Cambodia Part Five - Time to Leave
It was a Christmas unlike any other. There was food and music but no turkey and no Jingle Bells. There was a tinsel-covered tree but it stood alongside palm trees whose festive decorations took the form of coconuts; and there was a hot sun baking the earth at 35 degrees – certainly not conditions that heralded the arrival of snow.
But there was certainly one thing that made it like Christmas at the orphanage in Cambodia – presents.
Obviously Christmas is not celebrated in Asia but the festivities (with around 200 people) had been organised at the guest house I was staying at as a sort of treat for all the children.
After a dinner of beef, noodles and Khmer jelly, they assembled in front of the house in anticipation, waiting to receive gifts that had been put together by the NFO workers and some volunteers. One by one they were handed bags containing pencils, hats, jewellery and school books whilst getting a round of applause from everyone who gathered around to watch. As well as their individual presents, the kids received a giant box of LEGO that had been shipped over by Petia and Elisha – the volunteers from Australia – and their mum.
They had spent the last few weeks creating and painting a table to hold the bricks and, after it was moved to the orphanage classroom the next day, the kids dived straight in. Of course it didn’t take long for the colourful blocks to be strewn all over the floor, and the rest of the orphanage.
(Though it was today that I felt a little homesick, it was actually quite heart-warming to see the kids collect their gifts and having such a good time).
The rest of the day was spent dancing to music blasted from giant speakers and having some drinks under the marquee. However the celebrations couldn’t finish without a stint at the local karaoke bar.
The next few days were spent preparing for the refurbishment of the small medical room at the orphanage. The ceiling and walls were going to be repainted, the floor was going to be tiled and new cabinets would be stocked with medical equipment and first aid.
But for now most of the work would have to wait as I was heading back to Phnom Penh for New Year with Petia, Elisha, their mum and another volunteer from the orphanage, Sigrid.
We took the bus to the capital on Hogmanay and after a bit of shopping we got ready to go out. After some drinks and food, we made our way to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club – a sprawling bar over several floors with balconies that overlook the Tonlé Sap River. On the top floor we drank cocktails and danced on tables before taking in the New Year watching a fireworks display, the bursts of coloured light exploding over the people that filled the streets below us. We rounded things off by going to a well-known nightclub before turning in for the night.
A couple of days later (On New Year's Day itself I went to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek) I explored Phnom Penh with Sigrid, visiting Wat Phnom – a hilltop temple that was full of incense and paintings on the walls and ceiling – and drinking the bright condensed milk drinks I had come to love.
Back in Takeo (where we returned to after going on the expat-organised charity food run again) I found myself thinking about the next leg of my travels outside Cambodia. After abandoning plans to go to Vietnam, I was going to make my way to the Thai border via the riverside town of Kampot and the beach resort, Sihanoukville, before spending a few days in Thailand itself. From Bangkok I would then fly to Sydney, and I admit I was looking forward to the Westernised world.
I spent my last few days at the orphanage helping refurbish the medical room and painting three huge water urns: I drew around some of the children’s hands, and my own, with a marker over the brightly-coloured paint – acting as a kind of reminder of my time there with them, which was suddenly at an end.
The last day at the orphanage was quite strange. I definitely felt ready to move on but as all the kids gathered at the gates to wave goodbye, there was a sudden rush of emotion and I realised how difficult it would be to leave.
As I walked along the dusty road and passed the shop where I bought noodles and ice-cold drinks on an almost daily basis, the children continued to stand at the gate, frantically waving and shouting goodbye. Turning around every few seconds to do the same, I made my way back to the house, away from the orphanage, away from the children and from one of the most memorable experiences I will ever have…
*It is eerily appropriate that I should be reflecting on my time on Cambodia for the last time now, in writing at least, the same week that a huge part of the country’s troubled history is brought to the fore.
Kaing Guek Eav, the former chief of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh who had overseen the torture and deaths of around 16,000 people, was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Monday after being found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This was reduced however to 19 after time already served was taking into consideration. If he were to be granted parole, he might only serve 13.
A handful of people who had survived S-21 gathered outside the court house in Phnom Penh to hear the sentence of Kaing Guek Eav (better known as Duch). After weeping in relief, their feelings quickly turned to anger at what they felt were too little a punishment.
However small the result may or may not be, it must surely go some way into putting to rest the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and what Cambodia endured not so very long ago.
However the reminders will always be there – the rusting bars at S-21 and the skulls held tightly in a glass case in the Killing Fields, almost waiting for something still to happen.
In the aftermath of Duch’s trial, one survivor writes: “I want Duch to be in jail for life. I want him to do forced labour, like the prisoners in Tuol Sleng. He should be blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back... He should apologise to the bones."
*written in July 2010