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Cambodian Trip

Michael (FCA)
Cambodian Living Arts, Cambodia

In the CLA office they looked at my mobile with undisguised astonishment. Like a good soldier following orders I had been told by AfID (Accounting for International Development) to take a simple, cheap mobile so as not to cause problems, embarrassment or envy when out and about.

I explained to them that it was eight years old because, where I live in Devon there is no signal. They are both of a generation that does not understand life pre-mobile or pre-technology, they listened patiently as I explained that as I work mainly from home there is no real need for a touch screen that I can swipe, take photos or listen to music. Nor do I need to get the interweb to download my emails or see what the weather is doing.

Very occasionally I use it and, surprisingly, it is quite good at telephony. It is usually switched off as nobody phones me and so I am saving the battery.

They go through the address book, giggling and fumbling momentarily on the mechanical toggles, squinting at the small screen and commenting on both its size and weight. ‘You have Tuk Tuk in England?’ one of them asked in amazement. No, I explain; that number belongs to Mr Chinn in Siem Reap, he had driven me in his Tuk Tuk around Ankor Wat and had been very politely sick and tired of losing me as I wandered off exploring on my own. He had put his number into the machine so that I could phone when I got lost again. He had laughed at the phone when he saw it and then using it, phoned himself, partly I suspect, to see if mine still worked.

I did think of buying an iPhone in one of the markets here at the weekend, they are around $25, but the parsimonious accountant in me thought better of it, so I didn’t.

20th July 

Friday afternoon, I am out of the office to visit the provinces and watch a class in action. Cambodian Living Arts is attempting to train youngsters in various art forms including Smot, the ancient form of poetry sung at Buddhist ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The poems are about families and history, faith and morals and seemingly mostly sad. As an oral tradition it is passed from one generation to the next and the various poems can be sung in a variety of ways to signify different things.  With some eighty per cent of the artists killed by the Pol Pot regime a lot of this history and culture will be lost unless classes like the one I am about to attend are a success.

An hour of driving out of Phnom Penh, off the tarmac and onto dirt roads and tracks, the dry dust, heat , humidity and jolting potholes do nothing but add to the length of the journey; we pass endless paddy fields and eventually stop outside a non-de script room in the middle of no-where. There is a window and a door; we enter, there are mats on the floor and a Buddhist shrine against one wall.

A woman, blind and in her mid-fifties is there with her husband. She is the Master.  

There are three students waiting, all girls. One of the programmes that CLA is embarking on is a scholarship fund for twenty students of the five hundred or so that are being taught to be given a small monthly stipend. It is sometimes the difference between going and not going to school. Only the most artistically able of students will be accepted onto this programme. They are reminded that the deadline for submission of the scholarship forms is this Tuesday. There is a flurry of activity as all thought of the lesson goes and they labour to complete them. In all fifteen more students, boys and girls, arrive, and more panic ensues. They come and go as they assemble their paperwork, get signatures and the tension mounts. The master sits waiting patiently but tight lipped. 

Into this melee came a young man, a former student, who is helping with the class today. As we have to leave to go to a second class and this class is nowhere near starting he shyly agrees to give a demonstration. He sits, his legs folded under him, his hands loosely in his lap, straight backed and almost in a trance. He starts, nervous at first and then gaining in confidence.  His mouth was hardly open but his voice soared and dived as he wove a complex tale that was quite mesmerising. The master also is taken, she sits smiling, mouthing the words and moving to the music of his voice.

I look around at the students, there is a palpable desire for knowledge in their faces, the ambition to become doctors or accountants will probably not happen to these kids. For this generation, that they can read and write is a victory; that they will be able to supplement their incomes by reciting the ancient poems and thereby preserving the culture and tradition of Cambodia will probably the apogee of their success.

Find out more about Cambodian Living Arts.
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