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I’m back! It’s been too long since my last outing on TLC 1 and I am so excited at this opportunity to get back on the lake.
My newly acquired, second hand, mobile trills out its 5.30 wake up call and as the bags are packed up already, it takes little time to wash, dress and jump into a tuk-tuk to take us to the office.

I am introduced to the new team: Rida, a beautiful young Khmer doctor who has recently finished her medical training in Russia; Mom, a serene and lovely young midwife/nurse; and Sy Sathya, a very attractive mother of three who has taken Aly's place as cook. No one is wearing a glint of eye make-up or lipstick: they just look naturally fabulous. I won’t have competition for the one, small mirror then, when putting on my mascara.

Sombun, greets me warmly, for we have travelled on quite a few trips together by now, and he and Mike, my husband, work harmoniously together. But there are still three more to say hi to: another doctor, Andrew, who has already done a week’s work with Team A, and a well dressed young guy called Phou Kong, who is now working as the registrar. He greets me with a wide grin. I am intrigued that he has a large mask, quietly at rest on his chin; later, when doing the clinic, he wears it firmly in place over his mouth and nose. Actually, I have already been surprised at how popular these masks are in Siem Reap; I don’t remember seeing any, 18 months ago.
That leaves just the singing boatman: Thun Chantrea: lithe, forever smiling and known for bursting into musical solos whilst maneuvering TLC through trees, water hyacinths and around the villages. He is full of such good humour that his presence rebounds long after leaving the boat. It's almost enough to help forget Aly's absence from her post at the wheel.

Sothat, is driving us all to the boat in the large van, donated by IMPACT-UK, which is a bonus, as there is room for the 9 of us, plus medical equipment, food and our own personal belongings to be snugly piled up in the back. There is even some air-con, unnecessary for a cool November morning, but I know the day will heat up mercilessly soon enough. The road to Chong K'neas, where TLC is now moored, has turned into a Grade Z road. It must be because of the recent floods, but I spy drainage pipes due for installation and huge bulldozers ripping up what surface is left, and I am vaguely puzzled about which came first! We follow a long track of bumpy riding with most vehicles tending to steer down the middle of the road, which makes for some swift steering changes when oncoming traffic appears.

I am visually inhaling roadside village life waking up, noticing how the uniformed children handle their bikes that bounce over potholes and boulders or swerve around trucks and motos. I notice a small shack where a man is threading up his sewing machine prior to his morning’s work and see the cockle sellers in demand and then I realize, suddenly, that I am rather hungry too and find myself looking longingly at some of the food vendors. When we finally arrive where TLC is moored, the luggage is most efficiently carried onto the boat and as I admire the elongated proportions of TLC, I realize that we are moving away from our mooring and our voyage has begun.

It is a long journey to Pov Voey, the village where we are heading this day. As I seat myself comfortably on the top deck, leaning against the back seat, I think of all the people whose lives have been enhanced by the work that comes from the sturdy team who make up The Lake Clinic. In the 18 months since I was here last, not only has the Team doubled but also the number of villages visited has expanded to 8. A new floating health clinic is already being built and more are planned. Sakhem is imminently taking charge of a small, shallow, speedy boat, TLC-2, which he will use to do day trips to certain villages to follow up on the VHV programme. In leaps and bounds, in small ways and vital ways, many of the fishing families are beginning to reap the benefits of having a mobile health team reach into their furthest communities.

Coffee appears in steaming plastic mugs and then we are called downstairs for noodle breakfast. Gosh, it sort of feels as if it should be lunch, but I am secretly glad that this means there are still two meals to go. The day begins and ends early on the Lake and we are governed by the hours of daylight, as there is no electricity in these villages; whatever electricity there is, comes from car batteries.

The sun is penetrating its way onto the side of the boat where I am sitting, so I move along a bit and promptly hear something giving way. A square wooden board appears to be loose and I vow not to go near it, or put any of my books on this space. However, the sun keeps its focus firmly on my body and I find myself inching towards the forbidden area and end up jumping up and standing near the front of the boat. I heard it said that no women should sit at the front of the boat as this is purported to bring bad luck, so I ensure that I remain on deck, regardless of the eventual lack of shade.

I start writing in my notebook until I feel my skin beginning to burn and then I decide that I will just have to join the others inside the bunks downstairs. All is very quiet. There is absolutely no room to join them in the cabin and I look gently at the girls and Kong at rest, before I dart into the memorably diminutive toilet-cum-shower.

Just before we stop for lunch, Sy Sathya takes over the driving to give Chantrea a break. However, there is a bit of a drama when the boat lurches over a series of waves and I look up to see we are about to hit a mangrove tree. Andrew swiftly ducks as a chunk of branches thrust their way onto the deck. Seconds later, Sathya reverses and to our horror, we see there is another tree behind us! Chantrea is up in seconds, grabbing the steering wheel and telling his friend to go back to prepare lunch! Shortly, we tie up to a lone mangrove tree and we all tuck into a delicious spread of rice, chicken and fried fish that Sathya has somehow managed to put together. I spy my favourite fresh chilli, garlic and fish sauce which I pour rather liberally over my meal! There is silence then laughter and Khmer chatter and I wish once again that I had done my language homework so I could understand and even participate!

I doze and then move to whatever is left of the shade on the top deck. This amounts to a halo’s worth and, fortunately, that is surrounding Chantrea. I decide to point my camera into the horizon, hoping to capture wild, exotic birds alighting and departing from the frail greenery in the distance. It is then that I notice a large, solid looking building in the distance that looks vaguely like some sort of temple.

As we draw closer and edge round some vegetation and boat houses, it almost takes my breath away to see an ancient temple sitting in the middle of a large square completely surrounded by water. I watch as young, orange swathed, young boys walk slowly through the square, or lean over the balustrade outside their living quarters, which flank either side of the ‘island’. There is a tall palm tree beside steps half submerged in water. This is where we tie up TLC 1. It is around 4.30pm and we need to take all the plastic medicine chests into a covered area behind the temple. A very excited group of mischievous looking boys bound around us and with squeals of delight show they want to carry the boxes for us! They move like quicksilver! They are full of curiosity but it’s not long before they are amusing themselves near us with rough and tumble games. All the meanwhile, the young novices come to watch us too, but from a measured distance and they stand silently in doorways or at their windows or by the railings outside their living quarters.

The light is stunning; the setting is mystical and there is an air of tranquility and peacefulness. This is a very special moment. The young monks are beginning to gather in the ancient temple for prayers and soon the air will be full of their chanting. As I lean back against the tall palm, Rida joins me and asks if I would like to visit the women’s temple with her, which is situated on the far left of the square. We walk inside and look at paintings depicting the story of Buddha and then I notice three older women stirring pots in an anteroom and four small children squatting with some food beside them. We smile and nod and then I walk back to the open window and peer out to see a thriving patch of herbs and vegetables growing and two boats paddling by on their way to the village “shop”. Rida tells me there is something else she wants to show me and we walk to a little altar behind the temple where there is a sacred rock which has, according to legend, the Buddha’s hand imprint on it. It is quite difficult to see it clearly but we kneel and honour it together.

Walking back towards the boat, we pass some novices walking down to the water to bathe and enjoy the coolness of the lake. But for us, it is supper time and Sathya and Chantrea have laid up our feast on the flat length of the back of the boat: rice, meat with vegetables, boiled fish and chilies, followed by fresh watermelon. Quite delicious! As we eat, dusk drops silently around us. Suddenly, an array of small lights shines out over the temple and above the steps. We feel rather delighted: this must be in our honour! It is also rather good to be able to see what we are eating. However, these lights turn out to have nothing to do with our arrival at all: a long boat is approaching the jetty with several monks inside it and one woman. They clamber out with some difficulty and step onto the stone, to be greeted by several of the novices. We discover that three local monks have brought with them a visiting monk from another monastery who has come with a donation!

I have been so caught up in watching the scenario unfold, that I have failed to notice that everyone else is busy putting up the mosquito nets, going to have a shower, clearing up supper or putting up beds outside the novices’ dormitory. Mike and I have got the top of TLC as our double bed, minus a mattress but with a thin matting and sheet. It all looks unbelievably romantic when the netting is in place and even though it is only 6.30 pm, we’ll be happy to snuggle in there. But the shower (which is working, much to everyone’s relief) has to be tackled first! I manage to get everything wet in sight, including my sarong, as my awkward arms spray the shower too strongly in the wrong direction. I’m still trying to rinse myself from the soapy shower gel, and I haven’t gone near my hair as that is altogether too challenging. Finally, after I am sure the pump has sucked out all the water off the floor and I have dabbed around the place with my clothes to dry everything off, I emerge trying to look fresh and clean, even though I am wearing a soaking sarong and clutching very damp clothes. I lean over the boat with my toothbrush and toothpaste and a bottle of water for rinsing and then climb the steps to our hideaway. The monks and novices are chanting in the Temple and I have to pinch myself that this is for real. Before disappearing under the net, I turn to look across the lake and marvel at the twinkling lights and the vast open starlit sky above.

I wake to hear movement and realize that it’s 5.30 and time to get up and prepare for our long day ahead. Everything is stacked away neatly, our bed folds down; other bedding is stowed away alongside ours and then it is time for strong Khmer coffee and a breakfast of rice and meat, and thoughtfully, some fish for me. Already, we are aware of small boats arriving loaded with locals, who make their way to the back of the ‘island’. Four tables are in place and the boxes of medicines are set up on one. I get out the measuring tape and with Sambon’s help, we stick it to a concrete pole. This is where I will measure and then weigh each of the children. Mike and Sambon work at a table together and Rida and Andrew are at another. The backdrop is like an enchanting stage set.
It is while I am liaising between Mom and Kong and the patients’ notes that I become aware of a still figure observing me. It is the monk of honour who arrived last night. I give him a smile and then, when there is a lapse in the queue, we start talking. He tells me his name and that he is currently living in Adelaide but is originally from a small village in Ratanakiri. He has been a monk for a long time but never known about this monastery until recently and was very pleased to be able to come in person to hand over the donation raised for it. He pauses and then asks me solemnly if I would be so kind and spend some time teaching the Buddhist novices this morning. I think this to be an honour and accept happily. Within five minutes he has summoned about 20 adolescents who greet me with winning smiles. I already recognize quite a few who have been gazing down at us from their balcony.

I start my lesson. From time to time the group is joined by a few more, who are encouraged by their peers to practice new words and phrases. They seem to be quick learners, and Lee, who remains as a keen overseer, translates from time to time, which is most beneficial. At one point, my enthusiasm carries me away and I come far too close to them, so that they all simultaneously draw back from me. Lee laughs and explains that it is forbidden for them to get in close contact with females. Nor, I discover, are they allowed to jump and run, as I had some teaching material involving this, so I have to change my plans accordingly. There is lots of laughter with the new language and I am sorry when it is time for them to head off to their lunch. They all thank me with great sincerity.

I slide back to the large day bed to find a host of young children drawing me some wonderful pictures.
I take some photos of them and the others at work. I am getting hungry and realize that 4 hours have gone by. The last person is being seen and I tidy up the day bed when I see one of the novices carrying two plates of food and he is bringing them to me! Lee appears and says that he knows we are about to have our lunch but would I like to accept the plate of small bananas and a plate of freshly fried bananas in batter, which happen to be my favourite thing (how did he know this?) I thank him gracefully and pass them around the team. We go back to the boat for lunch and then have a rest until 2pm when the afternoon clinic begins again.

There are plenty more people rolling up to attend the clinic and we get to work rapidly. Already, I notice word has spread that there is a stack of drawing materials and some animal figures for the children and I find the day bed rather crowded with small boys with such eager enthusiasm for showing me what they can do. Once the measuring is all out of the way, I sit down with them and we have such fun together drawing animals and boats and teaching each other words for our drawings. I produce some scissors and we cut out and hang some fish on a tree. Several of the novices who have been watching from the temple window, suddenly appear to my right, watching me most intently. I offer them paper and crayons. Three of them nod and with wide smiles walk off with their bounty. About an hour later they return with three beautiful drawings which they have clearly spent all this time creating: one is of a handsome Buddha, one a fishing scene, and the third has the young Buddha astride a magnificently drawn elephant. I am impressed.

The heat of the day is finally ebbing. We have had to move our position several times around the huge day bed and I have been taking photos and observing the action around me. Two elderly ladies with shaved heads, have been squatting for over an hour waiting to be seen. They sit silently and contentedly along with others in the queue that seems to have formed beside the day bed. All the time though, everyone is watching everything!

When patients need to lie down to be examined, they go into the ‘women’s temple’ with the Doc, or just lie down on a stone bench near the day bed. It is very much a whole village spectacle going to the doctor’s and there is no such thing as a private consultation as, frequently, small children, and adults, constantly hang around watching or listening in fascination. Everyone wants to be a part of the action, in whatever capacity! We, in turn, are a most novel event, but most importantly, this village now knows that once a month, they have the opportunity to see a well qualified medical team and soon there will be a network of Village Health Volunteers, trained up by Sakhem, and chosen by the villagers themselves, who can advise on hygiene, diarrhoea prevention, and, check out that those, who need a visit to the next clinic, do turn up. Moreover, the new floating clinic will allow for much needed privacy in the near future.

The last patients have been seen, Mom has administered the last lot of medicine, Kong has packed up his table and we all clear up around us. The boxes all need to be loaded onto the boat, but where are our helpers? I spy some little boys eating with the shaven headed women; the others must have just nipped into boats and disappeared to their homes. It is very quiet. There is just time before supper to pay a visit to the main temple. Rida and I go together. We slip off our shoes and walk inside on the cool tiled floor. There is a large Buddha surrounded by smaller statues and colourful offerings and there are lovely wall paintings, some of which are in need of restoration. Here it is timeless, quiet as the earth hiding its history, a sanctuary for those who enter. We sit, we stay awhile, lost in thought.

Supper is being laid out again on TLC as we clamber aboard. A lone novice comes down the steps to collect water in a bucket while others are bathing.

The sun is setting, flooding the sky with vermillion and crimson hues. As we sip a drink in silence, the staggering scenery slowly blacks out before our eyes. Dusk drops like a stage curtain.
The few lights from some of the boathouses across the water flicker and glow and there is the faint noise of a shallow boat being raced, to which the two local dogs howl in response.
Above us, the heavens are pierced with diamonds. I eat my rice, pondering on these last two days and the enormous influence they have had on me. I will remember the magic on stepping onto this spot and the joy on the children’s faces; the ancient serenity seeping from the open temple; the throng of patients waiting to be attended to medically; the mixture of novice monks and visiting village life; the teaching to a group whom I will probably never meet again and yet I won’t forget their warmth and smiles; and, the great team of people who make up TLC.

Jenny Shepherd
December 2011