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Monday, August 28, 2006


Married by the Khmer Rouge

Last week I made a mid-week visit to Phnom Penh. When I got on the bus to return home, a group of teenagers had already taken my usual spot on the back seat. I decided instead to sit right at the front behind the driver. There is some space behind the driver's seat which provides leg room. On a hot day the engine heat makes this spot unpleasant but it was overcast and therefore cooler than usual.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that it is easy to make friends in rural Cambodia. So before the bus had left the bus station, Sivtharin had sat next to me and we were getting to know each other.

She teaches English in Phnom Penh but had taken a few days off as her daughter had returned home from France. Sivtharin was on her way to the family home in Kompong Chhnang. She usually stays in a rented place in Phnom Penh.

Initially we just chatted, the usual stuff. In fact, I would say she was speaking but not listening. Because she had some knowledge of English I would offer a little extra information in answer to a question. If she asked, 'What do you do in Kompong Chhnang?' as well as answering that question I would add, 'I have been there six months.'

She would cut me off, saying 'yes' half way through my sentence. Then a few minutes later she would ask, 'How long have you been in Kompong Chhnang?'

I decided therefore to not contribute more to the conversation than was asked. Perhaps you could say I had written her off. Still we had 2 - 3 hours to spend together and we continued to chat on and off.

She said that she was 45. I add, as a matter of interest, that she is still quite attractive so had probably been quite a beautiful young woman in her time.

She is divorced and has three children, all daughters. She started to catch my attention again when she told me she was married by the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Apparently she had no say in the matter, it was like she was given to this man. She did have a choice—marry him or be shot. Thirty couples were married in the one ceremony.

She tells me that he beat her every day. She showed me scars on her forearms. She had three daughters within six years and then divorced him.

She raised her daughters by herself and then 'married them to foreigners'. She would not allow them to marry Cambodians. Her daughters have all gone to live in France and Sivtharin said, proudly I thought, that none of her grandchildren speak Khmer.

That night, when Vanna came to visit I talked to him about this. He said, that his parents too were married by the Khmer Rouge. Neither had a choice. They were given to each other and expected to make a go of it. His parents are in my age bracket and they are still together.

He also added that the Khmer Rouge would invite people who thought they might be a bit smarter to apply for special jobs. But his father had heard this was a trick. The intelligent were under suspicion as potential dissidents and were in danger of being shot. His father wisely acted dumb and survived.


Sarun has spent a few days in Phnom Penh which means I have had a few days alone in my home. When he returned today he told me that his daughter's husband has taken a job in another province. The husband will move to Kompong Thom but she will stay in her home about ten kilometers from us in Kompong Chhnang. Therefore Sarun will go to stay with her and I will have the place to myself from now on.

I had reservations about him staying on here when I first moved in but I now have no regrets. He is a kind, gentle and intelligent man. There are some idiosyncrasies about this place that I am glad I have had him around to guide me through. We have become good friends and I think he is now more relaxed about leaving his house in my hands.

I am actually feeling quite comfortable in my home. Yes, it has some challenges. But I like it and apart from the weddings, funerals and festivals that are held regularly within hearing distance my life is not too bad. I share my house with some interesting wildlife. If you look at my wildones flickr page you can see some of it. The latest is mice. I have invested in a Buddhist mousetrap that will allow me to transfer them into the bush. I hope they are not homing mice. I have not had much success for the first three nights of setting the trap. So far, the mice are proving to be smarter than me.

There is a classroom under the house next door—Sarun's relatives—and he has transferred his classes there. He will travel in from his daughter's house every day and stay from 7 am to 6 pm. It will be almost like he hasn't left. I am now teaching three classes a week. Which is as much as I want at the moment. I am spending most of my free time studying Khmer and I'm pleased to say that I can see myself improving every day—but I still have a long way to go.

Some friends have warned me to be careful of catching dengue fever. I had not thought about dengue. I had been trying to avoid malaria. But you can catch dengue almost anywhere. You can get it in North Queensland, Australia and one of my colleagues caught it in Mahasarakham, Thailand. The guide books stress simply to avoid being bitten at all costs. And I have to admit that I am a bit too casual about it. Unfortunately I think it is almost impossible to avoid being bitten. In Australia we also have mosquitos but they don't like me very much. The Cambodian ones are very fond of me. They must enjoy the flavour of exotic meat. My friends' email has motivated me to try a little harder. I brought some citronella oil and some massage oil with me from Australia. I put a few drops of citronella in the massage oil and spread it over my exposed areas. But it is a matter of remembering to put it on before the mosquitos find me. And I'm not sure what to do with the bath. It is a traditional SE Asian style bath, where you take water out of a tub and throw it over your body. It is down the back so there are always mosquitoes waiting there for me. The bathroom is their maternity ward. But there is no point putting any citronella on because I'm only going to wash it off. Help!!!

Before I moved in here I bought a rechargeable camping light and torch. They have proved to be useful as we have blackouts at least every second day. Apparently they're putting in some new equipment and until the installation is finished half the town is turned off during peak hours each day.

So, how's life going for you in the 'developed' world?

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