Saturday Night in Phnom Phen
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 18 of 49 › view all entries
May 20th, 2006 – by: umbralwalker
The van pulled up and the fifteen of us that had been packed into it emptied out onto the orphanage carport. A dozen kids between 4 and 14 were there to greet us. Several of our party had been there before and individual kids ran up to greet, hug or tackle them. Others milled among the rest of our group looking far less awkward than I felt.
One 12-year-old stepped up to me, boldly said hello and asked me my name. His English was quite good. I answered with a smile and shook his offered hand. After a few minutes of mixing the directors asked us to sit in plastic chairs set up in front of a make-shift stage. Stage-left were several children playing traditional Khmer instruments; taiko-like drums, wooden xylophones, hand-symbols and a two-stringed instrument I couldn't identify.
A short introduction to the facility was followed by more children, older this time, performing traditional Khmer dances in flowing costumes they'd made themselves.The dances were elegant and playful, depicting common themes of relationships between men and women; it struck me then that these children had all lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
Afterwards we sat down to eat dinner with the kids. 82 of them. We were to help them practice their English so many of the older ones did their best to not use any Khmer (the Cambodian language). Two of the boys sitting with us looked around 14 or so, but ended up being 17. They were currently attending a middle-school equivilant in the city, but like all the children there, they learned English, dancing, music and tailoring from the orphanage. They were intelligent, funny and very sharp and we were glad to hear they would soon be entering high school.
After dinner we played games like London Bridges and the Hokey Pokey. The youngest child I saw was about 2, the oldest possibly 20 but it was hard to guess ages. One boy, 11-years-old, was flamboyant and friendly, breaking the ice by encouraging everyone to join in the games. My London Bridges partner, a 10-year-old girl, didn't talk to me but chatted, laughed and flirted with the other boys. The 2-year-old looked alternately excited and very confused.
Afterwards, Megan taught her Bridges-partner how to whistle with a blade of grass, while another 9-year-old boy smiled and laughed as he used me for a jungle gym.
All too soon the truck pulled up to take us back to where we'd come from. Everyone took their time saying goodbye and hugging the children they either already knew or had just met that night. I shook the hands of several boys and girls and watched them say "nice to meet you" with a look in their eyes that showed clearly they'd said goodbye too many times before. The ice-breaker boy gave me a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Just before I climbed onto the truck I thought I'd try one more time to thank my London Bridges partner. I found her among the scores of other kids, tapped her on the shoulder from behind and said thank you. Suprisingly she turned, looked up, slid next to me and hugged my leg. It was the subtleness of it that struck me. It wasn't the desperate clenching of a child who wants her parents to stay at home on "date night". And she didn't ignore me, like a child who'd shut down from too many people entering and leaving her life. She just held me firmly with her head on my hip, very quiet. A child who just wanted their own person. Someone just for them.
We loaded up and children climbed the truck sides to hide, half-jokingly, among us. The staff came to flush them out, but we wanted them to come with us too.
As we started to pull away, the ice-breaker caught our attention and held something up to us. I reached down and took it, suprised to find that it was a bubble made of some sturdy but delicate substance. Megan told me there was a kid's toy that makes them. I held it lightly in my fist all the way home.
"See you next week," a few of the kids called hopefully as we pulled away.
We leave tomorrow morning.
If you would like to meet these kids and happen to be lucky enough to be in Phnom Penh, meet at the Lazy Gecko every Saturday night at 6pm. They will take you there free of charge.
If you wish to make a donation to the orphanage I've just described, please send games, school supplies, sweets and toys to: JCA Orphanage, #151, Street 592, Khan Toul Kork, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
For information on volunteering or other inquiries:
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