Cambodian odyssey

By Carroll du Chateau

Carroll du Chateau discovers nothing is as it seems in Cambodia.

Dawn at Angkor Wat, the monuments built between the 9th and 13th centuries by the Khmer empire. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dawn at Angkor Wat, the monuments built between the 9th and 13th centuries by the Khmer empire. Photo / Dean Purcell

Who could resist the little Cambodian girl in the faded frock handing out brochures?

"Please come to our concert," she says in perfect English, brown eyes pleading. "We dance. It's for our orphanage."

To be honest, plenty of tourists walking this chaotic restaurant strip could - and did - ignore her. At 6pm Bar St is a mass of begging and selling.

Here in the heart of Siem Reap, beside the thriving Old Market, the sealed roads are lined with restaurants and bars. Tuk-tuk drivers chat together or lie in their carts, one eye open for business. Employees and volunteers from the city's hundreds of NGOs and fit young tourists on adventure escapades stroll nonchalantly through the crowd, looking for the best place to eat.

And throughout all this, swarms of kids roam the streets selling books and handing out restaurant flyers. Many are missing limbs or are disfigured. Every lunchtime a young boy leads an old blind man up and down between the tables. The old man calls out, "hungry, hungry" while the child scans the tables.

If someone catches her eye they're over in a flash.

But this little girl and her friends are different. They look at us with shining eyes, grab our hands and plead with us to come and watch them dance.

The next night Virginie and I are in Mr Pov's tuk-tuk heading out of town to the Cambodian Orphan Family Centre Organisation. It's a long ride past often-smelly night markets, one made up entirely of shoes, sprawling in vast, unloved mountains.

Despite the map in the dog-eared brochure handed out by our little orphan, we get lost. All we've seen are rutted clay lanes, yowling cats, shack-like houses and bare sections covered in trash and rubble. Even Mr Pov seems ready to give up.

But no, Virginie, who works for the European Union in Phnom Penh, is determined. "Try again Mr Pov," she says. "Ask someone."

But Mr Pov is no different from other men. Up and down the tracks we jerk, in imminent danger of being thrown out, or possibly mugged, until at last Virginie insists. "ASK someone, Mr Pov!"

Five minutes later we arrive at a nondescript two-storeyed concrete house and are mobbed by a babble of children. There are no house numbers in this makeshift suburb, and no signs to indicate that this is an orphanage. But there's no mistaking the kids we saw in town last night.

They take our hands in their soft little brown paws and lead us to the front row where a boy, in a monkey costume, is entertaining a woman and her daughter on the other side of the aisle. Apart from that the seats are empty.

We are treated like queens. The children bring us plates of carved pawpaw and pineapple, a packet of rice crisps and a glass of fresh lime juice. The monkey disappears, the lights flash on and the first dance begins.

Five little girls step on to the stage. They're dressed in shiny gold tops and billowy Cambodian-style harem pants that fold in a sash between their legs, frangipani blossoms tucked into their tightly pulled-back hair. Their hands bend back in imitation of the Siamese dancers I last saw in The King and I. Their slow footwork is flawless. The inclination of their heads, their Madonna-like half smiles, exaggerated sway backs, even the way they let their shy dark eyes peep out to the audience, all work to make this a startling performance.

Then the boys bounce on stage and wind the performance up several flirty notches. "How old are they?" I ask Virginie. "Five, six, seven, up to maybe 15," she replies.

"Cambodians are very small."

By now, two more guests have arrived and the show becomes even more exciting, finishing with a "famous in Cambodia" coconut dance, which involves clapping coconut half shells together. The boys adore it.

Then, around 8.30pm, which is late in Cambodia, it's the finale. Afterwards, all six guests are pulled up to dance by the children, who seem delighted with our clumsy efforts. There is no pressure to make a donation, but of course we do.

Later, as we make our way to Mr Pov's tuk-tuk the children clasp our hands: "Take me with you Mama, Mummy. Can I be your baby? Be my mummy." It would break your heart if you let it.

Nothing is as it seems in Cambodia. Before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975, declared Day Zero, abolished money and banished the country's city dwellers and intellectuals to countryside work camps, Mr Pov was a professor of archaeology. Now he probably earns US$12-$15 ($15.50-$19.40) on a good day.

Similarly, these children may not be legal orphans, but just street kids who are too much for their impoverished families to handle. Certainly you would be in all sorts of trouble if you tried to sneak one home past Cambodia's stern airport guards in their military-style uniforms.

This orphanage is small and seems well run, even if it can't get the tuk-tuk maps right. But it is just one of thousands of orphanages, children's' hospitals and NGOs offering aid in Cambodia, where the people are poor and ravaged by disease.The average income here is around US$40 a month. If you have a job.

Everyone is desperate for money. All this while aid pours into Cambodia at the rate of US$600 million a year. Why is recovery taking so long?

Part of the story is corruption. The Cambodian Customs agents routinely slap surcharges on imported goods. This means that machinery needed to, say, build wells, is hugely expensive to import.

"Cambodia has the best police that money can buy," says one of the locals. She's talking about how titles to land, drivers' licences, visas and much more are available for those who can pay.

For tourists the deals are amazing. A room at the Bhopa Angkor, which reminds me of a fairly fancy Fijian Resort with its frangipani-lined pool, Sky TV and flash restaurant, costs US$35 a night. A three-course dinner is around US$10.

But violence simmers under the surface. The Khmer Rouge, who butchered around 1.7 million people, were mostly dirt-poor Cambodian villagers lashing out against the educated, city dwellers of Phnom Penh.

Now peace has come, the English-language daily, the Phnom Penh Post, runs regular stories of acid and boiling oil attacks between scrapping husbands and wives. Most ex-pats I meet tell tales of being diddled by their Cambodian workers.

It's nothing new. Corruption, bribery and in-fighting among ruling elite were among the reasons (along with neglect of agricultural irrigation) the Angkor empire, which built the marvellous temples, fell apart. Look carefully and you'll find this violent history carved into the 600-year-old sandstone of the Angkor ruins.

Next morning Virginie and I are in Mr Pov's tuk-tuk heading for the ruined temples of Angkor. Mr Pov has been hired for the day and is very happy. His normal routine is to wait outside the hotel for customers too heat-exhausted to walk the US$1 trip into town.

It's a pleasant ride, the last of it through forest. A cricket starts up, loud as a lawnmower. Monkeys chatter in the trees and eight elephants decorated in magnificent gold and crimson walk fast and energetic. Then, around the corner we see the most famous temple of all.

Nothing can prepare you for the scale of Angkor Wat. It sits behind a silvery moat. The people approaching are like ants with umbrellas. When we finally make it to the steps they are steep and high, especially in the heat which is now rising to its usual 35C.

Virginie leads me to an old monk bent over his prayer book, way up high in the temple. She comes every visit. He stops, smiles, accepts her donation and beckons her to sit beside him while he prays then carefully ties a hot pink braided band around her wrist, chants a good luck blessing, then beckons me over and does the same. Despite dozens of swims, showers and baths since, I'm wearing my wristband still.

Back in the carpark, mobbed by children selling photocopied books with such ferocity I stupidly refuse to buy one, there's no sign of Mr Pov. Finally Virginie spies his tuk-tuk under a tree. Mr Pov is snoozing in the back and not at all embarrassed. A fresh bottle of water and off we head to Angkor Thom with its faces carved into the stone, then Ta Prohm.

Under the trees we come upon an extraordinary orchestra. A heartbreaking group of war veterans, most with missing arms, legs or fingers, play makeshift instruments. And although we try to get Mr Pov to stop, like many men, he has selective hearing. He merrily tuk-tuks on and the moment has passed.

Unlike Angkor Wat, the temple of Ta Prohm has had minimal restoration and the jungle has claimed much of it back. Tree roots and branches embrace the sandstone making it shady and pleasant.

"But where is Mr Pov?" says Virginie. Finally we see him, again under a far-flung tree with his friends, again unrattled by Virginie's obvious exasperation.

Two days later we're heading into the countryside in a van with a broken air conditioning system. It's 6.30am, 35C and we're on a two-hour drive through country that steadily becomes more barren.

The rains are late this year and rice paddies stretch into the distance like empty, grey paddling pools. As Ponnarann Peng, a director with the Temple Garden Foundation, explains, climate change has had a disastrous effect on Cambodia's peasant farmers. Ten years ago they could rely on two crops of rice a year. Now there's only one. If they're lucky.

Our destination is a village where the foundation is working with locals to improve school and health facilities, build roads and upgrade farming. "We teach them how to allocate responsibility, pool resources and organise themselves," says Peng.

The idea behind this NGO, financed by a group of international money market millionaires, is to make the US$250,000 they provide every year, work hard. Really hard.

Halfway there we stop for breakfast. People sit at benches and tables under a tarpaulin roof. Tea is passed round in a huge, battered aluminium teapot. Dogs, many of them with horrific injuries or diseases, limp and snarl at our feet. Locals tuck into rice and vegetables, chucking bones and bits onto the dirt floor for the dogs. By now it's 38C and climbing. The smells are earthy and grubby.

Back in the van the roads are lined with two-metre high plastic sheets. "Why?" "To trap the insects."

"It's the farmers' biggest export earner," explains Peng. "The insects fly into the plastic, then fall down into the salty water underneath. Next morning at 4am, when they wake, the farmers take the dead locusts out and sell them to Thailand. They're a great delicacy and a good source of protein. Worth US$5 a kilo - more than rice."

Part of the programme is helping trainee teachers how to teach. "The teacher is a hero in Cambodia," says Peng. "Sixty per cent of people can't read or write. [The official figure is 25 per cent.] The Government's goal is to make everyone literate by 2015 but I don't think it will happen. They're not spending the money."

Today, students are learning how to teach art. Because so much of the Cambodian culture was lost under the Khmer Rouge, people have lost the ability to do anything that isn't directly concerned with survival. Their first efforts to make anything from materials they find in the garden results in several clay pigs.

"Why a pig?" asks the trainer?

"A pig is a very important animal," says a student. "We use its head for burning incense. It gives us meat, it eats our rubbish. Its skin can be used to make mats and bags, its fat for tallow, its tail for ..."

Gradually they catch on that this is an exercise in creativity. Giggling they start modelling imaginary animals, weird birds and designs. They fold paper, plait reeds, join sticks. Progress.

Next stop is a village meeting where Peng is talking with 10 chiefs about a free summer school they're running to teach English and life skills to village students.

By now it's well over 40C and I'm forced back to the 4WD where I crouch over the air conditioning, watching a woman with a naked baby and a toddler shuck a coconut. They're perched on a platform with a ceiling, presumably to catch the non-existent breeze. Every time she begins shucking the baby starts to wail or the toddler threatens to fall off the platform.

Time and again she uses the sharp cleaver within centimetres of the baby until, at last, the prized nut is shiny clean. The children sob for their treat.

Over the road a teenage girl in a sarong takes a shower in an enamel basin of water. A gangly kid rides an enormous, ancient bike out onto the road with his kid brother on the back. He can hardly reach the pedals. Yet off he wobbles alongside buffalo-drawn carts, more bikes and the odd, menacing, frighteningly fast 4WD.

My last night and it's not Mr Pov driving the tuk-tuk towards Siem Reap's low-slung airport but the driver who had picked us up a week before. Back then I was mesmerised by the smells and excitement of this million-strong city with its side-by-side massive, modern hotels, tuk-tuks, 4WDs and road chaos.

At one point a passenger's jandal slipped off his foot and on to the road. Without missing a beat our driver U-turned into the one-way traffic heading towards us, and tuk-tuked back to pick it up. No one hooted or hollered.

Probably Mr Pov would have done the same thing, but he is still waiting for me outside the Bopha Angkor. Our plans changed and without Virginie to explain, I couldn't let him know.

By now I'm used to the erratic driving, the families squashed on motorcycles, the gorgeous children, the hot, velvety, air. Frogs shriek around us, the incessant rhythm of Cambodian life throbs. But after a week I am no longer a carefree tourist. I've started reading Loung Ung's haunting memoir, First They Killed My Father. I know too much.

The uniformed guards smile that mask-like Cambodian half-smile as I pay my US$25 and leave.

I don't.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers special fares from New Zealand via Hong Kong to Phnom Penh in conjunction with its sister airline Dragonair.

Carroll du Chateau travelled to Siem Reap with help from Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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