Lining the banks of the great Mekong river at the southern end of the impressive new Japanese-funded Kizuma bridge, the quiet town of Kampong Cham, 3 hours north of Phnom Penh, will be my base for the next 8 weeks.
My task here is to learn to speak Khmer (or actually K’mai). I will need this to be able to communicate once I start work in December, as few if any people will speak English (or French for that matter) where I’m going.
This is mainly as I’ll be at a hospital in the remote Banchay Meachay province of NW Cambodia, which by all accounts will not be a hotbed of educated English speakers (though rumour has it there may be some French-educated doctors if I get really stuck). The lack of even French speakers is also of course a legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge era, when such ‘intellectuals’ were prime targets to be killed.
After a week of lessons I confess I’m finding it hard work. I haven’t studied this intensively for years - and the heat here really isn’t conducive to studying the finer points of adjectival verbs.
Not that I can complain: our teacher Dara is inspirational, not only through his energetic teaching, but even more as someone who survived the killing fields and learned English during 10 years in a Thai refugee camp. Given his history, his patience and constant good humour is impressive, not to mention humbling.
K’mai is not exactly easy for us barraing (westerners). For a start it has 33 consonants and no fewer than 23 vowels – a few more than ‘a e i o u’! Thankfully we’re not even attempting to learn the written language, which uses a huge and baffling alphabet of hieroglyphics.
It’s also difficult just because there is seldom any reference point for learning words – they just don’t sound like anything else, so are difficult to remember. So you have to be inventive: a rabbit-thief eating by the water in the Lake district gives me ‘po-cha-ni-yah-taan’ (poacher near tarn) so I can try to remember the word for ‘restaurant’. I may not be eating out too often.
On the other hand there are many up-sides – no tenses, no plurals, no genders and no tonality (by which I understand that a word doesn’t magically change meaning if your voice goes up at the end or something – linguists can correct me on that one).
And there are also some lovely words in K’mai. I find a beautiful simplicity in the verb to like (cho-chet – ‘to enter the heart’) and in bed-, bath- and dining-rooms (‘sleep-‘, water-‘ and ‘eat-rice’-rooms). Not to mention lashings of bongs, dongs and pongs to keep me amused.
The most useful phrase of all, I hope, will be ‘no problem’: ot pan-ya-haa!