I’m currently reading a book published by Lonely Planet, entitled “The Kindness of Strangers”. It’s an anthology of travellers’ stories where contributors have encountered selfless acts of kindness, fate and good fortune on their adventures. Reading this has had me thinking about my own encounters with kind people during my travels. One notable instance took place in 2014, when, as newlyweds, my husband and I were exploring the historic Angkor, near Siem Reap, in Cambodia. We spent our days cycling around the ancient city of Angkor on our rickety, one-gear, hired bikes in blistering heat, and our nights haggling with market vendors and searching for halal dinners. Thankfully, this wasn’t too hard a task.
Islam has a long history in Cambodia, the majority of its followers in the country tracing their roots to the ancient Cham Kingdom. The Cham Muslims form a minority along with other Muslims who have also settled from other parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia. Many Muslims may not be aware of the recent dark history of persecution of religious communities under the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. Over a hundred mosques were reported to have been destroyed in this period, along with the murder of thousands of Muslims, as part of a most brutal massacring inflicted on the Cambodian population.
We had undertaken our research and were aware of a mosque close to the city centre in Siem Reap, and when asked our kind Tuk Tuk driver take us to Kampung Stengmai to visit Neak Mah Mosque. As I waited for my husband to exit the men’s section, I met a young boy, about seven, examining me with curiosity, bright-eyes and an adorable smile. He spoke to me with a few words in Khmer that I obviously couldn’t understand. When my husband exited from the men’s area, an elderly Cham man introduced himself to us as the mosque’s caretaker, Muhammed, speaking fluently in Malay to my husband. He invited me into his humble home next to the mosque, to sit with his wife while he took my husband for a walk to meet and share a meal with some men in the community. The mosque was surrounded by studying children entering and exiting the madrasa behind the mosque, as well as followers, including what appeared to be Tablighi Jamaat brothers from the subcontinent. I couldn’t speak much to the caretaker’s wife, so I sat inside, escaping the heat and waited silently for my husband to return. I observed their humble abode and the wife’s steadfastness in her worship. Toting a miswak in her hand, she bustled about their quaint home, offering me drinks while she recited duas softly under her breath, almost constantly.
Eventually the old caretaker and my husband returned, with plastic bags filled with “Lakso”, a local take on Laksa, consisting of minced chicken, noodles and a mild soup. We enjoyed the Lakso while the caretaker shared some of his story to us in Malay. He was a community leader and father of nine, who offered his home, service and any funds to the Muslim community in Siem Reap. He alluded to the suffering of his family from the Pol Pot regime, referring to life as ‘before’ and ‘after’ Pol Pot. Orphans and disabled children frequented their home during our visit, and the couple gently treated them like their own grandchildren. We left their home, offering a small donation to their community, feeling remarkably touched by their generosity and warmth. Never had I witnessed before, in a people, such prophetic behaviour, and such humble and service-oriented lives being led.