(Picture above: Students at the Mittapheap Primary School)
Those of you who have watched the Pixar animation Ratatouille will remember the scene where food critic, Anton Ego, floated down memory lane as soon as he had his first bite of Remy’s special ratatouille. My trip to Kampong Chnang yesterday was precisely so, except it didn’t really remind me of anything I did when I was a child. It did much more than that. It allowed me to live part of my imagination when I was a child.
Most Malaysians my generation will remember popular local children’s tales based on characters such as Pak Pandir and Sang Kancil in primary school. These simple tales not only impart moral values and wisdom, it made the Malay kampong (village) life sounded charming and yet so foreign for many of us who live in bigger towns or cities.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I was asked in school to draw a house, for some reason, a wooden house on stilts was always a natural choice. Then, there would be visions of chickens running freely underneath the house, an orchard filled with bananas, rambutans and jackfruits by the side and not forgetting the glorious picture of a sun (it didn’t matter whether it was rising or setting but it just had to be in the picture) on the horizon. I don’t know why, but the Malay kampong life was so fascinating and exotic to me.
Being in Kampong Chnang, I was awakened by all the forgotten senses I had as a child; mainly innocence and the simplicity of life. It was a little bit like that eccentric character of Beatrix Potter and her sketching of Peter Rabbit coming to life. The only difference was that the actual wooden houses I saw along my journey were a hundred times more magnificent than what I had imagined as a child. You could see that the local villagers live a modest life but at the same time, you can’t help but notice the careful and loving attention they gave to their houses. Their architecture may be traditionally Khmer but you can still see the French influence on the louver windows painted in navy blue.
The roofs are particularly beautiful. Unlike the common tin or thatched roofs you would normally associate with traditional Malay wooden houses, many are made from beautiful tiles giving them a striking resemblance to the roofs seen on Chinese Buddhist temples.
There were very few cars and most people travelled by bicycles or bullock carts along the mostly narrow unpaved laterite soil. Many of them, sporting the ubiquitous kromar (see above), a versatile Cambodian scarf used for almost anything from being a turban to strapping babies on one’s body, were seen going about unassumingly with their daily lives. On our way, we saw several mosques, apparently funded by the Malaysian government, indicating the presence of ethnic Cham community. I was told that they speak Melayu and the similarity does not end there. They looked and dressed like the Malays. I never thought I would see someone wearing a baju kurung here.
We stopped by a warung (stall) to have what they called Cham kuey teow, which initially led me to believe that it was similar to our very own version of char kuey teow (fried thick and flat rice noodles) but I was wrong. It bore no resemblance whatsoever, even the noodles didn’t come close. Cham kuey teow is thin rice noodles served in steaming bowl of beef soup. The locals eat them with a squeeze of lime juice, a few dollops of chilli sauce and a shocking generous tablespoon of sugar heaped onto the middle of the noodles to allow it to seep slowly into the soup. For those who have never tried this, it may all sound a bit strange but for soup-lovers, you definitely want to taste it.
I even came across a local fruit, referred to as Milk Fruit (see above), freshly plucked from the tree by a friendly and hospitable restaurateur. It looks like an orange-sized round aubergine when ripe but tastes and smells very much like young coconut; sweet and creamy. The texture is rather similar to a mangosteen. Overall, a delightful find.
(Picture above showing our car being transported across a river to get to Kbal Koh Primary School)
Anyway, the purpose of my trip to Kampong Chnang was to assist the NGO which I am volunteering with, to do some monitoring activities for its school construction project. The NGO has constructed about 5 schools in Kampong Chnang last year. The schools are usually funded by individual donors and cost from USD17, 000 to USD50, 000 each depending on the number of classrooms and latrines.
It will take me another full article to describe my school visits but to cut a long story short, it was a humbling experience at the end of my journey. The juxtaposition of school conditions and the children’s appearances provided a huge contrast. While the schools look grand in comparison to its surrounding, many of the students still struggle to buy uniforms and stationeries. Most of the classrooms were bare, furnished with only a blackboard and handmade tables and chairs. Despite its lack of furnishing, the rooms were brightly decorated with works of students hanging on the wall and ceiling.
Many of the students do not even have shoes (see above) and looked as if they have not had a shower for a long time. The children’s concern definitely didn’t involve who has the nicest shoes, bags or pencil cases when each pencil and notebook are cherished until the next rare supply comes along.
There are not enough teachers in Cambodia to keep up with the increasing number of schools built by NGOs. I was told that most teachers are forced to teach two shifts a day and sometimes several classes simultaneously. On one hand, it is a delight to see a classroom brimming with students but on the other, the teachers are killing themselves trying to accommodate the increasing number of student enrolment each year due to more schools being made available in isolated communities. If the Cambodian government wants to reach its own Education For All goal by 2015, it should start to address this issue soon.
(Pictures above: Students receiving new stationeries from the NGO)
I was then thinking about my own school days. We had a lot to be thankful for, the teachers included. When I thought about how we worried about not having the latest trendy school bags or shoes for the new school term, these children worry about how they would get to school safely during the flooding season. Students have been known to drown or strike by lightning while trying to cross rivers to get to their schools.
Teachers who lack motivation should be sent to these villages to experience how it feels like to teach under such trying circumstances. One teacher recounted the time when he had to row his boat for 5km just to get to school when the whole village was flooded. Another one remembers how she had to take care of four classes at a time when the only other teacher was on sick leave, with her baby strapped to her chest.
Yesterday was indeed a day unlike any other. I was filled with a lot of mixed emotions. When I saw the elation on the students’ faces and appreciation on the teachers’ eyes, I suddenly felt the kind of happiness which I had never felt before in my life while working, although I have not contributed to any of the school projects. Very often, with the kind of jobs I was doing, it is extremely rare to see tangible or direct results of someone else’s work. More than anything else, a lot of it had to do with people killing and torturing each other. Most of the time, my spirit was crushed by the atrocities of human beings. Yesterday it was something different and for a lack of a better word, nice.
Under the sweltering heat of the January sun, I was pulled by something which draws me to an unexpected and long forgotten sensation, to be a child and idealistic again. These are the things which I am continuously grateful for with the kind of life I lead and the work I do. Like the sun in my childhood drawings, I hope that such experiences will always be present in my life.