While there are many impressive pre-Angkorian ruins on the outskirts of the Takeo province, few people visit the town of Takeo itself, except to pass through on their way to the southern beaches of Cambodia. Most of those who do visit the town are part of a motley outfit of volunteers who have come to work for the New Futures Organisation (NFO). A non-profit collective, NFO runs an orphanage for local children who would otherwise be left homeless and also offers education to local monks and to children in remote villages.
The rattle of my ancient rusting bike navigating the dusty dirt road announces my presence long before I unsteadily
pass the locals moseying alongside. They acknowledge me with a smile and an amused wave, accustomed to the sight of pale-skinned volunteers balanced precariously atop ageing bicycles.
The sun is shining with all its might, unforgiving to those who haven’t grown up basking in its rays. A trickle of sweat mixes with a thick layer of dust to form a muddy line down my leg, as I trudge down unsteadily on each pedal. Despite the climate, and the laborious task of riding a bike in dire need of repair, I can’t resist the charm of my surroundings. I pedal past lagoons of blossoming lotus flowers soaring up through the muddy water in triumphant shades of pink. Enormous swines – big enough to be laden with a saddle – lounge languidly on the grass beside the road. They sniff haughtily in my direction before returning to their slumber.
Further along the road, the bright saffron robes of two young monks stand out against the lush green vegetation behind them. They hear me coming and gracefully turn away from the road, standing with their backs to me with their vibrant yellow umbrellas perched on their shoulders like giant marigolds. At first I am somewhat perplexed, as I have been careful to cover my shoulders and knees so as not to offend the monks out asking for alms. But I soon remember that it is strictly forbidden for the monks to acknowledge women whilst outside the pagoda, and I try to pass them as quietly as my conspicuous bike will allow.
Inside the pagoda, where I am headed today, it is a different story. I am helping to teach English to a class of 20 young monks, aged from about 18–23, in a classroom within the confines of the pagoda. As they file in silently after their Sanskrit lesson, signalled only by the shuffle of bare feet against ancient tiles, I wonder if I will be able to get them to say a single word. But as time passes, the cheeky smiles, flirty innuendo and talk of hip-hop indicate that they are just like most boys their age.
Following the two-hour lesson, I mount my rickety steed and steer towards the market in the centre of town for some lunch. Amidst the din of the busy marketplace, I fill my bicycle’s basket with a coconut (pierced by a straw), freshly cooked sticky rice and two golden, juicy mangoes – all for less than the price of a coffee in Australia. The glee of securing such fare for next to nothing makes my impending bike ride in the midday sun far more bearable.
My final stop is the NFO orphanage, which sits quietly beside the town’s lake. While most of the kids at the orphanage attend school each day from the early hours of the morning, they can also attend English classes given by volunteers at the orphanage.
True to their impish childhood spirit, when I arrive in the yard of the orphanage, the kids are far more concerned with playing than learning. I feel like a drover rounding them up into the open-air wooden structure that acts as the classroom. The kids take their places begrudgingly at first, weary from the heat with brains already filled to the brim with the day’s learnings. But as we begin the lesson, looks of determination begin to creep into their faces as they painstakingly copy the alphabet from the blackboard. It’s as if they know that English could be their one way to break out of poverty and find a way to chase their dreams in life.
On my way back from the orphanage, the sunset blushes over the vast stretches of lotus flowers in the lake. The evening breeze brings with it alluring wisps of fragrant curry from the rustic houses lining the road. As I turn the corner, I see one of the young monks from my class walking in the opposite direction and, having learned my lesson, I prepare to be ignored. He walks stoically in my direction, eyes focused firmly on the horizon behind me. But just as I am about to pass, his eyes dart sideways, filled with a mischievous sparkle, and he flashes me a big grin. As he returns to his silent stoicism, and I to my rattling spokes, the brief exchange between us lifts my spirit even further.