Friday 30 June 2023

"I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit" - Stories from Cambodia

"I've heard of England but I don't know where it is" said Chai. This 63 years old  Buddhist monk had asked me one of the standard questions asked of travellers, "where are you from?" We were sitting in the compound of a monastery in the Cambodian countryside, about an hour's drive from Siem Reap. It was late afternoon and the gentle breeze both lowered the temperature a little and warned of the forthcoming evening rain. Other monks sat smoking in the shade. One of the younger ones crossed the compound to where we were sitting and climbed into a hammock to listen to our conversation.

When we arrived, Chai was cleaning his teeth with a stick. He was extremely slim, gaunt even, his ribs clearly visible under his exposed right shoulder. His shaved head emphasised his lack of weight. His chest, throat and chin were tattooed. I asked him if the dots on his chin had a meaning. "It's for protection" he said. Many Cambodians believe that tattoos can ward off evil spirits or bad luck. We would return to this theme of protection and belief a little later.

I encouraged him to tell me about his life. He said "I was born in Battambang province. My family worked on the land. I never went to school. I cannot read or write. When the other monks read scriptures, I just follow them and join in the prayers. I got married when I was 22 and I have three children. I became a monk when I was 58, after my wife died. I couldn't live with my children and so I came here".

We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man chewing zucchini seeds. He squatted down beside us, smiled and followed our conversation with curiosity, looking directly at whoever happened to be speaking. He was barefoot, wore only an old pair of trousers and had draped a krama, the traditional checked Cambodian scarf, over his shoulder. His teeth were stained red, the tell-tale sign of excessive consumption of paan - an Areca nut slaked with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf. It acts as a mild stimulant and is popular across south and south-east Asia. When chewed it releases a bright red liquid that permanently stains the teeth and lips. If mixed with tobacco it can cause cancer of the mouth. Our visitor shared his zucchini seeds with us, then after a few minutes, took a cigarette from Chai and went on his way.

The monk returned to his story. "I joined the army when I was 17 or 18. I wanted to support Sihanouk against Lon Nol. I didn't like Lon Nol and I was against the coup. Later on Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge and so I ended up fighting alongside their soldiers." I was intrigued by Chai having been drawn into the Khmer Rouge forces, not by choice, but because Sihanouk formed an, admittedly shaky, alliance with the communist group. I asked him to talk about that experience, but he seemed reluctant and I let it go.

His few sentences about the war hide the complexity of Cambodian history during the 20th century. Sihanouk ruled as Monarch from 1941 until 1955 when he abdicated in order to participate in politics more directly. In the same year, his party won a general election and he became Prime Minister. He then ruled the country under various titles until 1970, when he was deposed by the National Assembly led by Lon Nol. Sihanouk spent the next five years in exile in China and North Korea during which time he began to back the communist insurgent Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge eventually defeated the government forces in 1975 and took control over the country. Then began four years of extreme brutality and repression, causing the deaths of up to two million people. In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot and his regime were forced out, but his troops continued to fight in remote parts of the country for the next several years.

I asked Chai about the mark between his eyebrows. He said "In 1982 I was involved in the fighting against the Vietnamese, somewhere near the border with Thailand. I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit. I was unconscious for almost two days but I didn't die thanks to the blessed scarf I wore and which protected me.  I woke up in a Thai hospital where I was looked after by French doctors". He sat in silence for a few minutes and then asked if I wanted to photograph him. I did, and he kindly stood for a series of pictures.

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