A motorbike carrying four people is not unusual but I was slightly surprised to realise that Dad, driving, had one arm on the handlebars of a bicycle being driven home alongside the family. Ten year old boys line up two or three behind their underage driver alongside young families and crowds of teenagers. One father had his right hand on the handlebar and his left arm cradling his baby, with a toddler peering over Dad’s shoulder and Mum sitting behind with her watchful eye over the family.
A number of my colleagues have told me that the children don’t like to go anywhere in the car, demanding instead to cruise on the motorbike. Evening cruises on the bike seem to be something that Cambodian children do from the time they are born, evolving into a social event for teens who cruise the streets three and four bikes abreast, socialising on the move. Evenings in Kampong Cham are filled with families and crowds cruising in the open air. One boy on a bicycle held the back of a motorbike which towed him for a number of blocks until he decided to let go and pedal. Another did the same with the back corner of a truck as his towbar. Girls in blue and white school uniform ride pillion behind their friends. Road rules are just a guide, which makes someone from a country where road rules are strictly adhered to, more than a little nervous as I weave through the traffic and especially as I approach corners where drivers regularly cut in front of me over to the wrong side of the road. But it seems to work because everyone looks out for each other and despite many kilometers traveled on everything from single lane dirt tracks to wide roads congested with stopped traffic, having witnessed three accidents, I am yet to see a single episode of road rage.
Driving is a significant aspect to the work of MSF here. Many kilometers are traveled daily, taking nurses and social workers to remote parts of the province to reach people with Tuberculosis or at risk of developing Tuberculosis with otherwise limited access to health care. This week I travelled with a driver, two nurses and a translator to a remote village along dirt tracks through villages, to conduct a health promotion activity at the village pagoda. Sharing the track with ox-drawn carriages, passing through villages with front gardens featuring haystacks belonging to a Dr Zeuss storybook, we bounced our way slowly to the pagoda where we were due to provide health promotion to those villagers able to spare time away from the rice fields for us.
From what I can tell, “Pagoda” is a general term for the communal area where Buddhist monks live and serve the community. They provide a meeting point for the community and often also a refuge for people in need. Historically they have been places of shelter during political unrest but at times this safety has been wrongly assumed. For example during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, pagodas were used as prisons, but even as recently as last month, headlines have reported police brutality against people sheltering in pagodas during political protests.
Arriving in the village, we drove through the gates of the fenced pagoda and parked near a large shady tree. The chief monk was sitting on a bamboo bed base close by but with his back to us and he remained that way for another half hour or more. Another car drove in and people unloaded a mattress and some bedding from the car, delivering it to the monk before sitting on the ground before him, when a prayer session began with chanting. My translator explained that they were praying for peace for their ancestors, and for themselves to pass into a better life after this one. The monk received a decorative silver urn with a small wooden handled brush which he used to sprinkle water over the small congregation sitting on the ground before him.
We were near a concrete platform upon which a series of statues were placed, telling the story of Buddha’s birth, which my translator explained briefly to me. On the other side of this stage were homes with people coming and going. Behind us was a high-set, beautiful temple with golden roof. To our left was an elevated house under which a class appeared to be conducted with a group of children. Against the fence about 200m to our right, a lot of gardening activity was taking place. Trucks loaded with soil were driving through the entrance gate over to this area and offloading the dirt. As they left empty, they slowed down near a small boy of about 10yo who passed them a slip of paper. This was apparently proof of delivery, ensuring they would be paid. Some men appeared on motorbikes and joined us quietly as we watched the various activity happening around us, and were introduced to me as the c-DOTs (community volunteers involved with Direct Observed Treatment of TB).
After the gift and prayer ceremony ended, the congregation slowly dispersed towards us. A bed base was lifted and moved to the front of a table before us and a group of very young robed monks appeared and sat here. As the trucks continued to deliver their soil and pass by the young boy to collect their ticket, monks wandered through the courtyard, class continued under the house in the distance and a small crowd gathered under the tree before us, to hear the nurse talk to them about Tuberculosis.
The education session, apart from being delivered in Khmer and translated to me, was exactly like any TB education I have delivered in Australia – the same information, use of similar resources (pictorial flipchart), etc. Yet, sitting in front of a crowd of Cambodian people sitting on the ground with their knees under their chins, and brightly coloured Buddhist Monks in robes, in this very spiritual / Buddhist location, it felt like the world away that it is.