Wat Hanchey, also known as “The Fruit Temple” because of the large statues of colourful fruit garnishing it’s grounds, is a beautiful collection of small temples on a flat hilltop about 25km north of Kampong Cham town, in rural Kampong Cham Province. It could just as easily be dubbed the “Animal Temple” as there are also many animal statues including a life sized Red Kangaroo, tigers, lions, reptiles and various other international wildlife. The temples are also structurally and artistically very beautiful, designed in Angkorian styles with elaborate Buddhist paintings on the interior walls and ceilings. The grounds house many different huts and monastery buildings, as well as undercover areas with timber and bamboo seating platforms where makeshift restaurants serve Khmer food to the many Khmer and overseas visitors who pass through here each day. Lonely Planet describe Wat Hanchey as offering some of Cambodia’s best views of the Mekong River. The children at Phter Koma had never been, spending their days in a repetitive routine between home and school as they work hard to catch up on missed study in a home which does not have spare budget for treats such as day trips.
Two weeks ago our English class focussed on animals and last week, on fruit and vegetables, so it seemed an opportune time to treat the children to a day out. Bea helped me plan it and today we executed our plan. A mini bus picked up the children and two staff, plus an expat friend who has volunteered to play official photographer for the website which is currently in progress. Bea and I boarded our bicycles, pushed against a headwind over the Kizuna Bridge, which we then turned under to follow the Mekong upstream for perhaps 35km. Our journey took us along dusty, irregular village lanes, through cornfields, rural and often Islamic villages, over bridges spanning Mekong tributaries, to a stretch of sand on the shores of the river slightly south of the hill upon which Wat Hanchey stands. Here a local ferry took us across the Mekong to another temple on the road to Wat Hanchey. We cycled through the temple grounds to calls of “Hello” from many children, then made our way north to Phnom Hanchey, or “Hill Hanchey”. Pushing our bikes up the steep incline to the enormous flat hilltop, the children had already arrived and they greeted us happily as we cycled into view.
On Phnom Hanchey we wandered the grounds as the children climbed on statues, played games, lazed in hammocks and disappeared with my camera to photograph each other. We chose a tin-roofed, bamboo-framed, dirt-floor, open air restaurant and ordered 19 plates of fried noodles. These were cooked on an open fire behind a slab of corrugated iron. The girls all joined the cook, watching and playing waitress. Each plate came served with a plastic cup of iced sugar cane juice which was juiced in an antique machine to the side of the open fire.
In temperatures maxing 34C with very strong winds the cycle took it’s toll on me as I pushed against an ancient gear system which made it feel like I was cycling with flat tyres. After 35km on dusty, uneven roads, I couldn’t face the 25km ride home down the busy highway and so my bicycle was loaded into the back of the van and I was allocated the front seat for the journey home. Bea cycled the paved highway back to Kampong Cham alone and as we passed her, we shouted as loud as possible through the opened windows. Within a few minutes of this energetic effort almost every child closed their eyes and fell to sleep. Thirteen happy children clambered out of the mini van at Phter Koma, about forty minutes later.
This week I also spent a few days in Skun where Bea manages one of MSF’s Tuberculosis programs. While she was working I took a bicycle and explored some of the rural lanes on the outskirts of this very rural market town. Last year I spent some time on these roads, visiting DRTB patients and so I decided to try my hand at locating them. I had three patients in mind, all in different areas from each other. The first, a man I have talked of before who has developed a condition called “gynaecomastia”, which basically means he has grown breasts, as a side effect of one of the TB drugs he is taking. He has three children, including a son with psychiatric problems and a daughter who fainted in the factory where she works (a common event, blamed on malnutrition and poor work conditions) and has been unwell ever since. Their home is only a few kilometres from Skun Market and so I located them quite easily. He and his wife were home with two small grandchildren and there was a lot of surprise to see me. It was difficult to communicate but we managed and I rang Chom for some translation when we seemed to be stuck. The message at this time was that they were hungry and had no way of feeding themselves. Last year I paid off a hospital debt, using money sent to me by a friend in Australia. This time I explained as best I could that I did not have very much money but gave them $5, which would probably feed the family for a few days.
From there I cycled in the opposite direction and, following an MSF driver’s directions, turned into a lane off the main highway which I thought I recognised. Quite a few kilometers later I realised that I didn’t actually recognise the turn-off I’d taken at all but it didn’t matter as there was a lot of friendly banter with villagers who were highly amused to see me cycling through their isolated boondocks. I worked out how to correct my error and took a turn off which led me to where I intended to go. Stopping outside the patient’s home, I stood on the dirt track for a while until the family group underneath the house noticed me. The patient’s son came out to greet me, realised who I was from a prior visit and took my bicycle, ushering me to follow him inside the gate and under the house. His parents were away for the day so I didn’t get to see them, but the young family group including small children were very welcoming and a few neighbours wandered over to stare at me as we made broken banter with each other before I cycled off again.
Not brave enough to trust my memory on the third patient’s location, three hours later, coated in a thick layer of orange dust, my hair turned to a cardboard-like texture, I made my way back home. Just in time for lunch with Bea, I then spent the afternoon studying until the working day was over. We then headed out on our bikes again for more exploring, this time to a nearby lake beside a busy village. We arrived just as the local farmers were strolling home in the evening breeze, leading cattle, carting picks and shovels and riding ricketty bicycles. We stared in reciprocal awe at each other, exchanging amused smiles and laughs. A gliding ball of sun reflected colourfully on the lake as it slowly made it’s way across the water and out of sight. An enchanting end to a day of exotic experiences.