A kind of magic

January 21, 2014

The charity I occasionally help out, the wonderful CamKids, is constructing a new building out at the school it runs near Kampong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. And it needs to: the primary school, which has been open for nearly two years, now has 250 children registered. It is miles from anywhere, out in the paddy fields, with no electricity or running water, but the children are ecstatically happy, and so are the parents, who can foresee a better life for their kids, eventually.

The new building has a couple of classrooms, some storage space and various small offices, and basically doubles the size of the school. It is being paid for by an amazingly generous donation from an American who is funding the whole thing, in memory of his late mother. My role in the project is tiny: I have to go out to the school once a month, take photographs and write up a short report for the donor describing how the work is going.

So yesterday morning, shortly after dawn, I could be found on the back of a motorbike, haring across the Cambodian countryside. The weather was just warm enough for shirtsleeves (the driver was wearing a parka) and it was eerily beautiful.

If you spend too long in glossy, urban Phnom Penh, you forget how intensely rural Cambodia actually is: life goes on much as it has for generations, apart from the odd battery-powered TV and a few plastic buckets. All around me on the dirt roads were people subsistence farming: women wobbling on stately old bicycles to market, chickens hanging off racks on the back; men climbing coconut trees; women gathering lotus flowers; men driving scrawny cattle somewhere or other; people casting nets across ponds looking for the tiny fish that live there; the scent of woodsmoke and cow dung rising up through the still air. Everyone smiled at me, the deranged-looking barang grinning happily from my perch on the back of the motorbike, wreathed in feather-light dust. It was beyond magical.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to live there: I like decent espressos, good red wine and internet access. So it probably sounds a bit disingenuous and patronising for me to bleat on about the magic of the Cambodian countryside, where life is, for many people, nasty, brutish and short.

But my main thought as we negotiated the potholes and avoided overloaded oxcarts, was that it was a Monday morning, and I wasn’t on the Central Line, fighting my way to Canary Wharf. I have never been so glad of anything in my life.


2 Responses to “A kind of magic”

  1. Just beautiful. And you know, you DO want to live there.

  2. This article started off so well – agree about the wonderful work of Camkids – and so glad you are involved, your description about the countryside had me right back there remembering my wonderful summer and then you just had to put in the jab about ‘Ha Ha you poor suckers still on the central line!’. Anyway thank you for sharing this, and carrying on enjoying your life you lucky lucky bastard!

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