The timing of our trip was influenced by the lifting of travel restrictions and a long-standing invitation to the wedding of Sreymich, the assistant manager of the Tep Im Centre, herself a former Tep Im student from Chomnaom, one of our twinned parishes.
We left England with some trepidation just before Christmas. Our last trip was in February 2020, just before the spread of Covid-19. We had a general idea of what had happened since then in Cambodia, but the detail remained unknown and a lot of changes can take place in the space of three years, especially during a pandemic. How had the people we knew been affected? How had those interviewed for Then the Khmer Rouge Came1 fared?
Having ourselves been labelled ‘vulnerable’ did not help. Were we foolhardy to venture out like this? Certainly, the emptiness of the arrival hall in Siem Reap airport, matching the low number of passengers on the flight from Bangkok, raised questions. But in the end, this visit, like all the others, turned out to be hard at times and yet immensely rewarding.
The first few days were strangely odd, after a three-year absence, and the presence of familiar faces like Fr Totet – the first missionary priest we ever met in Cambodia in 2008, now parish priest of Siem Reap who came to pick us up at the airport – was therefore particularly welcome.
It was a shock to discover, as we prepared to leave for Battambang, where most of our time would be spent, that the public bus service we had planned to use, had ceased to operate. As had all other bus services between the two cities. It was taxi time, although fortunately the cost was considerably less than it would have been here.
The pandemic turned out not to have had such a drastic impact on everyday life as it did in the UK. A number of people did lose their livelihood, but the number of deaths per 100,000 population was considerably lower and lockdowns were usually local and patchy.
We suspected that, given what they had been through during the Pol Pot era, our interviewees had generally taken the last three years in their stride. They had and were puzzled when we asked what had been the worst part, as if they had shrugged off the pandemic into oblivion. Like their compatriots, they are resilient people, used to adapting and making do when circumstances worsen. Younger people thought for a while. “At times we were only allowed to go to the market once a week,” they replied. In a hot country where the majority of the population do not have a refrigerator, people have to shop every day. So they helped each other. Sister Tu, who runs a small orphanage, related how she stored food in her freezers and distributed cooked meals to her neighbours.
Our visit spanned Christmas and New Year and we arrived in the thick of preparations. We went to Snung, one of the parishes of Fr Carlos, director of the Tep Im Centre, with three Tep Im students in charge of putting on activities on Sunday mornings for primary school children in the vicinity. The children, almost all Buddhist, duly returned for Mass in the afternoon before being taken home in his truck by Fr Carlos. As he dropped each one off, he told us about their situation. How one of the parents had died, or was alcoholic, or the parents were in Thailand to earn money while the children were left in the care of grandparents, often too old and poor to look after them. To listen to this drip drip series of awful stories about children we had just spent time with was crushing.
There would be many sad episodes like this. We are unlikely to forget the lines of empty tuk-tuks in Siem Reap or the sellers in the normally busy market waiting for a tourist to pass by.
Yet if you ask us to summarize our visit with one word, we would say: Joy. Joy at meeting up again. The joy of all those participating in the Christmas celebrations, not just the Masses but also parties and shows where each performed to the best of their abilities with a broad smile on their face. Joy at being present at the wedding of Sreymich and Bunra and then catching up with dozens of former Tep Im students who had come to Chomnaom for the occasion. Now in their 30s they had become teachers, accountants, IT specialists or worked for the Church – positions they couldn’t have obtained without the help of the Tep Im Centre, coming, as most of them did, from poor farming backgrounds.
We have come back enriched, enthused.
1 Marie-Madeleine Kenning (2020): Then the Khmer Rouge Came: Survivors’ Stories from Northwest Cambodia – a memoir.
For a more detailed account of our trip see https://www.st-mary.org.uk/cambodia-kennings-2022
Pictured above are Marie-Madeleine and Michael Kenning at the wedding of Sreymich and Bunra in Chomnaom with former Tep Im students.