense. Being retired but still active and full of energy changes the equation about what making sense even means.

Trying to Help Out a Long Wat from Home

Trying to Help Out a Long Way from Home

December 14, 2017

It can be as rewarding as anything you’ve ever done, and also as challenging. The physical parts are stressful. You’ve got to pace yourself carefully, which is not one of my strengths.

More importantly, it doesn’t work to try being helpful on your terms. Real support has to be offered when and how the people you want to support want to be supported. I know that sounds obvious, but on a daily basis it’s the easiest thing to lose sight of. I know I have.

Learning vs the Ear Bud

Learning Vs The Ear Bud

October 8, 2017

I’m in the middle of an early 21st century variant of the John Henry story, human against machine.

Except the ‘machine’ is Artificial Intelligence and a universal translator is not the same thing as language learning.

It wasn’t the time that got John Henry, though — it was the effort.

John Henry won. And then his heart gave out — so many ways you can look at that story, so many messages to take from it. Artisanal is still, after all, the symbol of quality. It’s the human touch that makes each one special.

Potentially Useful Insight

Potentially Useful Insight Gained While Learning a New Language at 68

August, 2017

I am not especially good at languages, but I’ve never had this kind of motivation before. When the newness of Memrise began to wear off at some point in August, I felt like it was time to find a teacher.

There were several options for live private lessons and my instincts led me to the website that felt the most professional, with good reviews. I scheduled a trial session and was instantly hooked. It was completely engaging to speak, or try to speak, with someone live, back-and-forth, using my rudimentary vocabulary.

You Want to Make a Difference?

You Want to Make a Difference? Go to Cambodia, (or someplace like it

April 28, 2017

Ten thousand baby boomers turn 65 every day in the US.

Some of them are not in a position to retire. Some are. Some of them are not in good shape, physically or fiscally, even if they are able to retire. But some are. Some would just as soon not do very much, not much more than golf or gardening anyway. Some would like to do more than that. Some have a little energy left, along with a little wisdom, and they say they’d like to make a difference.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos