Two Weeks off the Grid

ADVOCATE BLOG: Two Weeks Off the Grid at Koh Ker Primary

By Victoria Balenger, PLF Advocate who spent two weeks living in Koh Ker and Srayang

It’s Sunday in Cambodia, and I wanted to write, as it’s been quite the few days. Last week at breakfast at the guesthouse there was a couple from Colorado who had graduated from college last June, and they asked me what I was doing here and I gave a quick summary. He asked has it been crazy amazing? And I said yes, it sure has.

P1030818They had a bit of a do over the fact they’d left their malaria medicine in their luggage but weren’t really sure where the bags were, as they had gone to their destination and they had decided to spend the night here after seeing the temples all day, and anyway she made what was I’m sure a very expensive call to her doctor uncle in the states, and they decided they couldn’t miss a day of their doxycycline and were having their guides bring their bags to them. It was interesting to watch this all, and to think about how much it takes to get to this far part of the world, and then different perceptions of what we are all doing and seeing and being here.

As a contrast to a couple of German girls who also came through last week, one of them a distant sort of not really relative of Torsten’s, both of whom are 19 and would be on the road for four months for their gap year before university. They’d spent six weeks in Wietnam, as they said, and two weeks in Cambodia and were on the way to Thailand for six weeks and then to India for two. They had had some real adventures and were headed for more, certainly in India I’d guess where one of them had been in high school and she wanted to return. They spent the day touring here yesterday with Torsten and Ty and Dieb, the two tour guides, and I taught Torsten’s classes at the dormitory and was the resident adult for much of the day, as the house mother was out.


A student studies Khmer in a Koh Ker Primary School classroom.

That was pretty interesting. I hadn’t done so much with the older students, and the 8th grade class is not cohesive and is mostly boys who don’t understand English, and the 9th grade class was bouncy and lively, and I read Where the Wild Things Are to them (as I did to the 8th and 7th graders), and then we talked about imaginary and real, and lonely, and dreams, and what they want to do after 9th grade, and what that will mean, and we’d gone a half an hour over and they were still sitting looking at me and I said we’re done for the day and they said done? and I said class is over, we are finished, and they said will you teach tomorrow? and I said tomorrow is Sunday, and they said will you teach Monday? And I said I’ll be in Koh Ker, but maybe after.

Yes, it has been crazy amazing, in pretty much every way. I’ve been to the temple sites three days now, as Ty wanted to practice and we saw different ones each time, at the smaller sites almost always we were the only ones, and one day Ty and Dieb and I walked through the forest and they showed me carvings on the rocks of Vishnu and Ganesh. They take their visitors to a tree in the village where they had first and second grade, as it was the first time for any school there as in Sunflowers of Srayang, and they sat on the ground and one bench, and the woman who is now the house mother, Sieng Ry, taught them some Khmer on a slate, as that was all they had and she was the only one who knew, and she had only gone to 4th grade before the Khmer Rouge.

Dieb took a young Italian fellow on a tour last week, as Torsten met him while biking through the village when the fellow asked where the temples are, although he was walking nowhere near them. He was only interested in ancient architecture he said, but then Dieb took him around to the village when he decided to go, and they went to the school tree. Torsten later asked Dieb what the traveler thought about that, and Dieb said he was sad, which is new realization for Dieb and Ty, to see the world through their traveler’s eyes, as well as to see the visitors seeing what they have grown up with, as they used to take their cows through the temple sites and the children, even tiny ones are free ranging, and go far on their own.


Students study in the classroom at Koh Ker Primary School.

And there will be changes, which have begun, with the road into the village and temples being completed since I was here last year, and now sometimes there are large buses out from Siem Reap usually over the noon hour and then they drive back. Ty and I had a coconut in the village one day while we were temple hopping, and watched a bus of Spaniards (from a sign in the window as they passed us while we were driving back) and every guy had a huge camera hanging from his front, and they were pillowy soft, and seemed not particularly interested as they ambled off and along, while the Cambodian women at noodle/trinket stands were calling to them. The movie that will be partly filmed here seems to be a pretty big deal with the guesthouse putting up a new building to house people, which will be finished by Jan 7th. I assume Cambodians will stay there, as there are also new squat toilets going in, and I can’t imagine any moneyed western folks using those. The village will be busy and it will surely be more contact than everything put together so far.

So it goes, it seems. It has been crystalline to be here at this moment, and to have such access, to the village and the kidlets, and the high school students in the dorm. I am staying a few extra days in Srayang, and then back to Siem Reap on Wed, and a warmish shower, which I would say will be really nice, and a clean towel and sheets. There is laundry done here at the guesthouse and hung out, rows of it each day, but I never see towels or sheets for not really understandable reasons. My towel is still with me, as I asked again for another, but it was so sour smelling (although it looks new) that it was difficult to use, and my towel (yup I was sure) ended up folded, unwashed and back on a bench outside my room, so I brought it on in again.

Breakfast has improved dramatically, and the older sister at the guesthouse and I are friends. The German girls asked for a knife for their laughing cow, and then my plate had a knife on it the next morning, and I said wow, thank you, and the sister smiled. I went to the market with them yesterday morning, three to a motorbike (and watched the gas process: a liter of gas from a Coke bottle on a wooden stand goes in the tank being swirled through a funnel, then the fellow siphoned some more into bottles by sucking on a hose and guiding the gas into them from a large plastic container with his finger) and we bought fish that were still alive, and many vegetables, and I bought more of the tiny clementines from a lady boy with lipstick and a lisp, the only one I’ve seen.


Two students put a puzzle together in the Koh Ker Primary School library.


There are enduring vignettes: Sunday movie night at the dorms at 6:30, which is dark, and watching the Phnom Penh Post reporter Sambath Thet’s self financed ten year project/research/movie about the Khmer Rouge and Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, and his confessions to Sambath about the genocide, with 40 young Cambodians at the dormitory. The movie is in English and Khmer, and is harrowingly true, with toothless farmers in northwestern Cambodia, which is where we were sitting, being interviewed about the killing–1.75 million in four years–and how it was accomplished and the ditches where the bodies were dumped which bubbled up as if boiling from the decomposing gases. The students seemed pretty non plussed, but I was thinking about the images for days. Maybe it’s all simply too much, which it is, and these students have been through some serious childhood circumstances, as well.Our early morning rides to Koh Ker are also striking, as we’re mostly the only ones on the road, and the brilliant tropical birds are coming to life in flashes of color through the trees. Today there was also some confusion about timing, and Diep’s brother had his motorbike to take a monk somewhere, and then the bike showed up and we drove to Srayang as fast as I’ve ever gone on a bike. He asked and said we’re late, and so I said let’s go. The speedometer seems to not register, but we were trucking. We do wear helmets, a plf requirement, but we are almost the only ones who do.


Students eat their daily breakfast at Koh Ker Primary School.

I also get a ride back to the guesthouse after dinner with Ty, and the road is lined with the simplest of houses and they have maybe a couple of light bulbs, but often just a fire outside. Two homes have small tvs and everyone is gathered round, and there is a bar that plays loud Cambodian pop, but otherwise it’s just the dotting fires and the wafting smells and the dark dark skies and stars.

I stopped into the lunchtime 9th grade English class today, and we talked about climate and crops and eating rice, or not, and the students were incredulous that Torsten and I don’t eat rice at home. They consume bowls, huge amounts more than would seem possible, and they have never thought about what might happen elsewhere, for really the edges of their world are ten kilometers from here to their village. Some of the students have been to Siem Reap, and some have been to another city about 60K away, but the rest of the world has little other shape, or concept. They looked at us in disbelief, about the rice, and we pretty much lost them with climate and wheat and crops, and diets, and seasons.

The elementary students don’t yet know I’m leaving, I’ll tell them tomorrow, but the high school students and the teachers want to know when I’ll be back. And so it’s been, and I suppose goes.

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