As the veteran of expat teachers at Happy Chandara, I have been put in charge of guiding the new staff, including OISE’s newest recruits, Izzy and Henry, around the school. It’s been a useful reminder that mango trees, coconuts littering the ground and children barely old enough to walk riding on adults’ bikes isn’t the norm. A year ago I was the one captivated by these ‘simple’ everyday aspects of Cambodian life and I’ve enjoyed reliving those first experiences through their own excitement and observations.
The week prior to school commencing was a last minute dash of ordering materials, collecting books, repairs and last minute paint jobs. Boxes were flung open and crumpled wrapping piled up on the floor as if it were Christmas morning. When the school opened its gates, students were welcomed to relative serenity, unaware of the frantic rush that had preceded. Their smiles and excitement instantly evaporated any lingering concerns and we were ready to go.
Not long after term started, Pchum Ben holiday was upon us, which after New Year’s in April is the most important religious holiday in the Khmer calendar. The word 'Ben' in Khmer means to collect and 'Pchum' means to congregate or meet together, and sees Phnom Penh empty almost entirely as families return to their home province. Food and small amounts of money is offered at pagodas to their ancestors. It is said living relatives will in return be blessed with happiness for the next year.
I know this because in the week leading up to Pchum Ben I tasked my new level 10 students with researching and presenting everything I would need to know in order to participate at a pagoda just as Khmers do. The advice the students gave went from the more obvious such as dressing respectfully and taking off shoes before entering the pagoda, to the more specific such as how to hand over offerings and in which order each action is done. Truth be told, after learning about the precise etiquette which must be respectfully observed I was a little nervous about causing offence. However the girls assured me that as a non-Cambodian, any slip-ups would be more likely to be forgiven.
So, equipped with all the information I’d need and a list of recommended offerings, the 4 day break from school began and I made the trip to one of Cambodia’s most sacred pagodas. Set in a stunning national park around 48km north of Siem Reap lies Mount Kulen (meaning mountain of lychees), and the pagoda Wat Preah Ang. At the summit of the mountain sits, or rather lies, the enormous ‘Reclining Buddha’ thought to have been carved in the 16th century. Also cascading down the mountain are waterfalls, of which the water is said to be sacred. Not only is the site breath-taking in its beauty, but is also seen as an essential religious pilgrimage for many Cambodians.
As the sun rose, I began my journey from Siem Reap on scooter, full of anticipation through stunning scenery. Water filled rice paddies reflecting the fluffy clouds above and electric green trees set against the blue skies made the ride feel like an adventure in itself and after travelling for so long (and not even sure if I was going the right way) I reached the foot of the mountain. Then began the slow and treacherous ascent up the winding red dirt track, rocky with pot holes and steep, accompanied by the sounds of nearby monkeys and tropical birds.
By now the summit wasn’t far away and I thought about how much the students had taught me, and how I wanted to do their teachings justice. As I got closer it was getting ever busier with some walking on foot, others loaded on to the back of pick-up trucks and at times entire families squeezed on to a single scooter.
Finally I arrived, parked the scooter and hurriedly made the final dash up the crumbling steps barefoot. I began to follow the almost hypnotic sound of monks chanting, people’s voices, and scent of incense sticks burning. I reached the top where many people were praying while others placed their offerings of fruit and money to monks, elsewhere children ran and played with each other. Clouds of incense smoke fogged the views, and thousands of candles burnt all around.
It was an all-sensory experience and certainly felt like a religious festival of which the family, living and deceased, are at the centre. It’s also as much about paying respects to those who have passed as it is celebrating life, which was especially clear at the waterfalls where hundreds of families and friends enjoyed gathered to eat, drink and play. I too offered fruit to the monks and placed lotus flowers into large vases, taking many moments to soak up the atmosphere and of course admire the enormous Reclining Buddha.
In the end I feel my students would be pleased with how I paid my respects according to Khmer traditions. I’d gone in with the intention of following the rituals and traditions precisely in accordance to Khmer people, however when I arrived I changed my mind. I clearly sensed the holy importance of the festival it wouldn’t have felt right to kneel and pray before the monks as Buddhist followers were doing. Perhaps I was worried I might somehow trivialise the importance of the occasion as a significant festival, or maybe I felt that I didn’t want Pchum Ben to be made in to some kind of touristic novelty. Probably a bit of both.
It was nevertheless an incredible experience and one of the best days I’ve had since I arrived in Cambodia. As an expat here I feel it’s my duty to make an effort to understand Cambodian culture, it brings me closer to feeling more integrated. Maybe it makes me a better teacher too. But also sometimes embracing a culture with respect and honesty takes preserving its values from afar.
Written by James