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First Chapters
September Issue

Sharon Leach
“Some people don’t believe in religion, aren’t afraid of hell,” he says.

It’s hard to judge his age; his face is worn and his eyes are wary, but his smile is quick and bright. He tells me later on that he was around twelve during the terrible famine that I remember seeing on the television. I guess that would make him around mid thirties. When I was at Primary School, Cambodian was the name you called out to skinny kids in the playground. When Keo was twelve, he tells me, there wasn’t enough rice, so he had to eat the bark of a papaya tree to stay alive. He tells me this as though he were talking about someone else. I am not meant to pity him. Today, he is taking me to the Angkor ruins on a shiny moped. 

Sometimes, I feel like one of EM Forster’s characters; blindly, ignorantly well meaning. I ask Keo what he does when he’s not showing people around Angkor, assuming that he does this on his day off. “This is my job,” he says without malice. Polite small talk turns sour in my mouth. I am paying him US$12 a day. I bargained for this price, as if it were some kind of game, as if $2 meant a lot to me. I was pleased with my deal, imagining how I would boast about my tough, no nonsense bargaining skills back in the bars of Phnom Penh. My stomach churns. The road to Banteay Srei is bumpy and full of potholes. My shrieks as I am thrown airborne, then land again on the seat, make him chuckle. I imagine he thinks I am silly to make such a fuss, clamping my hat to my head with one hand, clinging to the back of the moped with the other. 

It is as if only he and I are on the road this morning, flanked either side with paddy fields of the most vibrant and full-of-life green I think I have ever seen. The sun glitters in the water, like a glitzy backdrop to a Disney movie. I half expect to hear a theme tune playing as we travel along on the shiny moped. 

Keo laughs because I want to stop and take photos of a fat wet water buffalo wallowing in grey mud. This makes me feel a little sheepish, but I suppose I would laugh if someone wanted to take a photograph of a Friesian cow. He tells me that the buffalo are fat in the wet season, but skinny in the dry season because there is no food. This is how he puts it, “no food’. I can’t understand how there can be no food, thinking perhaps this is an idiom for not much food, but then I imagine a twelve year old boy chewing the bark of a papaya tree. 

We pass houses on stilts with washing blowing in the warm breeze, fat pigs snuffling and shuffling, as if they own the place. My heartbeat slows to the sleepy rhythm of my surroundings, until two small boys, naked and big-brown-eyed, burst from the greenery on a bicycle that is far too big for them. I laugh and they wave and smile at me and Keo on a shiny moped, as their bicycle wobbles precariously, little brown legs, stretching to reach the pedals. 

It’s hard to imagine that the Khmer Rouge and the army fought so furiously along this road. Keo says that all you could hear both day and night was the sound of guns from the fighting along this road. I try to imagine what it must have been like, but can’t. We pass a khaki hammock swinging innocuously in the wind on the roadside. These are the Guardian’s hammocks. Ordinary people needed protection. The Guardians watched both day and night. There was always danger along this road. Keo says that Cambodians have always been peaceful people. He blames the troubles on loss of faith. “Some people don’t believe in religion, aren’t afraid of hell,” he says. For instance, when his mother was ill, a doctor said she only had two days left before she would die. Keo went to see a monk. The monk chanted all day for Keo’s mother. He told Keo, “Your mother isn’t going to die.”

She didn’t die. I have known Keo for about four hours and he tells me this. I feel honoured that he trusts me, and I listen with humility, making a gift out of my patience and understanding, but it seems that for Keo, this isn’t about trust. He tells me this as though he is giving me a lesson, a gift from him to me. Keo is named after a Buddhist temple. His faith is important to him.
“There are no mines here,” he says, as we pass a truck from the Halo Trust.

 We eat lunch outside a temple that looks to me like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I do not tell him that’s what I think. Keo eats rice and cucumber. I try to tempt him with other options on the menu, not wishing him to think that he can only choose the cheapest meal. “This is what Cambodian’s eat,” he says simply. I try not to think of a little boy chewing the bark of a papaya tree. 

For polite conversation, I ask Keo about his children, for example, do they go to school? What I meant was, are they old enough to go to school yet? “School costs 10000 Riel a year,” is Keo’s reply. This is the same price as my lunch. I am disgusted with myself. I cannot finish my noodles with beef and vegetables, but I don’t want Keo to see. I chew, but cannot swallow my food. I feel my face burn, but Keo is perhaps too polite to notice. 

As we leave the ancient city of Angkor Thom, I remark on how eerie I think it that many of the heads of the deities are missing. I expect to hear tales of magic; mysterious legends of great kings and evil spirits. Keo has told me many of these stories at various points on our journey. Keo says very simply that the Vietnamese stole many treasures when they came to Cambodia. To take the stone heads seems to me far more sinister than mindless vandalism. He says they cut down many of Cambodia’s beautiful forests because the wood is valuable. They also ate many Cambodian dogs. “It’s true! Vietnamese eat dogs!” He laughs at the statement on my face. Keo is disgusted by corruption. 
When we ride past the Crocodile Farm, Keo tells me that the Khmer Rouge used to feed people to the crocodiles. I study his face closely hoping to see that he is joking. 
When I leave Siem Reap, he holds my hands in his hands. This makes me smile shyly. “I wish you luck,” he says. I think this is rather an odd thing for him to say to me, but by his eyes, I know he truly means it. I wish you luck too, Keo. It’s about time.

© Sharon Leach 2001

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Sharon is a professional writer - this is her first piece for Hackwriters

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