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Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Village festival

On Saturday night La picked me up on his bicycle to take me to a village on the other side of town where they were holding their village festival. Apparently we arrived a little late as the festivities were well under way. I was sat down at a table, otherwise filled with young women in traditional costume, and given some food. I expressed disappointment when told that I had missed the dancing. But they assured me they would get it going again.

All these girls were quite intrigued to have me sitting with them but none of them tried to engage me in conversation or responded when I spoke to them in English. My Khmer is not up to the chatting-up-ladies level yet. When the dancing eventually started again La took my camera and after a quick lesson he became the photographer for the night.

I'm not sure if the young woman who had the honour of dancing with me was pleased or not. They obviously spend a lot of time learning the movements for their traditional dances and here was this barung making a mess of it all.

We sat down after a while and I tried taking a few photos. I wanted to get the girls in their costumes but they were remarkably shy, compared to Thais I have photographed in similar situations. La explained that few of them speak English and most of them work in the garment factory that is on my side of town. This factory must be huge. When I return from Phnom Penh on the bus it apparently coincides with the end of a shift. There are literally thousands of young women coming out of the factory and heading into town—on bicycles, motorcycles and in the backs of trucks. The place must employ a huge percentage of the young female population of Kompong Chhnang.

Back to the festival—the dancing was started up once again and another partner was found for me. This one responded more enthusiastically and at least smiled most of the time (see photo).

After this segment ended I was given some dessert. I noticed that the girls were going home and returning in modern Western outfits. It seems that as soon as the obligatory dancing was over they couldn't wait to get out of their traditional costumes.

There were a few there who were English students at Wat Xam, one of whom invited me to see her house. The house was highset and the steps were steep with no railings. From the verandah I could see that the front of the house was bare timber but the side walls were of palm leaves. Inside the front room were bare floorboards. The gaps between the boards were wide enough in places for a foot to go through. There were also many gaps in the palm-leaf cladding.

The room was almost bare. Some clothes were hung on a railing placed diagonally across one corner. In another corner were two huge speakers from a PA system. In another corner was a TV set and karaoke system which all looked quite flash to me. A couple of mats were brought in and placed on the floor and then, as an afterthought, it seemed, a chair. I was beckoned to sit on the chair which was pointed towards the TV which was duly turned on.

It became obvious that I had been brought in to admire the TV set. But I could not help but notice the impoverished setting it was placed in. I know it is not for me to judge how other people choose to live but I must admit to a feeling of disappointment. It seems that the best we in the West can offer to improve the lives of these people is modern dress and TV sets.

I am reminded of a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon that appeared in the paper not long before I last left Oz. Calvin was lying on the floor reading a book and says to Hobbes, 'It says here that religion is the opiate of the masses. I wonder what that means.'

The next panel of the cartoon showed a TV set saying, 'It means Karl Marx ain't seen nothing yet.'

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