Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | Western Cambodia | Battambang – Day 14 – Phnom Sampeau, Cambodia
It’s just after Shabbat (ie. the end of the Jewish Sabbath, after sun-down, Saturday night). CNN blabbles on my little TV here (hey, it came with the room). This city goes dark and somnolent with nightfall, almost a ghost-town. So I sit here in my hot, moist room catching up on my journalling.
Yesterday was a surprisingly interesting day. After a late breakfast and some pre-Shabbat food purchases (including finding O-U heckshered Chicken of the Sea tuna), I hooked up with Tih, a middle-age moto driver. I really didn’t have gushing enthusiasm for either of the main day-trips available from Battambang but Tih, in very respectable english convinced me that I should and could get to both Phnom Sampeau and Wat Banan and be back by 5pm (for final Shabbat prep).
We shuttled out of town astride Tih’s puttering moto and onto a hot fairly smooth dirt track. The sky was dotted with puff buns and the plain rolled past. Passing vehicles kicked up dust bubbles which stuck to every available pore of moist skin. After about 20 minutes we turned off the main road towards a large singular mini-mountain, supported by a raw rock cliff face, its summit covered in greenery and topped by pointy temples: Phnom Sampeau. At this place was one of the many sites where the Khmer Rouge brutalized victims. We huffed up the steadily rising rock path, having parked the motorbike and sat down near a plain pagoda at the first plateau for a breather and some water. While the breeze and the palm shade comforted our heated condition, and while a monk put the finishing touches on what looked like a sculpture of a clay ostrich, Tih told me about his family’s experience of the Khmer Rouge.
Tih and his parents and siblings lived in Phnom Penh. They were told by the Khmer Rouge that because of fears of American bombing of the city, they should head out to the countryside for just a few days. Tih says they were very skeptical of the whole thing but seeing several people bullied and shot convinced them to listen. They took very little, just the clothes on their backs and, of course, lost everything they left behind. They, a family of urban dwellers, were forced to work in the heat and muck of rice paddies. They were not allowed to own anything at all. No food, no radios, no lighters – no material goods at all. The KR actually outlawed and abolished money. Tih described it as going back 2000 years to live with only the elements. (I have learned that it was all part of a horrifying and twisted plan by the Khmer Rouge to suddenly convert the entire country into a massive Maoist peasant agrarian society. It was as if the KR tried to implement pieces of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ — no possessions, no country, no religion but without ‘all the people, living life in peace’.) Tih described the onset of starvation, disease, death. He told me how his parents just disappeared one day. He also lost two of his four siblings. He could only stare straight ahead in what seemed to be intense and silent rage and sadness as he told me he could see it all like it was just yesterday. I could see him seeing it. This gentle, frail man sitting beside me was far away at that moment in a place he will never completely escape.
We continued to a natural cleft in the mountain rock, which had been turned into a pit of death by the KR. Tih took me to the bottom of the pit where a small cage piled with cracked skulls sat at angles askew, jaw-boneless silent screams, eye-sockets wide, with horror but blank, black and blind. Under the skulls sat a mound of limb bones. Tih pointed above to a hole in the rock, maybe ten or 12 metres above us. Up there, he said, people were bound, then bludgeoned or had their throats slit and were then hurled, dead or alive, into this pit to rot.
Further up the mountain we came to an army post, a former artillery canon position. From there an Africa-like vista of golden plain over which spires of cotton clouds hovered in the blue, to the end of the earth. A strange counter- point of life, of being alive to appreciate it. Just as we started down I ran into Hadas from Israel and David from S. Africa, a couple I had met on the boat to Battambang. We did the usual where from/been/to. After some water at the base of mountain we saddled up and all headed off to Wat Banan.
Now Tih and I were travelling on a narrow back-plains dirt ribbon. We slowed down to negotiate a road-works zone where dozens of locals, wrapped in scarves against the sun, worked with simple tools to improve the road. In a ditch by the roadside, workers used hacking hoes to chunk loose hunks of earth. These were then shoveled up onto the road where another group crushed the chunks and smoothed them. The only mechanized equipment was a steam-roller for final smoothing. Over his shoulder, and over the din of the motor, Tih explained that all the work in progress, and all the villages we passed in this area were encouraging signs. Only a couple of years ago this area was bereft of people and development because of KR attacks.
At Wat Banan, Tih begged off the climb to the top of the hill probably some 25 storeys worth. I couldn’t blame him. Dripping and huffing David, Hadas and I hit the top together where I expected quiet wind-whistled ruins. Instead, what welcomed us were the three ancient rickety-stone temples and, at their base a crowd of at least 100 people surrounding the entrance to the tallest temple. In front of that entrance stood an unremarkable looking woman except that she was dressed completely in white robes with a white bandana on her head; and she seemed to command everyone’s attention. Our sudden presence turned heads and caused some of the laughter I’ve become accustomed to over the last ten days or so. “Foreigners here?” laughter. The gathering seemed somewhat informal but the lady-in-white was definitely taking herself and her purpose seriously. Her incantations came in slow flowing, slightly musical phrases, almost evangelical. Then a few notes and drum beats from instrumentalists whose presence suddenly became apparent off to our right, and the leading lady started an awkward, un-graceful series of hops and twists, bending at the knee or waist or both, jumping on one foot and spinning part way around. A man standing near me told me it was a rain dance.
While the rain rite continued, I wandered ’round the back of the temples and there met a little shirtless boy, dirty, knee-length shorts. I asked him, in Khmer, his name but he was shy so I told him in Khmer, “My name is Lee” and asked him his again. He smiled, brilliant and beautiful, still shy and said (I think) “Ret”. He was playing with some small candles in his hand, so I took one and carved a bit of wax from it as he was doing. He seemed to like that. I then took his photo and showed it to him on the LCD screen of my camera and now he was my pal. We loped and leaped around and explored a side-temple. I used mime and sounds to “talk” with him.
When it was time for me to head down, I took out an Ontario pin and formally pinned it on Ret’s shorts as a thank you. As I said good-bye and walked towards the steps he zipped right along side me, taking lots of little barefooted steps to each of my strides. At the top of the stairs he took my hand and my heart almost liquefied and poured out through my toes. This poor little shirtless waif with the perfect neon smile. We raced down the stairs, no mean feat, given my floppy sandalled feet and the ancient, crumbly, uneven state of the stone steps. Ret flew along ahead of me, like a mini mountain goat but let me catch up a couple of times. At the bottom section I found my footing and really leaped along at a palpitating rate but Ret still waited from me on the bottom step which I thankfully reached without visions of a bone- snapping tumble having come true. Ret and I took the last step together.
Back by the motorbikes I sucked on water while Ret sat quietly nearby. Apparently David and Hadas had already left. The inevitable drink-seller lady approached to ask me, “You buy cold drink mister?” but I didn’t need. However, part way down the stairs Ret — apparently unimpressed with the Ontario pin offering – had stopped, taken it off and given it to an older woman. His mother? I wanted to leave him with something so I motioned him towards the ice box with the cold drinks inside. I kept pointing at him then the ice box and nodding my head. Slowly, shyly, he peeked into what may have previously been out-of-bounds, the local version of a childs treasure chest. He glanced at me and I nodded with raised eyebrows again. He looked at the drinks lady like she might slam the lid on his hand if he tried to take a drink. But she was smiling at him and held the lid open. He rummaged around a bit and pulled out a can of fruit juice. The drink lady thanked me as I paid her and Ret scrambled to a seat to drink. I said good-bye one more time and Tih revved the bike. We were gone.
Dark clouds were gathering in strips, slowly changing the light of day. Perhaps the rain dance was having the desired effect. We skirted the river for a while and soon were passing through village after village of thatched and wooden houses. My brief life as king and rock star began. From both sides of the dirt track, from within the poorest shacks, screams of “hello” and “goodbye” greeted me, allowing me to catch site of little rag-clad children waving and squealing beyond delight when I waved back. Some kids came charging across their yards to scream a greeting up close and I screamed back, trying not to miss anyone. Some kids already road-side went into spasms of joy if we high-fived. Tih did his part, slowing the bike so I could touch hands with as many of the kids as possible. So many absolutely gorgeous children, pure joy, happiness just from my passing by. At some places, little girls ran forth to thrust sticks or leaves into my hands. One little girl even gave me a beautiful hot-pink flower. The laying on of hands from across generations, nations, and the world — a universal bonding.
Hadas and David knocked on my door that evening an joined me for Kiddush the blessing over wine or, in my case, grape juice, at the start of Shabbat. It was absolutely a treat to be able to share my own ritual with friends, especially another Israeli.