Walking through Angkor BanApril 8 in Cambodia
This afternoon we had another experience that we would not have had if we were traveling on our own — we visited the village of Angkor Ban, spoke with an elderly woman who lived in the town, and then visited a class where students were learning English.
Angkor Ban is a small, but typical village in Cambodia, close to the border of Vietnam. About 200 families live in the village, but the families are large and multi-generational, so there are a total of 1700 inhabitants in the village The village was emptied during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but was never bombed. So, most of the buildings were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, and the village looks quite similar to how it looked at that time. Everyone in the village engages in farming, and the educational opportunities for children are pretty limited. As in many Cambodian towns, there is a large temple complex, in which monks live. The temple forms the heart of the village, both literally and figuratively.
Walking through the village was like stepping back in time. There is electricity, but no running water. Rainwater is gathering in huge vessels for drinking and cooking. Clothes are washed at the river. Children are bathed in a small basin. All of the farming work is done by hand. Cows, ducks and chickens wander freely through the village. While people appear well-fed, the poverty is crushing. It is truly hard to imagine anyone leaving the village and experiencing economic success.
As we wandered through the village, Sophea walked up to an old woman who was chewing betel nuts. He asked her if she’d be willing to talk to us, and she graciously agreed. We learned that she is 85 years old, and with the exception of the years in which the Khmer Rouge forced her family to move, she has lived in the village her entire life. (I found it surprising that her family was relocated, as a poor farmer couldn’t possibly pose any threat to the Khmer Rouge.) She had 11 children, although 2 died during the war. When someone asked her how many grandchildren she had, she laughed and said that it was too many to count. She has never spent a night in the hospital, and has never had any serious health problems. She donates her time to care for the monks in the village, and lives with some of her children. She chews betel every day, and has for the last forty years. When Sophea asked her if she was addicted to chewing betel, she said she was not, but that she liked to do it every day. She also demonstrated how to created a betel bundle for chewing (it looked disgusting).
As people asked her about where she lived, she invited everyone to go upstairs and see her house. A group of us walked up the narrow, steep staircase and marveled that an 85 year old woman could manage these steps each day . . . of course, what alternative does she have? The house, which is considered quite large by village standards, was approximately 300 square feet. The floor was made of split bamboo, as were the walls. The ceiling was corrugated tin. Most of the house was a large room, devoid of any furniture except a small cabinet and desk. There was a small room on the side, with a “bed” made of twine. Running across the back of the house was a long, narrow room that functioned as a kitchen. In it was a two burner hot plate that was used for cooking. I have no idea how many people live in the house, but there were bed rolls pushed against the walls. On the walls were almost a dozen framed photos of family members, including the grandmother. With the exception of the electricity, the house probably looks exactly as it did in 1918, or 1818.
After taking our leave of the grandmother, we walked to a school in the village. Inside were 60 students, ages 8-18, who were learning English. The teacher came to the town once a week, to teach the children who choose to attend. No tuition is charged. The school is a large hut, which lacks walls. There are fans on the ceiling that were donated by the cruise company. There is single white board at the front of the classroom, and mimeograph booklets that are given to the children so that they can learn to read. When we first arrived, i was struck by the fact that there were far, far more girls in the classroom than boys. When I asked Sophea about this, he explained that the boys had to work in the field, while the girls were given the opportunity to study. The children greeted us warmly, and invited us to sit down next to them. We all had an opportunity to chat with the kids, and have them read to us (we were asked to correct their pronunciation, as they have almost no chance for individualized instructions). In talking to two adorable girls, I realized that they had good decoding skills, but didn’t really understand what they were reading. And, while they had obviously learned some basic phrases for discussion (what is your name, how many sisters and brothers do you have, what do you want to be when you grow up), they had limited ability to go beyond those questions. Obviously, some learning some English is much better than learning none, but I was again struck by the limits that are part of the lives of these children. As we left, we all gave school supplies to the teacher, which he would distribute among the students. Spending a little time with these kids was a very bittersweet experience.Read more