Thursday, August 31, 2023

Finding joy in unexpected places

During a recent visit to Cambodia, we found ourselves in Sihoukanville, a small southern province also known as Kampong Som. This coastal city sits on a peninsula with beaches and tropical islands around. It was founded in 1964 to be the only deep-water port in all of Cambodia, but during the coronavirus pandemic a mass departure of Chinese investors left behind more than 1,000 unfinished buildings and a decimated economy for the city.

Deep in the countryside not far from Sihoukanville is Betrang Village, which consists of two poor communities where the residents struggle to survive. We chose to have a look at daily life in this rural town. After stopping at a temple adorned with statues of elegant Apsara fairies dancing to entertain the gods, we went on to spend a couple of hours at a local school.

Entrance to the school

This was such a delightful time as the students and teachers at Betrang Primary and Secondary Friendship School of Preah Sihanouk-Jiagsu were so welcoming and charming. The school was quite basic with two plain buildings for classes according to age and grade of students. There was a large open space where groups gathered at specified times.

A kindergarten class was our first stop. Outside the door we found a colorful assortment of shoes in neat rows, just as the children had left them. Inside we were serenaded by mostly bashful, sometimes giggling, youngsters doing their best not to stare at the senior Americans who were disrupting their day.

Kindergarten children
 We learned that English is taught from fourth grade on. Children attend school for four hours, either in the morning or afternoon. There are no school buses and very little family transportation (which would have been scooters), so students arrive mainly on foot. Children wear uniforms, but that was loosely enforced as not everyone could afford the exact same thing, and many were obviously hand-me-downs.

Before we got to a middle school class, we had observed a teacher calmly comforting a child on the playground (no swings or play equipment) and young girls eating a snack of watermelon in the common space. We didn’t observe organized activities outside, so children tended to group with friends.

Middle schoolers were less awed by our presence. Many were delighted to have a break in their studies; others seemed politely annoyed at the intruders. Still they gamely performed songs and rituals with smiling faces for our group.

Younger dancers

Then we were treated to a highlight of the school visit. Barefoot girls wearing colorful costumes entertained us with a variety of traditional dances. They were well practiced as they demonstrated ancient culture, a combination of Khmer with ancient Chinese and Vietnamese influences.  The young girls were stunningly beautiful as they moved deftly and with great balance while performing graceful, flowing movements to the music.
Older dancers perform

We also visited a temple that was on the grounds of the school and watched a monk demonstrate a worship ceremony. Scenes inside the temple revealed exquisitely decorated walls with pictures that told stories.

Temple walls tell stories in pictures.

During the school day, children were free to wander over to the temple area. I’m guessing that some had to wait for siblings or parents before heading home. I tried to make friends, but many were shy around strangers. A few charming girls joyfully posed for the camera, which made some of my favorite pictures from that day.

Although we went on to explore charming markets, statues, beaches and resorts in the area, the school visit was what I remember most from that excursion.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

No comments: