I really wanted to try and be part of the community while I was here, and to understand a bit about how the people live. Although I have enjoyed visiting the city, you do feel very much like a tourist because that’s everyone else’s perception of you. Staying in a commune in the countryside shows a whole other aspect, and has begun to show me the real Cambodia – and so that’s why I decided to abandon the city completely and stay at the school over the weekend while the teachers are away studying and the school is closed.
During the last week, I’ve been treated to breakfast in the little coffee shop – roasted pork & rice and sweet iced coffee – followed by a dawn motorbike ride through the local countryside. To catch breakfast you have to be at the coffee shop before seven – I asked about trying some noodles at around 8am and the reply was a chuckle and ‘no, you have to go in the morning’. OK, so 8am is no longer morning here – got it!
One of the dentists and her three dental nurses (local village girls and some of the first graduates from the school) also included me in their meals when they came to stay – smoked fish mixed with papaya, Cambodia spicy rice porridge, duck eggs (OK, I admit, I wasn’t expecting the foetus but this is common in South East Asia) and fried fish. They accompanied me on a beautiful morning bicycle ride through the fields to the village – rightly amused by my wobbly riding on the retro bikes – for a breakfast of banana fritters and giant prawn crackers filled with real prawns. And they also brought some strands of young green rice for me to look at, seeing as I’ve only ever seen it already dry and bagged. You can actually eat the young rice and it tastes like coconut milk.
This weekend, I was working on my book edits and freelance work, but I also had a few groups of girls visit me to take me for bike rides, join me for iced coffee, show me the stories they write, and share food; the villages in the commune are currently celebrating this year’s rice harvest by sharing Khmer noodles. I was also lucky enough to visit a girl’s home and meet her parents and sisters. They were such beautiful, welcoming people and I had a wonderful few hours in their company.
Then there was the roasted duck shared with the grounds men and teachers, the Khmer lesson over beers… The hospitality has been endless and generous, and I can’t thank everyone enough for their kindness. To feel safe, loved, and included, is such a gift – especially when you’re surrounded by people you’ve just met. People you can call friends in a very short space of time.
The darker side of the country’s past is also starting to reveal itself to me. I don’t pry because it’s far too sensitive, and far too recent, but one of the girls showed me their old traditional wooden house that had survived the Khmer Rouge times, how it was reduced in size due to damage from bombing. She also shared some stories that she had heard from her parents about their lives during that time. They were, as you would expect, horrific. Having met her parents, I have no idea how they have remained such kind and generous people. There is no sign of anger or bitterness; they emanate gentleness and warmth, which I find both remarkable and honourable.
There are also certain things that you can’t help becoming aware of. For instance, driving back to the school, Tith and myself listened to some beautiful and haunting Khmer music in the car. After a few songs had played, Tith explained that all of the singers we’d just listened to were now dead, brutally murdered during the Pol Pot regime for having beautiful voices. I’ve been reading the novel dogs at the perimeter by Madeleine Thien, and this has given me not only an insight into the terrible atrocities that Cambodia endured, but also the lasting impact of the Khmer Rouge regime. It shows me how far the country and its people have come in a short space of time.
Although I cannot understand the commentary, it is apparent from the snatches of the news that I have seen on TV that there is still faction fighting. The political situation remains tenuous and dangerous, and it seems that families need to ally themselves with either the police or the army – through family or marriage – to create some form of security for themselves, and particularly their daughters.
I have seen many Cambodian people wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Sometimes we smile to hide the sad.’ I think explains plenty. I have only just begun to scratch the surface and my return to Ireland is imminent, but what I have seen so far only serves to enhance my feeling that this is an incredible country filled with strong and beautiful people that are making the most of what they have. They are striving to succeed, whatever odds are against them. To me, they are a shining example of what it means to be human.