Meeting Mr Setha

We sit in the living room of our Khmer teacher’s house. The ceiling is high and floor is tiled white. Our teacher has pulled together a row of seven chairs, upon which we sit, facing the discoloured whiteboard.

“Learning Khmer language is more than the words. You must learn culture also,” he begins today’s lesson, our last of six. “You must want to know about Khmer New Year, no?” His eyebrows go up with the inflection of his question.

We all nod our heads in agreement. It is two weeks until the three-day celebrations for the New Year and we are eager to know its history. “Long ago, it is Brahma, Hindu God of Creation, that holds the earth away from the fires of the sun,” he informs us.

“The people give him offerings, hoping he will protect them and bring good weather for their crops. However, in a small rural village, a boy asks why do the people follow Brahma? An offering will not give fresh water but an irrigation system will. The boy’s teachings become popular. Then, one day Brahma appears to him and says, ‘You who doubt me, tell me the three parts of the body that are holy. If you give the right answer, I will chop off my head but, if you give the wrong answer, I will chop off your head!'”

Our teacher was a boy when he escaped into Vietnam with his mother, after a monk convinced the border control they were nationals of this neighbouring country. This happened mere days before the Khmer Rouge took power. Equipped with a few sentences in Vietnamese, he and his mother were able to make a poor life for themselves in this war-torn country. Had they been in Cambodia, their chances of survival – being educated middle class citizens from Phnom Penh – would have been slim.

“The boy searches for the answer. He asks everyone he knows but he has no luck. Two days pass and still the boy does not know the answer. He doesn’t want to die so he flees the village. Tired and in fear, he finds shade under a tree. Already the vultures fly above him. Two of them sit on a branch above the boy and are talking. ‘You know Brahma will kill the boy,’ one says. ‘No, why is this?’ says the other. ‘Because the boy doesn’t know the answer!’ remarks the first vulture, to which the other asks, ‘Well, do you?’ And so it explains the answer and the boy hears everything.”

His English is good, although his accent is strong. He learnt English thanks to the presence of foreign aid, for whom he began giving Khmer lessons. His teaching experience saw him work in Europe and then Japan before eventually returning to his homeland when peace came about in the late 1990s.

Yet it is the intonation of his voice that makes his storytelling so compelling to us. Gestures in Cambodia are not as vibrant as they are in other parts of the world, especially those that provoke conflict such as pointing with one finger – something we will have to unlearn to do.

“The boy returns to the village. On the third day Brahma appears to him and demands the answer to his question. The boy explains, ‘The three parts of the body that are holy is first your face which you are thankful to wash in the morning, then your chest, which you are thankful to wash in the middle of the day, and finally, your feet, which you are thankful to wash before you go to bed.'”

This part, our teacher does act out.

“Brahma says, ‘This is correct. I will cut off my head.’ At this moment the boy pleads Brahma not to kill himself, to which Brahma says he must. Yet he tells him not to be sad because his five daughters will take turns to hold up the Earth when he is gone.”

And so the story goes. Each new year a different Goddess comes to Earth to hold it up away from the sun, allowing her sister to return to the heavens until it is once again her time to return.

“You see, the story is a symbol,” he explains with an honest smile. It is a metaphor for the change of religions in Cambodia. The boy is the pragmatic Buddha and his presence in the story symbolises the coming of Buddhism. However, the Goddesses show that aspects of Brahmanism remain. The past is not lost but integrated into the new.

Although the Khmer Rouge didn’t believe in religion and temples in Cambodia were used as torture centres, religion is still strong among the people, our teacher included. In fact, he often brings Buddhism into the conversation. The official religion today is Theravada Buddhism, which is based on the oldest recorded Buddhist texts.

He looks at me. “You will see the new Goddess. The big celebrations are in Siem Reap. There will be many people!” Angkor Wat, just seven kilometres from town, is one of the only two temples in the world dedicated to Brahma. I assure him we will go and see her. He smiles again and turns to the whiteboard to write down words in Khmer. We note these words in our workbooks, then practise saying them, knowing very well that we won’t remember the pronunciation as soon as we step back out onto the street.

We thank our teacher for our classes by presenting him with bunch of green bananas and lotus flowers from the markets. We had previously been informed that fruit was a reasonable gift in Cambodia – this is fruit you can peel so you don’t get sick – and we had added in the flowers because that’s the kind of gift we give back home.

We are sad to say goodbye to him, yet excited it is now time to go to Siem Reap. It’s time to meet the other Goddess.