Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Toun Sokheng - a priceless gem

On my travels throughout Cambodia I've been extremely fortunate to encounter many people who have left an indelible impression on me. One of those people was Toun Sokheng, pictured above with yours truly. In the above photo, she has just collected some firewood as we make our way back to her home for lunch.

I met Sokheng in January of this year when my pal Sokhom and I arrived in the village of Kalapia, literally in the middle of nowhere in northern Cambodia. We were on the hunt for a nearby 10th century Angkorean temple called Prasat Khna and the villagers pointed in her direction, as she emerged from her home on stilts to see what all the noise was about. They said she was from 'temple conservation,' though in reality, four years earlier the authorities had asked her to clear the undergrowth from inside and around the temple but had never paid her what they'd promised. That was the beginning of five enjoyable hours in her company, during which she guided us across rice fields and cut through waist-high undergrowth to take us to two temples, pointed out the best carvings, told us about recent thefts from the temples and then cooked us a sumptuous meal of rice, omelette and canned sardines back at her home, where we rested after our exertions in the mid-day sun.

In between times, she told me matter-of-factly that I had a big nose and asked me about my family, after I'd gleaned she'd arrived in the village when she was 15 during the Pol Pot time and stayed, she had three children of her own and had become a widow ten years earlier. We also established we were the same age, 46, which at first she refused to believe as I looked too young - I think she was trying to make up for the big nose comment! Her generous and gracious hospitality was so typical of my travels in Cambodia and if you ever find yourself in the village of Kalapia, please seek her out as she's a real gem.

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