Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Breaking the Khmer Barrier

January 6, 2011

Story By Patrick Shelso

Photos by Kevin Radley

Traveling to a Khmer village in to the province of An Giang along the border of Cambodia was filled with a burning headache that stung after the bus hit every deep pothole. The last thing I cared about at this point was experiencing a culture still intact after centuries of war and foreign conflict. All I could do was speculate about the differences between Vietnamese and Khmer people.

I felt the unfamiliar faces staring at me as the bus traveled along the dirt road leading to the Khmer village. Each moment of shared eye contact reflected similar questions about one another.

The bus stopped on the opposite side of a lonely bamboo hut hiding three Khmer women crafting garments over ancient wooden looms.  As I slowly stumbled out of the van, my brain was filled with uncertainty about the place and the people we were visiting. Millimeter by millimeter the women gradually weaved together fabric filled with elaborate designs. Every thread added to the growing stretch of fabric created more life reflecting each of the women’s personalities.

After learning about Khmer way of life, specifically the role of the women working in the hut, students wanted a piece of Khmer life to take home. The thought of Americans wanting a piece of their culture caused a frenzy of excitement among the women and surrounding crowd. As students bought pieces of authentic Khmer fabric modified as skirts and scarves, happiness filled the small hut. A woman lingering in the shadows behind the looms stepped forward showing the emotions felt by everyone in the hut.

I looked at her enormous smile stretching from ear to ear. Deep wrinkles and vivid eyes accented her tan, dried leathery face that looked like it had been sanded down over the past 70 years. I looked at her bright sparkling eyes and saw the young Khmer girl she once was many years ago. Her jagged, wide-gapped teeth marked with black decay exposed the years between the past and present. Her equally haggard husband proudly displayed his mouth of gold teeth framed by an oversized smile.

My throbbing headache was lost among the smiles and laughter I shared with the Khmer people. A new appreciation for their way of life was instilled in my mind as the bus rode away from the hut. As I looked out the window, the faces that looked so foreign only an hour before peered back at me with a look of understanding that replaced the questionable feelings felt before.

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