Search Terms that have led you to this Savong School Blog

Search Terms that have led you to this Savong School Blog

This blog has been going for a while so I thought I’d investigate what search terms have led visitors to this site. A handy word cloud reveals all: a lot of people are trying to find out when on earth Cambodians celebrate their many holidays! Good question: the 2016 holidays are posted right here. While you’re here, you are welcome to click the FOLLOW button and to learn more about our school project and about the culture and life in Cambodia. Good to meet you!

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The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

New Year – 2009, an emotional memory

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The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.

New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.

At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is  two senior friends of Savong’s father.  One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.

So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.

I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.

At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”

But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.

Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”

Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”

It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.

This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.

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New Year 2014

Followers of my blog will have noticed a slowdown in my output lately. Even as recently as January I could be chunking out three items per day, but by late February and March I was struggling to output that many articles per week. The reason for this, as it turns out, is that I have Parkinson’s disease, and have been finding it increasingly difficult to use a keyboard and type efficiently. This brief entry today marks a return for me. What you are reading has been dictated using dictation software. Picture me, sitting at my computer, hands folded behind my head, and me dictating openly while I listen to music. Right now I’m listening to the Searching for Sugarman soundtrack by Rodriguez.

I have to say it has been most frustrating for me lately! Everything I do in my life, my work and my interests, is about telling stories, and when the doctor told me that I had Parkinson’s disease I went through a brief grief period in which I pictured life where I would be unable to communicate adequately. Thank goodness technology has evolved as far as it has.

So today I have a brief message to you and to my friends in Cambodia. Happy New Year and my best wishes to all of you. We are all on interesting journeys, and I am reminded that while I have a few challenges of my own these pale in comparison to the challenges faced by the young people I know in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Bless you all.

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Book Review – Destination Cambodia

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Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.

Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’

Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.

He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”

Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.

The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.

That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”

For two more book reviews:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia

Romvong – the Khmer Circle dance

Rom Vong - the Khmer Circle dance

I took this photo at a wedding I attended in 2011. I’m always a bit shy in these circumstances – I didn’t know either the bride or groom, and so I kind of retreated behind my camera and took in the atmosphere which, in the large Siem Reap reception room was really noisy – with families and friends seated at round tables, shouting and laughing over the din, and competing noise-wise with a live band up on stage.

Some music was western and fairly karaoke in style, but the music that gets everyone on the dancefloor is the local Romvong style.

It is distinctly Cambodian, though the arrangements – at least to my ears – have elements of French folk music as well. Perhaps there was a fusion at least in the choice of instruments and sounds, during the French colonial period of much of the 20th Century.

In an any case the distinct rhythm gets everyone up on the dancefloor and cheerfully moving en-masse in a slow circle each person moving their hands gracefully.

“Ramvong dance has been performed in Cambodia for as long as anyone can remember,” says Wikipedia. “Both Khmers and other ethnic groups like Phnong, Krung, Tompuon and Prou people have performed this circular dance style since ancient times.”

The music has a languid beat, and is underpinned by steady bass guitar. The melody is provided by vocals and woodwind while a wooden xylophone, usually via a modern keyboards, provides much of the Khmer texture. Have a listen to a typical example.

As I stood on the sidelines total strangers waved at me, inviting me to join the circle, and eventually I did so, feeling uncomfortable at first: the only white guy in the room. But soon I felt part of the throng, no longer the individual but a part of a community.

See also: More on Khmer Music