Some people dont believe in religion, arent afraid of
hell, he says.
Its hard to judge
his age; his face is worn and his eyes are wary, but his smile is quick
and bright. He tells me later on that he was around twelve during the
terrible famine that I remember seeing on the television. I guess that
would make him around mid thirties. When I was at Primary School, Cambodian
was the name you called out to skinny kids in the playground. When Keo
was twelve, he tells me, there wasnt enough rice, so he had to eat
the bark of a papaya tree to stay alive. He tells me this as though he
were talking about someone else. I am not meant to pity him. Today, he
is taking me to the Angkor ruins on a shiny moped.
Sometimes, I feel like one of EM Forsters characters; blindly, ignorantly
well meaning. I ask Keo what he does when hes not showing people
around Angkor, assuming that he does this on his day off. This is
my job, he says without malice. Polite small talk turns sour in
my mouth. I am paying him US$12 a day. I bargained for this price, as
if it were some kind of game, as if $2 meant a lot to me. I was pleased
with my deal, imagining how I would boast about my tough, no nonsense
bargaining skills back in the bars of Phnom Penh. My stomach churns. The
road to Banteay Srei is bumpy and full of potholes. My shrieks as I am
thrown airborne, then land again on the seat, make him chuckle. I imagine
he thinks I am silly to make such a fuss, clamping my hat to my head with
one hand, clinging to the back of the moped with the other.
is as if only he and I are on the road this morning, flanked either
side with paddy fields of the most vibrant and full-of-life green
I think I have ever seen. The sun glitters in the water, like a
glitzy backdrop to a Disney movie. I half expect to hear a theme
tune playing as we travel along on the shiny moped.
Keo laughs because I want to stop and take photos of a fat wet water buffalo
wallowing in grey mud. This makes me feel a little sheepish, but I suppose
I would laugh if someone wanted to take a photograph of a Friesian cow.
He tells me that the buffalo are fat in the wet season, but skinny in
the dry season because there is no food. This is how he puts it, no
food. I cant understand how there can be no food, thinking
perhaps this is an idiom for not much food, but then I imagine a twelve
year old boy chewing the bark of a papaya tree.
We pass houses on stilts with washing blowing in the warm breeze, fat
pigs snuffling and shuffling, as if they own the place. My heartbeat slows
to the sleepy rhythm of my surroundings, until two small boys, naked and
big-brown-eyed, burst from the greenery on a bicycle that is far too big
for them. I laugh and they wave and smile at me and Keo on a shiny moped,
as their bicycle wobbles precariously, little brown legs, stretching to
reach the pedals.
Its hard to imagine that the Khmer Rouge and the army fought so
furiously along this road. Keo says that all you could hear both day and
night was the sound of guns from the fighting along this road. I try to
imagine what it must have been like, but cant. We pass a khaki hammock
swinging innocuously in the wind on the roadside. These are the Guardians
hammocks. Ordinary people needed protection. The Guardians watched both
day and night. There was always danger along this road. Keo says
that Cambodians have always been peaceful people. He blames the troubles
on loss of faith. Some people dont believe in religion, arent
afraid of hell, he says. For instance, when his mother was ill,
a doctor said she only had two days left before she would die. Keo went
to see a monk. The monk chanted all day for Keos mother. He told
Keo, Your mother isnt going to die.
She didnt die. I have known Keo for about four hours and he tells
me this. I feel honoured that he trusts me, and I listen with humility,
making a gift out of my patience and understanding, but it seems that
for Keo, this isnt about trust. He tells me this as though he is
giving me a lesson, a gift from him to me. Keo is named after a Buddhist
temple. His faith is important to him.
There are no mines here, he says, as we pass a truck from
the Halo Trust.
We eat lunch outside a temple that looks to me like Sleeping Beautys
castle. I do not tell him thats what I think. Keo eats rice and
cucumber. I try to tempt him with other options on the menu, not wishing
him to think that he can only choose the cheapest meal. This is
what Cambodians eat, he says simply. I try not to think of
a little boy chewing the bark of a papaya tree.
For polite conversation, I ask Keo about his children, for example, do
they go to school? What I meant was, are they old enough to go to school
yet? School costs 10000 Riel a year, is Keos reply.
This is the same price as my lunch. I am disgusted with myself. I cannot
finish my noodles with beef and vegetables, but I dont want Keo
to see. I chew, but cannot swallow my food. I feel my face burn, but Keo
is perhaps too polite to notice.
As we leave the ancient city of Angkor Thom, I remark on how eerie I think
it that many of the heads of the deities are missing. I expect to hear
tales of magic; mysterious legends of great kings and evil spirits. Keo
has told me many of these stories at various points on our journey. Keo
says very simply that the Vietnamese stole many treasures when they came
to Cambodia. To take the stone heads seems to me far more sinister than
mindless vandalism. He says they cut down many of Cambodias beautiful
forests because the wood is valuable. They also ate many Cambodian dogs.
Its true! Vietnamese eat dogs! He laughs at the statement
on my face. Keo is disgusted by corruption.
When we ride past the Crocodile Farm, Keo tells me that the Khmer Rouge
used to feed people to the crocodiles. I study his face closely hoping
to see that he is joking.
When I leave Siem Reap, he holds my hands in his hands. This makes me
smile shyly. I wish you luck, he says. I think this is rather
an odd thing for him to say to me, but by his eyes, I know he truly means
it. I wish you luck too, Keo. Its about time.
© Sharon Leach 2001
Sharon is a professional writer - this is her first piece for Hackwriters
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