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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



In Battambang I hear the news about Phaly. Nee is in Rattinakiri. I phone him and we both return to Phnom Penh.

We come to the orphanage hurriedly in the night: Nee, his sons and me. Soeun stands in the darkness of the roadside waiting for us. He wraps his arms around each of us in turn. ‘It was a road accident,’ he says. ‘We did everything we could to save her. We did everything we could to save her. She died. Phaly died.’ He leads us to the reception area of the orphanage.

The pathway through the garden to the door of the Future Light Orphanage is brightly lit, edged with trees and flowers. ‘Of course,’ Nee says softly, ‘We knew that for Phaly there would be beautiful flowers and plants in pots.’ We enter through glass doors. A large coloured image of Phaly’s face and silk clad shoulders dominates a lofty space; the frame is wreathed in flowers. Soeun watches as we look at it. ‘Recent,’ he says. ‘A recent picture.’ She looks serene and gracious, younger than her seventy-four years, her face giving no hint of the life she has lived.

The table below Phaly’s image is draped in silk; it holds an ornately patterned china urn. In front of this is a gilded tray holding Phaly’s perfumes, in front of that another tray holds her cosmetics. Furthest from the urn is a plate of her favourite food. The shrine is decked with flowers and is tended by Phaly’s daughter, together with a woman who has worked with her since the long-ago KPDR. Beside the shrine on a table of its own is a box containing a book in which visitors are invited to write a message. I write for the four of us and then for Claudia in Switzerland, Lud in Africa, and Mary in Australia. They would want to be here.

Nee, his sons and I pay our respects one by one.

Soeun guides us around the five hectares of the orphanage. He shows us the first small packet of land that Phaly’s mother gave when they returned from Site 2. The trees, which he immediately planted, form a huge avenue now. We walk through a tunnel roofed in leaves.

Young women who are finishing their studies while still living in the orphanage cluster around me; they show me the separate dormitory blocks for boys and girls, the computer classroom and the language classroom where there are evening classes after a day spent in local primary or secondary schools. They show me the lake where a group of young men are, even at this time of night, discussing the technique of breeding fish for sale. The boys join us, making sure that we see the bicycle shed. It is large enough to hold a bike for each of the two hundred young people in the orphanage.

Nee walks behind, listening as Soeun talks to him. The two men bend their heads towards each other as they walk in and out of patches of light from the classrooms and dormitories. Soeun’s grief soaks into us all. As he walks us back to our car he invites me to share in the orphanage memorial ritual for Phaly. It will be held on the water where the Mekong River merges with the Tonle Sap, a traditional place for scattering ashes.

In the hot late-afternoon sun Thero talks on my mobile phone to my bewildered tuk-tuk driver, guiding him between a bank of buses parked along the kerbside close to where the children from the orphanage are boarding boats. I said goodbye to Phaly’s son twenty years ago when he was very young. Now we meet in tears.

Soeun is silent and formal. All two-hundred children are being led down the steps to boats tied to the quay. I climb down to the water surrounded by this quiet throng.

The orphans, their carers, some young people who grew up in the orphanage and have returned, as well as a few friends of the family, all are respectfully quiet. Two large boats have been hired. We leave the jetty, the bustle of Phnom Penh recedes, we stand in silence at the rails. Thero and Soeun distribute a long-stemmed lotus flower to each of us.

We reach the point where the Tonle Sap and the Mekong merge. Soeun leads me to the bow of our boat to stand between himself and Thero, to pray silently, then aloud and, one after the other, cast our flowers into the water. Everyone on both boats follows. Lotus flowers swirl in eddies on the merging streams.

The brief twilight ends; strings of party lights looped around the decks of the boats are switched on, and the mood changes. Most of the children have never been on a boat before. Lights reflect on the water, rippling in patterns. Excited boys and girls call from boat to boat. Tables and chairs are brought on to the decks and food is served, warm rice and as many delicacies as Phaly would have wanted. Children and adults tell stories of her life and begin to laugh.

I sit with Thero and Soeun. Thero is showing me images on his iPhone as he tells me of his mother’s accident. Phaly had been working in Ratanakiri; the orphanage had a base there. Since the journey was a long one there were two drivers. On the road between Ratanakiri and Kampong Cham the less experienced driver was taking his turn. Phaly was sitting in the back seat working on her laptop, without her seatbelt fastened. When the car swerved from the road and overturned nobody else was injured but it was immediately evident that Phaly’s injuries were grave.

Thero is consoled by the thought that his mother was never left alone during the eighteen days between her accident and her death. When Phaly was brought to Phnom Penh he had her transferred to the hospital with a reputation for being the best in this city. She was there for a few days when this ‘best hospital’ closed to Cambodians because the ASEAN Summit meeting was about to begin. It was made ready for international delegates who might need it. Thero then chartered a plane to bring his mother to the best hospital he could find in Bangkok but she was bleeding internally and doctors said that nothing could be done. She died there thirteen days later. Thero recalls it day by day and shows me the images of Phaly lying in her bed.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy