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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

29

BATTAMBANG

For a day and a night I have been celebrating Chinese New Year with Battambang friends who can claim a Chinese ancestor somewhere on the family tree. Never in earlier years have I heard talk of a Chinese ancestor but Chinese New Year is becoming fashionable as an extra holiday.

The women of the families have cooked the elaborate meal that is requisite for this occasion. They have observed the ritual of placing the gold coloured pouches laced with gunpowder one by one on an open fire. It is a noisy recall of the ancestors. I welcome the silence now.

Battambang town feels familiar even in the pre-dawn darkness. I recognise the mingled smell of tropical fruit, garbage, frangipani and steamed rice as I sit alone in a quiet place, a high flat rooftop with a chair and a small garden of green plants in pots.

It is a little before 5.30 in the morning. The old Battambang market, Phasar Nhat, with its clock stopped since Year Zero Khmer Rouge time, is below me in the starlight. When it is light I will walk across the bridge to Wat Kandal, ‘the central wat’, to meet Bob. The monks have not yet started chanting.

There is a pinpoint of light in the darkness below. Someone down in the market has lit a Chinese New Year fire in a tin bucket. The flames cast a glow on the market benches, the stools and the rafters. Staccato retorts slice through the silence and I smell the gunpowder.

As if the first lighting was a challenge another fire and yet another is lit. Rat tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat below where I am sitting is followed by tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat from west, north and south. The sound is enough to awaken the dead. I try to think of the veneration that is intended, not the violent explosions that happen.

I recall a dark morning in Battambang town in 1992. I was sitting at a roadside table. It was this same brief time of tropical darkness turning to light. My hand steadied the steaming glass of dark coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk balanced on the tin table. A very young soldier with plastic thongs on his feet sat down beside me and rested his AK-47 and his hand-held rocket launcher beside my coffee. I knew that soon he would mount the back of a motorbike and head to battle. ‘Yeay, the mosquitoes bit me last night,’ he said as he rolled up his sleeve to show me the bites on his arm.

He was younger than Reaksa is now.

At first light I cross the bridge to Wat Kandal, to Bob’s residence within the walls of the monks’ place. It is a small Buddhist dwelling painted ochre yellow, its stone front steps leading to a patio that acts as classroom. Trees surround and shelter it, amplifying the peace, separating it from other buildings. In a recent era it was used as a torture centre; now Cambodians, many of them young, come here to learn about non-violence.

The patio is spacious, clean and airy though here and there the paint is peeling from the wall-plaster and some of the floor tiles are broken. The walls are papered in a patchwork of peace: hundreds of coloured posters, peace stickers, images, paintings and photographs. They have been sent here from friends and supporters from around the world.

There are quotes attributed to well-known and unknown peacemakers.

We must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the

temples of human experience, temples that are filled with

suffering.

Maha Ghosenanda

Lead me from death of life,

from falsehood to truth.

Lead me from despair to hope,

from fear to trust.

Lead me from hate to love,

from war to peace.

Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Anon

I mourn the loss of a thousand precious lives, but I will not

rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate

for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night

already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness:

only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can

do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I wait for Bob to return to this place where the walls speak of what he yearns to do, the monks sweep fallen leaves into mounds. They set them alight and I am ringed with smoke rising in the still air. I think of the smoking ceremony of Australian Aboriginal peoples. It is cleansing.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy