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Cambodia 2000:
Part Six: Two Parties

Monks at memorial ceremony On Wednesday morning, Srey gets up early to begin preparing for the bon. Her sister, her cousin, and friends pitch in, cooking, cleaning, running errands. They cook outside, in front of Lung's house, where the bon will be held. It's a relatively small affair, since not many from Srey's family survived.

The monks arrive shortly after the food has been prepared, and the ceremony begins. The monks sit at the front of the room, chanting in Pali. Family and friends sit on the floor, palms together in sompeah.

One of the items in front of the monks is a dish of water; the monks bless the water, and then, using a whisk, gently splash it over the mourners. I've attended many such ceremonies over the years; usually, I'm toward the back, and I'll be hit with only a few drops. This time, however, Srey and I are sitting at the front, and I get completely drenched. Soaked to the skin. Maybe it's karma: this is what I get for laughing when the monk got soaked in the boat on the way to Prey Kongreach.

Monk at Sras Chork pagoda, Phnom Penh At a break in the ceremony, one of the monks invites us to visit his temple in the afternoon. Srey still has to prepare for Anna's birthday party, but Anna and Sean and I walk to the temple. It's only a few blocks away. We find the monk in a small building behind the main temple; he brings us fresh coconuts and tea, and he describes his hopes of someday studying in the United States.

Anna's Party In the evening we prepare for Anna's party. All of the children in the surrounding buildings are coming; there is cake, sandwiches, candy, and the Cartoon Network on the TV. Incredibly, every single child who comes brings a present of some sort. Some of the children are very, very poor, and yet every last one brings a present. I look at my daughter, lucky and rich beyond belief compared to the children around her. Later I look at some of the presents she has been given. One present is a tiny package of kleenex, with cartoon dinosaurs on the wrapper. I put it aside, vowing to keep it for years, until my children are old enough to know how special this small gift is.

The party is a distinctly American affair. We sing "Happy Birthday," and as Anna blows out the candles Tom and his friend spray the children with silly string. The highlight of the party is Srey's improvised pinata. A clay pot is filled with candy and taped shut, then suspended from a rope. Clutching a broom handle, Anna swings wildly a few times, then succeeds in smashing the pot. Candy showers over the floor. The children cheer and scramble after the bounty. The candy, I discover later, is durian-flavored. For the uninitiated, durian fruit is renowned for its horrible, raw-sewage smell, but people who like it claim that it is delicious in spite of its smell. Personally, I think it smells horrible and tastes just as bad.

Volleyball Game The next morning I walk down to Sisowath Boulevard, then north toward Chroy Chungwa Bridge. In 1991, the bridge served only as reminder of the country's history of war. Destroyed by saboteurs in 1972, it was still unrepaired nearly twenty years later. Now, only a single small detail hints at its history: the handrail along the center span does not match the rest of the bridge.

Houses near Chroy Chungwa There are a few bullet-shaped towers spread across the bridge. Guards with AK-47 rifles are stationed inside. Apparently, the fear of sabotage still lingers. Below, small fishing boats are scattered across the river. The river seems to stretch away to infinity. Coming back, I pause on the curved stairway that leads back down from the bridge. A crowd of young men are practicing volleyball nearby, the Cambodian flag waving in the wind above them.

Later that morning, Srey, Sean, Anna and I travel by car to Kien Khleang, on the other side of the bridge. We're not going anyplace in particular; we drive north, stopping when we see something that seems interesting. At one point we drive off the main road, back to an old temple. Concrete steps lead down into the muddy brown water of the Mekong. A few children are playing in the water at the bottom of the stairs. They look at me in shock, then run up the stairs.

Armed guards Back in Phnom Penh we stop briefly at Wat Unalom. A few beggars, most likely the victims of landmines, wait patiently for the next busload of foreign tourists. A series of statues shows the Buddha at various stages of his life. Flowering trees are blossoming at the bottom of the temple steps. It is the very essence of Cambodia: beauty and tragedy, side by side.

Amputee, Wat Unalom I feel a mixture of emotions. There is a part of me that is homesick. I miss Chicago, and I can't wait to be back. But there is another part of me that is deeply sad: I know that I'll miss Cambodia. I can't believe that the trip is almost over. I feel a strange, disoriented sense that time has warped, and that the last two and a half weeks lasted no more than a handful of hours.

In the afternoon, we travel to the "Russian Market," so-called because it is situated in a part of town where many Russian advisors had lived in the 1980s. Many of the vendors, I was told, had learned to speak Russian, only to find that their skill was of little use following the collapse of the Soviet Union. My wife buys some silver; I buy a note of Khmer Rouge currency. Printed by the communists prior to their 1975 victory in the civil war, the money was never circulated. The Khmer Rouge abandoned the use of currency immediately after seizing the capital. Now, it has nominal value as a macabre souvenier for foreign tourists. On the way back, we stop at Monument Books, on Norodom Boulevard, a fine bookshop with a good selection of books on Asia, and many travel guides. We buy a few books and postcards, and in another reminder of just how much Cambodia has changed, we pay with a Visa credit card.

Next: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."

Khmer Rouge currency

This article contains nine parts:
Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back
Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
·  Part 6: Two Parties ·
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors

Related Articles:
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Between Barbie and Murder: Cambodia, 2005
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991

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