Walking home alone late, in the dark through a back street in Sisophon looking for a can of coke, I met a young man helping his sister pack up her food stall. He struck up a conversation in English and told me some of his story. He was 12 years old when his father died and he became the responsible carer. His schooling ceased abruptly, yet his grasp of English is impressive. Sometime later the family home, made of wood and leaves in the traditional Khmer way, was destroyed in a fire and he had to sell the land and buy a cheaper, smaller place further out of town for his mother and siblings. Moni mentioned being treated as a child at the Kantha Bopha hospital in Siem Reap and that was about the extent of the conversation, except that warned me to be careful walking the dark streets alone, and he thanked me for coming to work here, though it is so short a time and so limited in scope – he was appreciative of the help anyone is prepared to offer.
It was clear listening to him that he has genuine concern for the poor as he has experienced poverty and even now the family, though standing together, is always on the brink of poverty. ‘What can I do to help my own people?’ he asked, ‘I feel so helpless.’ ‘For a start you can be kind to them as you have been to me’, I replied. During the course of our conversation he had pulled a bottle of coke from the cool box, filled a plastic bag with ice, tipped in the coke, added a plastic straw and handed it to me, insisting that it was a gift and that I don’t have to pay. This was Khmer hospitality and his way of thanking me for being here, doing what I feel is so little, feeling the same helplessness that he was expressing. ‘Be kind to them, one by one, and encourage them as you have done me.’ Step by step is an expression often used here. It reminds me of Mother Theresa’s approach to the vast problem of India’s poor; one by one and step by step is all we can hope to do, but it is doing something and it does matter to those who receive what we do. ‘Remember me whenever you drink a coke’, he said.
The next two days I spent in Siem Reap and my next coke was also free. Our tuk tuk had a puncture on the way to Kbal Spean, a historic site in the Kulen hills around 30km to the north. Fortunately there are bike repair places on all the roads, even out in the rural areas, and within a few hundred metres we reached the next. The moto actually needed two new wheels because both rims are rusted into holes near the innertube valves but Vin, our driver, can’t afford to replace them. The puncture was caused by the rough edges of a rusty hole. $15 bought new tyre, new inner tube, paid the labour costs and included three coca colas which we consumed as we sat and watched the skilled repair job using simple tools, combining new and recycled materials in an attempt to prevent another puncture.
We drove on for an hour or more; the hills approached and the road climbed gradually upward. If it had been steeper the tuk tuk would not have made it. A beautiful azure blue bird flew across the road passing behind us, the size of a magpie, it reminded me of the magpie-jays of Nicaragua though I only caught a passing glimpse. The Calocitta formosa of Central America is presumably named after the Taiwanese blue magpie but I have no idea what birds in Cambodia would fit the one we saw. Hereabouts the hills are forested with sandstone outcrops showing on the steeper slopes and the habitat favours the birds.
Kbal Spean is a natural stone bridge reached by walking a sandy path, through sandstone rocks, well shaded by the trees, climbing maybe 300 to 400m over a distance of 1.5km. There are butterflies everywhere. Beside a stream hordes of a bright yellow variety feed on a small sandbar, with the occasional black and white swallow-tail joining in. As we climb white, orange, brown, blue, black and yellow butterflies pass through the dappled light and shade, landing on the path and foliage alongside. On the steeper sections, where wooden stairs have been installed, large orange-brown butterflies lick the salt left on the wooden handrails and land on the clothes and skin of people climbing up. I enjoyed the walk as much for the reminder of home in this incredibly flat land, as for the wonderful flora and fauna we saw and heard.
At the top of the climb we were rewarded by a tour of some unique carvings in the river bed, contemporary with the Norman Conquest of Britain but undiscovered until 1968. More butterflies were feeding on the sandstone flats below a waterfall and in every pool were shoals of fish of the kind that nibble the feet if you paddle there. Here the experience is free of charge but in Siem Reap tanks of fish line the pavements where visitors pay several dollars for foot massage. The carvings spread over 500m of the river from one level to the next down through the jungle valley from the natural bridge above. Stone baths have been created, one for the king and another for his female companions. I imagine they came for cool recreation away from the oppressive heat of the lowland around Angkor and perhaps for a free foot massage!
Back in Siem Reap, on Saturday evening, I was privileged to enjoy another free experience – the famous cello concert of Beat Richner, a Swiss paediatrician responsible for the foundation and success of the five Kantha Bopha hospitals for children in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Enjoyment doesn’t describe well the emotional experience of watching a film of the amazing work achieved by over 2,000 Cambodian staff paid a proper living wage. One fact struck me to the heart. A maternity ward was established in this paediatric hospital in 2002 for the sole purpose of caring for newborns from before birth, especially to provide Caesarean delivery to prevent transmission of infection from HIV positive mothers. In 2010 this ward saw the delivery of 16,000 women with a Caesarean rate under 8% and only one maternal death!
Stop for a moment and read that sentence again.
That is the same maternal death rate as in the West, in UK and Europe and North America! Compare that with the rate for the country as a whole – 1 death in 350 (WHO 2008) – and you will appreciate what has been achieved with appropriate care, without corruption, without injustice, with proper investment. This hospital and the four sister institutions in Cambodia are paragons of quality medical care, jewelled islands in a sea of corruption, heartless cruelty and injustice. I admire and respect the achievement of the staff here, under the direction and inspiration of the founder. He has been unfairly criticised for various reasons and may be viewed as an eccentric but it is only the rare visionary who refuses to lose sight of his dream who achieves this kind of thing. The monument of his work speaks for itself, and his beautiful cello music continues to appeal and raises several million dollars each year towards the cost.
Nothing is truly free of course.
Beat Richner has invested 20 years of his life and sacrificed the luxury of Zurich for his dream of healthy Cambodian children.
There is no charge for the concert but the visitors have contributed the millions of dollars.
Even the coca cola carries a price. Remember me, says Moni. Remember how helpless the poor are, and try to do something about it, step by step and one by one.