By Martin Bradley
I had been going to Siem Reap, Cambodia, off and on for nearly nine years. Generally I would spend between four to fourteen days helping out at the children’s charity Colors of Cambodia, or mooching along the tourist clad streets, eyeing for a bargain or questing after food. This time was to be a little different.
On March 16th, 2020, and coincidently my father’s birthday, the airplane from Kuala Lumpur descended from out of an eggshell blue sky (with just the vaguest hint of whispy white cloud) into ‘The land of smiles’. Coconut palms stood on parade as my tuk tuk eased me into Siem Reap city and to my destination. The Colors of Cambodia building, just down the road from Angkor Hospital for Children, was to house me over the next four days as I comingled with youthful Khmer art enthusiasts and began to acclimatise.
The following day (17th), after settling in and enjoying my time seeing the youths’ new artworks and talking about coming exhibitions, I used the gallery WiFi to access the internet. I just wanted to be nosey and to catch up with what was transpiring (in Malaysia) regarding the pandemic virus. I was shocked. Malaysia was hastening to close its borders the very next day – March 18th. I had no time to get a new ticket. Help. The Malaysian borders closed. Siem Reap airport closed. Cambodia too closed its borders. This eventuated in my four days turning out to be six months.
As time has passed, I have moved out from the small room allotted at Colors of Cambodia, (but shall be eternally grateful for) and into an apartment. I can now raid the supermarkets, cook for myself, wash my own clothes (instead of using a ‘laundry’) and, should I feel inclined, march backward and forward in the altogether, or not.
At this six-month ‘semianniversary’ I have blessings to count.
- I still have my sanity (of course this is entirely subjective).
- I am relatively fit and probably healthy (time will tell). In fact due to the extra walking I have actually lost weight.
- I can still count up to three, so that must mean something.
- If I had to choose, I could not have found a better place to be trapped in, with zero, I shall say that again, with zero deaths from Covid 19 and, at present and touching wood, there are zero new reported cases of that virus in Cambodia.
I could go on and on (in bullet form) literally listing the positive side of my decision to come to Cambodia, but that would simply bore you, and me.
Instead, understand that Cambodia’s Siem Reap lays just a hop, step and jump (or thirteen minute drive) from one of the ancient wonders of the world – Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a 900 old temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. ‘Angkor’ means city and ‘Wat’ means temple, together they indicate a temple city. If you don’t recognise the name, think Angelina Jolie, walking boots and bobbing ponytail as she solved puzzles and gave the bad guys what they deserved in her film role of the video game character Lara Croft. There’s a piano bar here (The Red Piano) with a cocktail – the ‘Tomb Raider‘ devoted to her. And yes I have been to both, Angkor Wat and The Red Piano.
If you thought that Thailand and Vietnam (Cambodia’s neighbours) had great food, you really do need to come to Cambodia. Khmer (Cambodian) food, which is now thought to be a cuisine older than both it’s neighbours, is a mixture of both those countries and then some. When not saying Susadei (hello) or Soksaby (how are you and I am fine), or engaging with the young adults or there again writing, I am either sampling local food at small local restaurants and eateries (a sheer delight) or delving into the Old Market (Phsar Chas) to look for fresh meat, fish, poultry or myriad vegetables or edible flowers to cook or prepare in my small one-man apartment.
Yes, I did say edible flowers. It’s a thing here. Many of the flowers are from the Sesbania family, especially Sesbania grandiflora (phka angkea dey in Khmer), having a white flower that (when closed) resembles an elephant’s tusk and Sesbania Bispinosa, a bright yellow flower. Other edible flowers include that white and fragrant Frangipani I mentioned earlier, Tamarind flowers, Neemtree flowers and the huge, and hugely popular across Asia, purple banana flowers, not to mention the mauve water hyacinth flowers too.
When not oohing and aahing at sunsets, blue skies, brightly blossoming flowers and extremely fragrant frangipani and jasmine, I devote my time to interacting with the children and young adults going to the Colors of Cambodia gallery to learn to drawing and painting.
My role is teaching the teachers. I facilitate knowledge about art’s long history and, at present, I’m assisting the teachers with presentations and putting together their ‘Artist Statements’ ready for a December exhibition in Malaysia. This year the artists are unable to go, because of pandemic restrictions, but the artworks will go over and be exhibited as a fundraiser for the charity.
American artist Bill Gentry founded the Cambodian registered charity ‘Colors of Cambodia’, back in 2003, having had the idea in 2001. Since then that children’s charity has grown and, in normal times, takes free art materials and art teachers to local Khmer schools where art is not on the curriculum.
It has been six months, true, but the days, weeks and months have sped by. There is so much that I didn’t know didn’t understand about the Khmer and their culture. This break away from Malaysia has been a real learning experience. As I learn more about the local food, I also am beginning to know more about Khmer music and poetry. Most evenings at Colors of Cambodia teachers practise local stringed instruments like the Tro Ou, Chapey Dangveng and the Khmer harp. My stay here continues to enlighten me, long may it continue.
(About the writer: Martin Bradley, on the topmost featured photo, is a writer, artist, and teacher, born in the UK, and a son of the East as well.)