Sunday, February 5, 2012

My Date with a Khmer Boy

I’ll trust the pictures and History to tell the story of Angkor Wat better than I ever will manage. For me, the morning—but not the story—began with an exhilarating bike ride through the black morning culminating in an un-dramatic and buggy sunrise over Cambodia’s most famous temple. Temples are temples and Angkor Wat, while impressive in its bigness and its exciting in its availability for clambering wherever one chooses, is just one more temple.

I enjoyed my time there, but was ready to start my bike ride when I split off from my Canadian friends. I headed out for the farthest temple which was, according to my map, on the corner of a lake. Within a minute of pedaling I found myself on a dirt road, completely free of the budding crowds of late morning tourist traffic. A few minutes later I had left “temple Cambodia” for “village Cambodia,” and there was definitely someone tailing me.

I braked my pink, basketed bike to a squeaky halt, preferring confrontation to lurking suspicion. A skinny, smiling Khmer boy pulled up next to me. His shirt was pinker than my bike, his jeans worn and rolled up to his knees, his bike rickety, black and dusty.

“How are you?”
“I’m good. You?”
“I’m fine, thanks! Excuse me, what is your name?”
“Elaine.” Neville Longbottom.
“Excuse me, how old are you?”
“Twenty-five.” What are you selling?
“Are you a student?”
“A teacher. What’s your name?”
“Seyha. Where are you from?”
Big laugh. “Whaa??? You are...Korean?”
A smile. “No, no. I’m American.”
“Ahhh. Okay okay! Excuse me...”

And so it went until he found out where I was going. I lied about other things besides my age—I said I was traveling with friends and that we were meeting up soon for lunch by the temple. And I prayed that God would keep me safe as I blindly followed Seyha down a dusty dirt road to see his village and—he indicated—take a short-cut to the temple.

We biked together and chatted. Seyha is 20 and stopped school after ninth grade, when he was 18 and his family needed the money. He lives with his mom and his two sisters—one older and one younger. His older sister cleans houses all day and also speaks very good English; his younger sister is still in school. His father died fighting the Thai a year ago in a dispute about a temple close to the border, but while he was a soldier, they only saw him a couple days for every few months.

In the morning he wakes up at 4 to drive an hour into Siem Reap and sell wood with his mother. Every day he fishes, chops wood in the mountains, and studies English. He also plays a lot of volleyball, like every self-respecting Cambodian boy. He’s quite tall—177 cm he says—and he motioned that he likes to spike the ball. In the evenings he teaches English in his backyard to all the little children in his village. He wants to take a class in Siem Reap about teaching English, but it costs $20 a month.

He’s never been to Phnom Penh. He laughed when I asked—he’s never been outside of his province and quite possibly never will. His bike was free (I didn’t ask how he’d acquired it), is 12 years old and only has the metal skeleton cylinders for real pedals. He pointed out his home, his school, his friends—all on one dusty, bumpy dirt trail—before turning off on a sandy side road. We disembarked and pushed our bikes up a sand hill that we later descended at ridiculously unsafe speeds.

At the top of the hill and several more minutes of question-answer, we stopped and he pointed out at a lake.

“That’s the temple.”
“There. That island. It’s very small. You can swim. Or bike.” Grinning laughter.
“Okay!” I pantomime riding a bike through the water which makes him laugh more.
“Want to ride on a boat?” he suggested.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. I love you. Your life is ridiculously amazing right now. Absolutely. Bloody. Incredible.