Over the years I have found that Savong very rarely talks about himself. What I know of him has come through in little snatches of conversation, and in things I have observed. I am a researcher by profession, and normally I ask a lot of questions. But when I’m with Savong, I tend to see little walls put up around himself, and out of politeness seldom venture into the territory of his own life.
One aspect of Savong’s life that I find fascinating is his relationship with his father.
Savong’s father was around 25 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and as a young man he was recruited as a cook for the local soldiers. after the war Savong’s father and a good friend gathered bones from the local killing fields based halfway between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and he donated family land in order to build Wat Thmei, otherwise known as the Killing Fields Pagoda, where Savong was educated. Savong’s father was a Buddhist monk, but these days he serves as a adviser on things spiritual as well as practical, and he also serves as a fortune teller for locals. In these regards he is highly esteemed.
Fortune-telling? For Westerners this seems like a dubious title. Honestly, how can one tell the future? In fact a lot of the advisory work he carries out is based not so much on reading the future as on reading the body language of his clients. He once told me that an important part of this work was to observe how is clients sit, how they stand, and how they walk. “You can tell a lot about a person from just watching these things,” he explained to me.
However here is a true story that makes me think that us Westerners may be missing a dimension in our lives that Cambodian Buddhists take for granted.
The year is 2006, and at that stage Savong’s School had just been built, and consisted of three classrooms in the middle of a rural field. Sharing the field was a small thatch hut in which Savong lived. One day, (it was early morning, before dawn,) Savong was woken from a sleep by a phone call from his father.
“Savong,” his dad told him, “get out of bed very slowly.”
“What is it?” asked Savong.
“Under your bed,” explained his father, “there is something very dangerous.”
So Savong very carefully rose from his bed and then, using the little torchlight of his phone, peered underneath the simple wooden bed. There, curled up and asleep, was a python.”
“It was this long,” Savong told me, stretching his arms out wide. ” It was at least 2 m long.”
I have wondered since then how Savong’s father knew that there was danger under Savong’s bed. What little voice had prompted him to make that call early in the morning before dawn?
See also: Ghosts in the Cambodian Schoolyard