As a boy, I had trouble telling people where I came from. Every time a teacher asked me this question I would answer Australia because at that age Australia was all I knew and understood. Why couldn’t I just say Australia like the blonde boy next to me and everyone would accept it as a perfectly acceptable and truthful answer and move onto the next child. It troubled me so much, I sometimes would lie down in the middle of my parent’s cornfield and look up into the Australian sky. Almost always next to me trapped in a redhead matchbox was an angry bee. Buzzing like crazy, I was sure it was telling me that if it ever escaped I was going to pay for trapping it. The bee’s buzzing was relaxing and so I always risked its wrath. I needed the bee and in my ten-year-old head I thought that in some cosmic way we had a connection or an understanding, the truth was I wanted to be like the bee. I wanted to fly wherever I wanted and if anyone annoyed me I could sting them. With the bee buzzing in my head I would think of my life. I didn’t even know where I was born, or how I got to Australia; I wondered why my parents seldom spoke to me and my brothers and sisters. Us kids were largely an ignored bunch. They never engaged us in conversation, unless it was about our school report card. Get good grades and you can do whatever you want, get bad grades and you’re in big trouble. But what I really wanted to know was why they never ever spoke about life before Australia. That big forgotten chunk of our family’s life that has everything to do with who we are and what we do now. From where I stood, they weren’t happy and neither was I, but they didn’t know this and neither did anyone else. Sometimes, half out of frustration and half out of comfort I would pretend that I had a higher being friend with the face of a sky and while lying, spread-eagled, I would ask my sky-god all of my questions. When I was finished asking I would let the bee go (I got stung over ten times) and while walking home I would wonder how or where, I would find my answers.
People, I have discovered are the biggest keeper of secrets. That normal person you sit next to on the train I bet will be a keeper of secrets. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, best friends all have secrets. We try to bury them inside ourselves and hope that no one else can see. You sit there in your own world, thinking you are safe, but knowing you are not. Everyone tells everyone that its bad to hide painful memories, that to overcome your fears is to face them, head on. But no-one knows how, it’s not a lock and key situation. That’s why we spend our lives trying to be something we are not. Covering up our true selves to fit in with the outside world. Being happy when we are sad, forcing a smile when all we want to do is frown, trying to be a bee when you are a boy.
My parents are the best keeper of secrets I have ever met. Getting information out of them is harder then beating world hunger. And since I think they should have revealed some of their secrets a long time ago, I will share one of them with you now. It’s something that I didn’t learn about until my adult years, it’s quite extraordinary really. I would even call it a miracle, not because of my role in it, but because of the sheer amount of luck involved. It’s more luck than we can ever expect in this world and much more luck than I deserve.
A woman stumbles through a jungle. She has lost a lot of blood. She has no energy, but here, energy or no energy, you push yourself. The alternative is unspeakable. Here, death comes often and mercilessly. Imagine, kneeling, hands tied behind your back, and a thin palm frond slowly slicing your neck. Imagine, your last image, are of children standing around you, they are cheering and clapping. Their starved bodies, empty smiles and dead eyes terrify you. You want to stop fighting for your life, but you can’t, because these aren't any children. They are yours.
The woman keeps fighting. Through the dark and with burning eyes she sees the outline of a ruined temple. Crawling she finds her way inside. She presses her lips against the cool stone floor. She barely manages to turn herself over before she collapses onto her back. Her gaze rests upon a night sky, framed by the jagged walls of a bomb scarred temple. It’s roof blown off. The light of the moon beams past. The stars seem to sing to her. But through the song she hears a wail. A newborn baby cries. Surely that's not her baby. Movement stops, and still as stone she pushes no more.
The time: approximately 3am, 28th of November 1976.
The place: Koky Temple, approximately 20km Southeast of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
I couldn’t remember when I had lost feeling in my legs. Numb toes, numb thighs, numb bum. Pinch here, pinch there, yep, definitely no feeling down there. Add to this the nausea, the inability to sleep and a snoring old man between me and the loo and you have a pretty crappy trip. Oh and the afraid of heights thing didn't make it better either. I would have taken a boat, except the sea and me aren’t such pals either. The last time I braved a boat resulted in my breakfast being hurled with projectile force into the Indian Ocean. That was six years ago.
Now, I’m 10,000metres in the sky. In a 767 full of Korean tourist on a packaged tour. Their destination: Angkor Wat. To the world it is regarded as the largest religious monument ever built. At it’s height the seat of power of an empire that encompassed present day Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and parts of China. It’s rulers God-Kings. Angkor Wat has emerged out of the jungles and represents a saviour of sorts. The main draw card in a growing tourism industry and perhaps if managed correctly lead Cambodia onto the long road to prosperity, stability and peace.
To its people the Khmers, the temple is a national treasure. A reminder of how things once were. An impossible dream and provider of hope. Its image emblazoned proudly on the national flag. Its famous towers point towards the heavens. Its grounds sacred and holy. A place where gods walked when gods roamed the world. And soon I will get my chance to walk where they walked.
Alicia Keys is singing Karmastition on my head set. Outside, pitch black. Below shrouded in darkness and mystery is Cambodia. It’s a tick over 10.30pm local time and we are about to land. I haven’t been here since I was a three-year-old child way back in 1980. Then, my family and I had barely escaped with our lives and here I was coming back. Even now I couldn’t help but feel a little fear, it will always be, unreasonably, a land of danger to me. But I was determined to come here for two reasons. The first was to fulfill a lifelong dream and build a school here. The second was my quest for answers. If I couldn’t get it from my bees, my parents or my ‘sky god’, then surely I would find some answers here. Unraveling a story like my mother’s and father’s wasn’t going to be easy. But at least I had unstitched the first thread. I had an ace up my sleeve. Waiting for me at the airport was another one of my parent’s secrets. A brother I have never met.
Siem Reap airport is different to any other airport I’ve been to. True it is the first airport in a developing country I’ve been to so I expected smaller, which I got. But what I didn’t expect was to be the centre of a heated argument between the Visa people and the Customs people. Officially, to enter Cambodia you are required to purchase a visa, which cost $20US and needs to be renewed after a month. However, you can pretty much purchase longer stays if you are prepared to pay for it. I didn’t know any of this when I began to speak Khmer to the visa people who quickly warmed up to me. They must of felt I didn’t need a visa to come back to my place of birth as shown on my passport because before I knew it they had given me a visa stamped permanent, limitless re-entries, expiry date marked forever, fee: gratis.
For someone like me this was the best experience ever. My feelings of uncertainty had been wiped clean and I loved Cambodia. I can safely say the people where my family is from are really nice and friendly. They didn’t treat me like an outsider, I was one of them, and they wanted me to come here and help them rebuild our country and that’s exactly what I was going to do.
And then I reached customs. One look at my visa and they had dragged me back to the visa department where I spent the next half hour doing what the nice visa man told me to do if this should happen and pretend I didn’t understand. Not hard for me. In the end it all worked out. I got my visa for free and customs didn't get the bribe money they were demanding. But my feelings of uncertainty returned, Cambodia wasn’t so cool after all, I had just experienced first hand what most Cambodians see as the single biggest problem in Cambodia’s road to recovery, corruption.
The rest of the night was crap. After two hours of waiting, my brother never showed up. I caught a taxi into town where I got chased by a mongrel of a dog down some crazy alley way or drive way or come to think of it, it may have been a road, I still don’t know. The dog left me after I threw some pringles at it. I finally found a hotel that in the morning I would discover had overcharged me. Advice to everyone coming to Cambodia, If you are foreign the locals will try to overcharge you for everything. Finally had fried rice for dinner in a small restaurant watching in wonder all the geckos running along the walls and wondering why no-one else was watching this most fascinating sight.
Siem Reap is a flourishing city. Tourists flock here while exploring Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. New hotels and guesthouses open on a weekly basis and many more are under construction. Dirt roads are being replaced by tarmac. The current rate of construction virtually renders it unrecognizable every six months. Markets and restaurants targeting the tourist dollar line the main roads. It’s easier to find an internet café here than in Tokyo and at 75US cents an hour it’s a lot cheaper too. The city operates on a dual currency system accepting US dollars or the local currency of Riel. But if you don’t have the right kind of money then the many family owned foreign exchange outlets littering the city will be more than happy to help you. Property that sold for $5000US ten years ago now sell for over $200,000US. People struggling to survive of the land from surrounding villages swarm the city’s tourist district and try their luck as beggars. Teachers and police officers make $30US a month. Almost every household has crocodile farms, once lucrative but now tighter laws mean the mainly Chinese buyers have dried up. The city’s growth is definitely chaotic and it’s reflected on it’s roads. Petrol stations on corners become quasi highways, the only thing a tourist needs to drive, is some courage. It’s not uncommon to see families precariously balanced on mopeds. Mums breastfeeding, father’s driving, toddlers hanging on the back and a bag of vegetables on their heads. Whatever you do, don’t try to enter a roundabout unless you are prepared to scream your head off. Seemingly, tuc tucs are the most common mode of transport, well for tourists anyway. They loiter around the markets, hotels and clubs fighting for business. Dust and sand fly everywhere. Walking down the street is like spending the day at the beach, because no matter how careful you are, you come home with sand in your underwear. And as I sat on my bag on Sivatha road, removing sand from my eyes and face, under the harshest noon sun I’ve experienced, staring at what Cambodia called a road, my brother shows up in an ugly ute, one wheel half flat and wheezing air and a muffler or something dragging underneath.
He had thick wavy black hair parted on the left. His skin was dark and weather beaten. He had a habit of sucking his saliva through his teeth. It made an excruciating slurping noise, which left you dreading and anticipating the next one. His mango coloured shirt was old, a little too large and hung loosely across his shoulders. It made him look droopy. He wore faded black pants and thongs which revealed wrinkled calloused feet. Large almond shaped eyes sat above a relatively large nose, his lips were thick and when he let himself go, they released an amusingly infectious high pitched laugh. His name was Ouen, he was my brother and running through my head while we hugged were feelings of happiness, awkwardness and sadness.
Meeting your brother for the first time is an utterly unusual experience. You have this sense of closeness because of shared blood but you have no history and no shared experience to back it up. He was the perfect host, but just like my parents he kept his secrets and I suppose he had his reasons for keeping them. I never did see his house and I couldn’t help but feel some envy from him. After all, fate could have shared out luck more fairly than it did.
The first place we went to was Sophy village about 20km north of Siem Reap. Nothing famous here, but a short conversation I had with my father about five years ago made this place a must visit village. It is the site of what I hope to be the first of many school building projects. A long time ago I expressed to my father my dream to build a school in Cambodia, he immediately made some calls and before long I had been given land under the condition I build a school on it and nothing else. What he failed to mention was that Koky Temple had been rebuilt and was less then a ten-minute walk from the village and that some of the village elders saved his and my mother’s life during the war.
Sophy village is a small village. About 2000 people live there along with their cows and chickens. Living in the village with the villagers during the school building project was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. No hot water, no electricity and no flushing toilet made me feel like a caveman and not a very good one too because I couldn’t start a fire. Add to this the burning sun and torrential rains and you have a difficult life. As difficult as it was though, it was one of the most incredible things I have experienced. I spent almost every waking moment with the children. They were with me while I laid bricks, poured cement, planted rice and rode hay filled carts pulled by water buffalos. We bought vegetables together, we drew and painted, sang and danced under the stars. We watched a mega shooting star rip the night sky in half. They are some of the most amazing children. There is Vin my little Picasso. There is Ger, my little Charlie Chaplin. There is Janran, delightful and smart. Chead, a little soccer player in the making. Simonne, cheeky and stubborn and many many more.
There are few words you can use to describe the feelings you get when you build a school for a village. And when you learn that some of the people in the village saved not only your parents’ lives but also yours during a war that tore up a nation, there is absolutely nothing you can say about it and feel you’ve adequately expressed yourself. So I will keep my words to a minimum about this. The children and the villagers were grateful for our help and we were deeply humbled by the way they handled themselves and their lives.
My father was born into a family of fifteen kids. Just two remain. Himself and Uncle Rum. Uncle Rum lives in Samrong city the Capital of Oddar Meanchey province, in Northern Cambodia. It’s one of the most heavily landmined areas in the country, in one of the most heavily land mined countries in the world. He has seven children and like most Cambodians lives in a wooden house built on stilts. In front of his house is a small banana tree forest. Getting to Samrong from Siem Reap, turned out to be, what I call, the worst journey of my life. And not in a funny way.
In 1979 when my family escaped Cambodia we traveled by foot to the Thai border via Samrong. This time round we traveled to Samrong using my brother’s ugly blue ute with the wheezing wheel. Apparently he fixed the muffler. The trip normally takes five hours along some of the worst roads in the world. Any nostalgia I may have had traveling the same roads ended at first sight. Not a single stretch was smooth. It looked like watermelons had rained down on it leaving gaping holes, some at least 3 metres wide. And if there were no holes, there were chasms, where the entire road had collapsed, forcing our ugly blue ute to navigate through mini canyons. All this wouldn’t be so bad if we were in a Ford Explorer but we sat on steel in the back of a suspensionless ute.
While I was mourning the fact that I didn’t have the foresight to bring some cushions, I noticed my hair lashing me with extra force and one glance up revealed lightning and black clouds, a heavy storm was coming our way. Out came our plastic sheet for cover and while sitting down with a sore bum and in misery we became bogged down. Not on the road as you would expect but right on temple grounds and 5 metres ahead of us was my paternal grandma’s grave. Grandma must have really wanted to see us because despite my requests to get us out quickly we remained stuck for 2 hours. Not even the combined efforts of ten curious monks or the local tractor could get us out. Instead that got bogged down too. It wasn’t until a truck came by in fading light that we were freed. Thank you grandma.
All said, it took us 8 hours to reach Samrong. By the end of it I had huge welts running horizontally across my buttocks, leaving my bum looking like a hot cross bun. I would have laughed if it wasn’t for the fact that come tomorrow, I would have do it all over again on the return trip.
Some families love nothing more than to sit around the dinner table and recount special events. Relive such and such's wedding, or bring out photos and reminisce about so and so’s first word. Not my family. We relive nothing. Oh maybe I am exaggerating a little. We do talk about Christmas, we particularly like to focus on the next generation of Saly’s. I would argue my nieces and nephews are more photographed than the queen. But our past is hidden behind closed doors, sealed by a wall of elders reluctant to talk. I had hoped that in Cambodia things would be different to Australia, that just maybe geography had held the door slightly ajar for me, but I discovered some things are no different, no matter where you are.
My trip to Cambodia wasn’t as I had expected. Nothing ever is. I have many more trips to Cambodia to make and many more schools to build. One day, I hope family history won’t be such a mystery. It mustn’t be easy for my parents to talk about their life before and during the war. What they must have seen and endured I can only imagine. It maybe a little selfish on my part, but whether they like it or not I will keep on pestering them for answers. The more I find out the more I want to know. There is a sister I had but never knew about. Their firstborn child who died aged 11. Who is she and how can they erase all evidence of her so cleanly that their other children had no idea?
I’m definitely no longer that boy who wants to be a bee, and maybe I have ended up with more questions than answers but at least for now, when I lie down under the sky and speak to my higher being friend, I will be a little closer to understanding because even though I hate to admit this, I have secrets of my own.
Thank you for reading. A follow-up article will be published soon. Koky.