Mekong memories

Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge, Quay Sisowath, Cambodia 1956

Quay Sisowath is a short walk from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I would scarcely recognize it from recent pictures that I’ve seen but for the palace which seems unchanged. It is one of very few things that were not destroyed in the purges and terrors of the past century.

My memories of Quay Sisowath pre-date all that. I lived there in 1956, when my father was posted to Cambodia by Unesco. I was eight years old.

My dad proceeded to Cambodia six months ahead of Mum and me. While Mum packed up the flat and shopped for the laundry list of items she was told to bring, Dad located a place for us to live. Accommodation being hard to find, he rented two adjacent flats at the end of a building and partitioned them off to afford us some privacy. Cooking was generally done over charcoal fires on the communal rear veranda, but somewhere Dad located a gas cooker and erecting another flimsy partition, he created a very basic kitchen for my mother. I suspect we were regarded as a bit eccentric, but one room for the three of us would have been a bit of a jam.

My endlessly agreeable mother accepted the new arrangements without fuss and immediately created a new home for us.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the young woman Dad had recruited to be our “servant”. I’ve always hated that word, but all foreigners in SE Asia had servants and it provided welcome employment for many people who needed it.

Sai See, as she was named, became more of a friend to my mother and me. I will never forget how she carried our baggage up to the flat, on her head. It was the first of many new experiences for us.

Before long, Sai See had learned all about English people and afternoon tea!

Before being carted off to the American school, I spent a few weeks hanging over the veranda, watching life unfold on the river front. It was busy all day with dozens of small boats coming and going. Some were driven by small engines, other simply rowed by the owner who stood at the back with a single oar.

The boats carried all manner of items from watermelons to ceramic jars. These were put into large baskets that were loaded, one at each end of a flat bamboo pole, and carried on the shoulder of a bare-footed “coolie” who easily crossed a wooden plank to the shore. There, pony carts lined the hot, dusty road above the river bank. It was my first experience in animal cruelty and I remember the sick feeling in my stomach as I watched the tiny ponies trying to pull their overloaded carts. Once I saw a pony beaten until it collapsed. I don’t know what happened to it. I only remember a feeling of utter despair and uselessness. My parents were not animal lovers so I was just told not to look. There were plenty of things it was best not to see.

The river itself was fascinating. Our flat overlooked the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. There was a finger of land separating the Tonle Sap, beneath our flat and the Mekong on the far side. At dawn flocks of birds (starlings, probably) would fly toward us as colonies of bats flew in the opposite direction. Then in the evening it was reversed. You could set your watch by them.

For me, the monsoons were an endless delight. Towering dark clouds rolled in bringing torrents of rain. It seemed so dramatic and getting drenched was such fun! (I thought so anyway.) As the monsoon progressed the finger of land opposite started to disappear beneath the flood waters. The volume of water coming down the Mekong was staggering, and finally it had the extraordinary effect of reversing the course of the Tonle Sap which began to flow back into Tonle Lake.

At the end of the monsoon Cambodia celebrated the Water Festival and we watched the boat races that took place from in front of the Royal Palace. I was particularly entertained when one of the boats filled up and sank, depositing its crew into the murky water. No one seemed terribly upset.

My parents were more interested in watching for ships that came up river from the sea. Many items were unobtainable in Phnom Penh, so orders were sent off to Lane Crawford’s in Hong Kong and after many weeks a ship bearing a Union Jack would be spotted approaching. We would cheer its arrival, and a few days later, Dad would drive along the road to the “Low Down” to negotiate with Customs for the release of our “stuff”.

Then one day the lady from the American school arrived to test me. In due course I was accepted, and I was “downgraded” for the first time……

3 thoughts on “Mekong memories

  1. Fascinating!

    I never understood boarding school. There was a line in Downton Abbey spoken by the Irish chauffeur, the gist was “I don’t understand how you English raise your children.”

    I had three friends who attended boarding school from the age of six, one a woman here is the States, another, an American, whose father worked all over the world for an oil company, he was in France, and another who was a Brit, in England. Eryl said it was so cold in her room that she had to crack the ice on her washing bowl to wash up in the morning.

    I cannot imagine being torn from your family at that tender an age.

  2. For very young children it is really tough. My brother who went to boarding school when he was 11 (as was I) said that he would never send his kids to boarding school. When he grew up he became a banker and accepted a job in Africa which had more to offer as a career. He sent his son to boarding school aged 5 . His son had serious ear problems and later was discovered to be dyslexic . That was really tough, I think and I confess I never understood, although I realize it is not my business. I have no children, so who can say how I would have raised them. I have terrible separation anxiety, so I think I would have held on to them with all my strength, but in my experience people make adjustments according to their need, not always considering the affect on others.

    1. So true! I am not the least bit surprised that you have separation anxiety.

      Your nephew was not your business. very true. Still, its heartbreaking to see. I have one son and made many mistakes when he was growing up. None of us escape the pain of being human. I overprotected and babied him. Not good either! Where is the middle way in raising children?

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