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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



With Monee’s constant attention her new house is rapidly taking shape.

The poles that support the building are each set in a cement base. They are high enough for me to stand erect where the cooking will be done beneath the house. Wooden steps lead up to the main living area. The walls are timber, the roof is tin, the windows, though without glass, all have metal bars for security. There is an upstairs veranda around the cooler east and north sides. Through the door from the veranda there is one large room with a corner partitioned to make a space for me. The family hopes that I will stay with them for a while.

There is a small shrine. The picture of Yeay’s dead husband is on the wall next to the picture of Nee’s dead father.

Early one morning before the day is too hot we assemble in the newly built house: Monee, Nee, Yeay, Sina, Srey Leak, Raksmey and me. The monks are coming to chant and perform the ritual to cleanse this home of any bad spirits that might linger.

Following Monee and Yeay’s lead I have dressed in the best clothes I can find. Monee is wearing a new som-bpoout of embroidered cloth, the skirt tight enough to accentuate her graceful curves. She has been to the hairdresser and her wavy hair is cut into a very short 1920s bob, a fashion easy for Battambang hairdressers to manage. Nee has bought jewellery for her. Raksmey and his father have white shirts, Srey Leak a frilly dress. Yeay is wearing the white top embroidered with butterflies.

There is a new floor mat unrolled in the middle of the upstairs room. The weave is plastic rather than straw – a small luxury – with a coloured image of Angkor Wat woven into it. Set on the mat are bowls of fruit in gilt containers, incense sticks in holders and gifts of cigarettes for each of the monks who will cleanse the house and burn the incense.

Neighbours sit on the ladders of their own homes to watch and listen. The monks arrive with saffron robes and shaved heads, mount the steps, settle themselves on the mat and begin to chant. The chanting lasts a long time, Raksmey is wriggling, the smell of incense is filling the house. Soft drinks are passed to the monks, Fanta and Sprite. The chanting slows and stops. The monks leave with their gifts.

By mid-afternoon a spell of seemingly unending heat is climaxing with an unexpected thunderstorm. Clouds mount and teeter, blocking the sun, stilling the dogs. Sharp claps of thunder grow louder and closer, the sky splits with lightening, water descends in sheets. It thuds on the new tin roof and streams down the timber walls; precious water caught in buckets in tubs in jugs in dishes.

Neighbours from all along the street join in happy co-operation, forming a chain to bucket water into larger tanks. This morning they were paying good money for dirty river water; the unexpected water from the sky is free. With hair dripping, clothes clinging to bodies, feet bare, the neighbours call greetings to each other. Children dance and squeal their glee, naked in the puddles.

Nee is the first to notice danger. He calls to the children ‘Stand back. Stand back,’ and pushes them away from the big old kapok tree on the edge of the track. Now everybody notices. The entire root system has broken loose from the soft soil and the tree is standing only because its branches are caught in the new electricity wires. Nee climbs to the swaying tree top, water streaming from him. He swings a hatchet to disentangle the boughs from the wires.

Everybody’s attention is on the tree top now.

‘The wires might be live.’

‘There is never electricity in the afternoon’

‘What if there is today?’

Nee continues flailing away with the hatchet from the midst of the gradually descending bed of branches until he stands upright in the mud astride the fallen trunk.

So it is that the Meas family, returnees, politically different, ‘the people who took the wrong path’, become part of the community of this street.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy