From the spiritual slog of Siemreap we planned to travel south, through Battambang and finally reach Phonm Pehn the capital. If Siemreap showed us the beautiful history of Cambodia, then the arty boutique Battambang is a beacon of the bright future ahead, while we then finally face up to the sad recent past in Phonm Penh as a contemporary West facing capital, all too tied to its headline days.
What struck me of Cambodia is that in all these places the balance between not forgetting the past; while moving to a better future, is well met. All through the country there is a sense of change. For example in Siemreap we visit a children’s hospital called Kantha Bopha originally set up by a Swiss doctor – Beat Richner. Through donations and funding and sheer care and drive the hospital has lasted 25years. Cambodians have risen to his vision and met it. Dr Richner however is now ill in Switzerland and the future of the hospital lies with the locals. We visit the hospital and watch a documentary called ‘Beatocelllo’ charting the career of the man. He regularly staged cello concerts in the building to raise money (which we originally wanted to attend) but with him being ill the documentary is screened three days a week instead.
In Battambang we visit an old single track railway that has been made into a tourist draw. Originally to move crops from village to village, the bamboo contraption whizzes along with a small motor, wheels, axles, bamboo base, all detachable should another ‘train’ come the other way and the whole thing has to be taken off the tracks to give way. The train with most passengers has precedence.
At a cave on the outskirts of the city, people gather, locals chatter, drivers natter, and little restaurants run by a man as mad as a hatter who kept hugging me all the time, all congregate here, where at dusk everyday, over 2million bats fly from the mouth of the cave to the forests to feed. It’s the locals taking advantage of something they’ve always taken for granted. Taking a charge of their own destiny, in a good way.
Its a proper spectacle. The bats fly out free a zany wave of mesmeric musical notation across the skystave and it lasts thirty minutes and it’s quite the serene scene. Further floats the feeling to me that this is a country rebuilding and making the most of what it has.
In Phonm Penh I try to do my bit and I volunteer a days teaching at Liger Academy working with the drama classes. Not entirely selfless act as I am toying the idea of working abroad but still enough of a stretch for me to feel I’m to contributing in a positive way as a tourist in a country where tourism is increasing not always for the better.
It’s an amazing school where 100 children live and study. The young people cook some of their own meals (skills learnt as part of the curriculum) and clean their own living quarters. There’s an allotment, outside drama space, music suite, allsorts; and even a school dog, Harry, who wanders in and out of lessons and holds hearts wherever he goes. The curriculum is the jewel in the crown here though. Cross curricular topic based projects called ‘explorations’ form the backbone of teaching, alongside core skills; Maths, Khmer English and Science. Students learn laterally and independently , with a lot of non contact time to complete tasks. Work is framed through an inquiry question and always rooted in real world context and culminates in a tangible publication of work. For example some students are learning Biology, Geography, English and Ethics through the topic of recycling and compost. When I visit students are devising questions to ask to the English head of catering and you-tubing homemade compost set ups. They are working towards using the kitchen waste to make compost for allotment. Others learn history and more by visiting every province of Cambodia over the year and creating a guide for visitors.The children I work with are part of an exploration that teaches them about the creative arts industry, students tasked with staging a theatre production, building set, designing costumes, selling tickets and acting script to encompass art technology and of course drama. The atmosphere is relaxed and happy for both staff and students and this doesn’t feel like a country struggling to find its feet. It’s ambitious, and the future feels in safe hands here.
Oh, and the school dinners are amazing.
But the next day we remember ‘old Phomn Penh’ and visit the notorious Killing Fields at Cheung Ek, and the former school turned torture prison of Tuol Sleng- after visiting Liger the sad irony of which is not lost. These are chilling places that are hard to do any justice in a few blasé blog sentences. Save to say I leant a lot of history and felt a lot of sadness. It is a stark story that was played out less than a lifetime ago, this fact brought into focus at the gates of ‘S21’ where two former ‘inmates’ chat and sell paintings of the prison and its grisly legacy.
And this is the real symbol of hope for me. These men who saw such savageness and endured such hardships have chosen to respond in the strongest and most defiant way they could – with art.
Others have done the same – we have just watched ‘first they killed my father’ a film of the book of the same name by Loung Ung which tells be story of the Phonm Penh ‘evacuations’.
These people creating new work to tell their stories makes me think of Mr Kat and how he is moving on. Working hard and doing what he does. As is the rest of Cambodia.
Those preconceptions I had before I came here are real, and a real shame, as the country tries to forge a new conception to the world and themselves, it’s a strange situation of how to find the balance between remembering and respecting the past; and rebuilding the future. What I’ve seen in Cambodia is a zest of cultural energy and there are an abundance of creative projects to support this forward looking generation.
Culture is what sets us apart from the primates. A sense of history, of living not just surviving. In the same way cave people were compelled to make prints of their hands or painted pictures of the hunt on their rock walls, despite what the presumably daily struggles to eat and not get eaten and keep warm and communicate were; there was still something inside that said: ‘we need to mark our being’. Something that says ‘we were here’. An urge to create.
Music, Art, Drama, Literature, Gastronomy, Sport; all gives us a sense of self and meaning, and above all here in Cambodia – hope and direction – as new art is created. National identity may be becoming a little unpalatable in some countries around the world right now but but for the right reasons it is essential here. The country of Cambodia is forging a new identity, drawing on the glorious religious historical past, whilst not forgetting the harsher recent past, and writing a new narrative.
‘Haven’ is a programme that trains young people in cheffing and hospitality offering an on the job training, the food is amazing.
‘Phare’ is a circus project in Siemreap and Battambang teaches young people acrobatics and circus disciplines. They produce narrative shows which create jobs with writers and tech and designers and of course the performers and it’s great fun. Their new show ‘Khmer Metal’ is set a city nightclub with a gay story line and live rock score.
There are tons of artists and photographers and charities and NGOs and good stuff happening it seems.
In the same way Beatocello played music to inspire and reflect, the country builds slowly on the optimism of its youth. We enjoy new Phomn Penh with its craft ales and pizza shops and cooking course and cool cafes.
It was 3 years 8 months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule, but it seems like Cambodia is building a new generation of lifelong creative cool.