Friday, January 05, 2007


Two weeks after leaving Cambodia my head still floats somewhere there, my mind’s eye still sees the people, the dust, the squalor, the beauty, the temples. I dream of the people, the countryside villages, the noise, and the swirl of ceaseless movement every night. In the past when I heard people - very rarely – say they had been to Cambodia, I thought of a terrifying country, danger at every corner. I saw a television program about Cambodia about a month before my visit, and this impression had been reinforced – corrupt police, corrupt officials, corrupt armed forces – somewhere to be on your best behaviour. How wrong I was.

Of course we were lucky – we did the tourist things, but did venture off the beaten track occasionally, reading up carefully in the Lonely Planet about do’s and don’ts, and being careful. By the time our plane landed in Siem Reap I was only aware that I needed to be careful of two things – not wandering off tracks at the temples or in the country in case of landmines, and watching for slim green deadly snakes in the jungle temples. I’m pleased to say I encountered neither.

Cambodia’s greatest richness is not it’s wonderful temples, but it’s people. The people in the main are physically beautiful, small, slim, skin of every shade between deep golden tan to light milk coffee, with white teeth, and dead black hair that shines and is, by the women, looped into beautiful clever casual shapes, and the children – well, the children are quite simply the most beautiful on earth, I am sure. The Cambodian smile is something to behold.

People are friendly, shy, happy, caring towards each other, sweet natured, helpful, and oh, so polite. I dithered on the side on a street full of chaotic traffic, all coming from the opposite direction to traffic at home, my ‘look right, look left, look right again’ absolutely useless here. Traffic rules are few, and its pretty evident that traffic, motor bikes, tuk tuks, and bicycles have the right of way – you as a mere pedestrian dice with death bravely every time you cross a road. And yet I saw small children step out confidently and weave through the traffic to the other side. I stepped out, leapt back, looked all ways, and could see nothing but rivers of weaving, darting, speeding traffic coming at me.

Motor bikes don’t just hold one rider, they hold whole families. Pigs are trussed up and transported on the back seat – usually upside down with their trotters waving feebly in the air – the skill of the rider to firstly place the pig there, balanced somehow, and then to ride with the pig load on the back amazed me.

And now here I was, my hotel on the opposite side of the street, and no way to get there. A man, probably about 30-40 years old, slim and brown, stepped up beside me – my reaction was that he was going to offer me a tuk tuk, a shop to look at, or try and engage himself as my guide for tomorrow – no – he gestured at me to walk beside him, shielded me from the traffic, and we darted and danced our way across. I gratefully turned to him to express my appreciation of his genuine kindness, but he was already melting away. It was a pure act of kindness – he had seen my dilemma, I was obviously an inexperienced in Cambodian traffic matters, I was a visitor in his country – what could he do but assist me.

The Cambodian greeting and thanks gesture is simple and beautiful – the hands are held in the prayer position, palm to palm, and upright in the middle of the chest and the head slightly bowed. Our tuk tuk stopped one day on the side of a rural road so we could take photographs of people gathering their crop of rice with scythes. Some little children from one of the scattered poor thatched huts ran along the other side of the ride, smiling their huge smiles, and calling out to us – ‘hello’, hello’. We forgot the picturesque rice gatherers. I found a small fluffy Australian koala in my bag, carried there to give to the children, and we called the eldest child over. The three brothers and their sister, the eldest, stood shyly in a little group, not sure what to do now they had reached us. My daughter held the koala out and walked towards them. The boys pushed their sister, golden brown skin, shining black hair, her slim body in a long straight checked sarong, towards us. She came slowly and uncertainly and my daughter held out the little toy, and she came quickly for the last few steps and accepted it, with a smile of wonderment, and made the beautiful, modest thank you gesture. She thought us exotic, there was no doubt of that, but we thought she was absolutely beautiful, with a shining rustic purity of spirit, and a universal understanding of the politeness of acknowledging a gift.

I stood on the stones of the temples, I put my hand on the warm carvings to absorb them. You could stand and wonder about many things – the clarity of purpose in building these huge edifices, the man power involved in cutting the stones so precisely, in erecting them without machinery, in digging huge and straight canals and moats, in carving the intricate figures into the hard stone, the time it must have all taken. Yes, we did wonder about those things. But the thing that you wonder most over is the purpose, the belief, the faith, that made men build these things, and make them so beautiful, and revere them so much.

The absolute madness of the Khmer Rouge regime is so at odds with this culture, with these beautiful people, with this intrinsic understanding of aesthetics. Such pure evil can occur in any race, in any part of the world, but to have occurred here is an anomaly.

The people, many of them, have so few possessions. For some their little tiny box of a day time sho – perhaps a business selling a few cold drinks and some phone cards – becomes at night their home. An iron grille is pulled across the doorway , the family sits and watches the ubiquitous television, the evening meal is cooked on the floor on a little burner. The people who live in the river fishing villages, have an even more simple life – their little huts float on tiny bamboo rafts, sometimes with a valued pig in a tiny bamboo cage that is just big enough to contain it, floating at the side, and the river becomes everything – the family bathes in it, the children swim in it, the family – all members from old grandmothers to tiny tots – cleverly steer their little wooden dugouts on its surface to do whatever chores, or fishing, or selling their produce, that they need to do.

Food in the form of fish comes from it, food scraps are returned to it. The family toilet empties into it. The children dip their little bowls immediately into the river from their little floating verandah and drink deeply of the water, polluted, dirty, odorous. They smile, they laugh, they joyously wave. They have what they need to exist – water, food, shelter, a few necessary possessions, their shrines, and themselves, their families.

You arrive home, you look at your house, at your possessions, you think about your cares and worries, and you wonder again. Why, why, why – why do we need all this ‘stuff’, why don’t we value family and community more, why don’t we hold out a helping hand with a smile more often, why do we eat so much, why do we compete so much? Within a certain amount of time, these feelings dissipate. Of course we love our things, we value our family and our friends, and food is good. We go back to our own way of life. But every now and then we think of the little boy, naked, brown and shining with river water streaming off him, as he joyously leapt up through the water, white smile gleaming and called out ‘hello, hello’. Is he happy, is he well, is he still alive? The bond that is forged by smiles and genuine interest works both ways. I would return to Cambodia in an instant if I could. What would I do? Would I survive the traffic, the bad water, the different food, the sporadic medical attention? Could I do without my ‘things’? Maybe not, but I have learnt a lesson in thinking about it.

© NW
January 2007