My friend and colleague Dr Jerker recently gave me a copy of this beautifully-written book by Liz Anderson, a VSO volunteer in Cambodia in 1991.
Whilst written nearly twenty years ago, many of her descriptions are just as pertinent today.
Here are my favourite bits:
On socks: It was James’ pink socks that made the most impression on me that first day; amazingly they were still flashing about when we left two years later
On Cambodians: Two attributes of the complex Cambodian character we learned immediately; they are gregarious, and they are noisy
On traffic: The rule of the road is, officially, keep to the right, but unofficially it is the law of the bullyboy. Biggest is best and woe betide you if you forget it
On hotels: The overpowering stench of other people’s urine must have been enormously titillating to the resident family of cockroaches who after all had got there first
On nosiness: It was fortunate that we liked the chambermaid, for she spent an increasing amount of time in our room… She used to invite her friends and relations, too. A half empty bottle of rice wine under our bed was a sure sign that her husband had been visiting
On learning Khmer: Their language in theory should not be difficult to learn, for there is little in the way of grammar, just a multitude of words. But these are words the like of which we had never heard before… Everything had to be written down phonetically in a series of exercise books [which] bore, in English, the blue printed legend ‘The Solid and Commodious Note Book that is Starched is Very Useful for Study’
On learning Khmer (2): Dara was an excellent teacher, living up to his name which means ‘a star’… We laughed a great deal, at ourselves and at each other, but mainly at our comedian of a school-master, whose great fat belly continuously wobbled and bounced in time to his guffaws and giggles.
On learning Khmer (3): Apparently all that is needed to transform the teaching of prepositions is for a pupil to fall OFF a bike INTO a hole, or FROM a bike DOWN a hole, or… the variety, in Dara’s hands, was unending. And it was all accompanied by pictures on the board of pin-men fling THROUGH the air, and of course by huge fat wobbly chuckles
On illness: the diarrhea that was a continuously lurking and insidious unpleasantness, something we never really learn to live with
On stories of Khmer Rouge suffering: After moths of near starvation, he and his family had eventually reached the refugee camp… On arrival they were given food but warned to eat it slowly; their stomachs, accustomed for so long to little but water with a few grains of rice floating in it to make a ‘soup’, would be unable to cope with a big meal. For Dara’s little brother, the warning fell on deaf ears. He was a hungry child with food in front of him, and he ate. He died as a result
On the fall of Lon Nol: To uncaring outside observers, the whole thing smacked of farce. The world laughed at his tiny general, who had tiny furniture built to make him look tall by comparison. They laughed at the name of his military spokesman, Am Rong. The tears would come all too soon
On US bombing of Cambodia: Although officially out of the war, the US still needed their Cambodian ally to continue ‘their’ war against the communists. The Nixon administration sanctioned the bombing of the Khmer Rouge, and for two hundred days and nights a fleet of B52s dropped another 250,000 bombs on Cambodian soil
On work ethic: Pot Pot’s… whole idea was based on a ethic of work, work that was relentless and without respite
On life under Khmer Rouge: Dancing and music, idle conversation, even lovemaking, were banned
On street sounds: All sorts of wares were on mobile sale. There was the ice cream van, a handcart pushed by its owner, the bell on its shaft struck regularly in time to his step… Bread sellers mounted on bicycles declared their wares, the mournful ‘Noom-pang’… But my favourites were the noodle sellers, in early mornings and late evenings. A young boy would stroll down the street, tapping a stick on a flute-sized bamboo. The rhythm was intricate and the site of impact wandered up and down the bamboo, creating different notes. The result was a wistful almost-tune that to all of us came to encapsulate the whole scene. Following several minutes later came the hand pushed trolley, hot Chinese noodles aboard.
On music: Music was everywhere. All Cambodian ceremonial events have their own accompaniment, seemingly played as loudly as possible. A marriage or a death celebrated in a residential street, sometimes for days on end, can literally drive neighbours out of house and home…
On hospitals: Row upon row of rusty iron bedsteads without mattresses or bed-clothes, each with its drip-stand supporting a virulent yellow infusion bag, the contents couloured by a mixture of useless vitamins. Drips are an obsession, to every Cambodian and essential part of treatment on admission to hospital. That such ‘remedies’ could do far more harm than good was a very hard lesson for the Khmer doctors to learn
On the Mekong: An immense and awe-inspiring stretch of water, always a turgid milk chocolate brown and speckled with picturesque fishing boats
On rich and poor: The swimming pool at the Cambodiana… To the younger and more idealistic volunteers the comparison produced a huge philosophical dilemma. We were not here as tourists… To us old ones, hardened to the ways of the world, this posed little problem, I regret to say… But some could never bring themselves to go there. The contrast was too great.
On the Khmer Rouge: We had read about the murder of children by the simple expedient of swinging their heads against a tree. We had read of the typical case of the mother lashed to a treetrunk, watching her new baby laid on the ground to die of heat stroke, carefully placed just outside her reach… But sitting book in hand in a comfortable chair in a comfortable English home, such stories… had seemed disconnected from our own lives that their reality could be shirked. Now we could no longer avoid confronting the undeniable truth that these things had actually happened, here by the steps on which we sat
On schoolchildren: Perhaps it is the uniformity of colour not just of shirts but of hair too that makes massed Asian schoolchildren look so much smarter than their European counterparts
On the seaside: There can be few who have suffered a damp and near naked embrace by a Corsican bandit in the languid waters of the South China Sea
On volunteering: This was why we had come, why we were putting up with heat, sweat, mosquitoes, infected sores, diarrhea and emotional slaughter