Bandit Country 2

It seemed that we had taken a cross-country cut, avoiding the towns I had expected to pass through, because somehow or other we missed Sisophon. A few miles away over on our left would have been the shores of the great lake which, although in the present dry season was only about ninety miles in length by about twenty in width, has the habit of tripling its area and flooding many square miles of forest at the height of the rains. It is this flooding of the forest which produces the enormous annual increase in the number of fish, which are so concentrated when the shrinkage takes place that they are practically scooped out of the water, rather than fished. At this season when the waters were at their lowest (and when this great exterminatory fishing was actually going on), the water had receded from ten to fifteen miles, leaving behind sticky prai¬ries, with temporary villages where they grew a few vegetables, and temporary roads. On the lake itself, always out of sight, was a fringe of floating villages, which moved backwards and forwards across the map with the expansion and contraction of the waters.
Soon after sunrise we found ourselves on a main road. You could tell it was a main road because, although the surface was even more awful than that of the temporary track, there were permanent villages and bridges. One modern bridge we passed over was a reconstruction of an ancient Khmer one with the remnants of a balustrade formed from the body of a seven-headed serpent. In a few places the jagged stumps of ruins rose above the ground.
We stopped at a village for breakfast, a half-circle of slate-coloured shacks with all the uprights newly plastered, as if for the visit of a circus, with vermilion Chinese New Year posters. A few daydreaming Cambodi¬ans had found posts to lean against and there was a great collection of the hyena-faced dogs in the street – which our driver carefully avoided.
Since eating in strange surroundings is half the pleasure of Asiatic travel, the passengers all tied their dried fish to the backs of the seats, got down and made for the dark cavern that was the local cafe. Two of the senior bonzes seated themselves together at a table. One got out a fountain pen and began to write a letter, while the other took a snack out of an American mess-can.
The four other junior bonzes who were travelling with us now lined up in the gutter, graded in order of height, each one holding his basin. Walking a few paces until they were opposite the first house, they stopped and left-turned. A woman came out of the house, ready as if warned by premonition, with a bowl and ladle. Facing the line for the moment, rather like a sergeant inspecting a parade, she then squatted down and raised the bowl for a moment to her forehead. Getting up again, and starting at the leading bonze, she passed briskly down the line, depositing a ladleful of rice in each bowl. This completed, the bonzes right-turned and marched in single file to the next house.
Having a fad for the interior decoration of such places, I preferred to go right into the cafe’s forbidding interior instead of sitting outside. I was rewarded with a picture of Sun-Yat-Sen (Chiang-Kai-Shek had quite disappeared and Mao-Tse-Tung had not yet arrived), a badly cured tiger’s skin, a collection of imitation rhinoceros’s horns and an advertise¬ment for the Khmer National Lottery, consisting of four pictures of Cambodian family life. The first scene, shortly entitled ‘Misery’, showed an ordinary household, its members squatting about on the floor of their house, doing, as you would expect, nothing in particular. In the second picture the husband, struck by an idea contained in a balloon floating above his head, suggests buying a lottery ticket. In spite of their misery, the money is found for this. In picture three – they win, and, on being told the grand news, express their joy with the hand-flourishes of temple dancers. Fourth picture, ‘Happiness’, is refined and sedate. The wife wears a red jumper, a short skirt and carpet slippers. Her man has put on a coat with lapels, a collar and tie. In the ordinary way both of them would now die of heatstroke; but the lottery has taken care of that too. They sit in front of an electric fan.
I was now more and more embarrassed by my speechlessness in such places as this. In the remote interior of Indo-China it is a good thing, for both one’s comfort and one’s safety, to speak a few words of one of the principal languages; Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian or even Chinese. But the first and last present great difficulties, owing to their tonal system. One must be willing to sing as well as speak. And Cambodian, although poverty-stricken in words expressing abstractions, is bewilderingly rich in other respects. There are, for instance, seventeen different verbs re¬placing the English verb to carry, according to whether one carries on the head, the back, the shoulders, the hip, in the arms, suspended from a cord, etc. There are also seven forms of address, reflecting, one supposes, the old Khmer social order, which take into account both the social and moral standing of the person one is addressing – and give grave offence if improperly used. This is not a simple matter like using the polite form in a Latin language. The differences are so great as almost to divide the language into seven separate dialects.

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