Cambodia is on my list of countries to visit for quite sometime and by the abundant grace of Allah (S), I recently go there. Not only because Cambodia is an exotic country that has had a bloody and turbulent history, yes, but importantly, it is 7% Muslim with a blossoming Ahlebeyti Muslim minority of 500 families, about 3,200 individuals. These Muslims live and thrive along side Buddhists in relative harmony, a rarity in these days of global intolerance and conflict. You may find the following narrative quite interesting. Perhaps.
As Thai Air descends from the skies to make a near perfect landing, Phnom Penh (PP) looks like any other Southeastern Asian city from the sky. An aging immigration officer fumbles with his keypad, peers at me, gives a toothy grin full of gold teeth, mutters and chuckles to himself, shaking a bald head; the man would be worth a lot of money dead with the price of gold these days. Studying, comparing my pretty face on the printed visa with my passport mug, he takes my fingerprints, still muttering and chuckling, stamps my passport and lets me leave, flashing all them bling-bling’s again; this is one happy dude. I am surprised at the efficiency of the airport; out with my bag in about thirty minutes, not bad at all. A wall of moist air greets me as I leave the air-conditioned terminal; Phnom Penh (Cambodia in general) is perhaps the muggiest city in this planet.
I am driven to my hotel in an ancient Jaguar the driver tells me in reasonable English is 1981 model. After a drive of about 30 minutes in early morning traffic through city streets that resemble a cleaner image of Mumbai, we arrive at my hotel, The Pavilion. I am blessed and fortunate to have stayed in the snazziest of worldwide hotels in my life; this US$50 per night hotel beats them all in terms of class and service, minus the opulence. I am treated to a tall glass of fresh passion juice, not the watered down version, mind you. This is all passion juice, with all it’s passion still in it, pulp and all; am I in paradise or what? A pretty petite girl shows me around and takes me to my room, which includes an ornate mosquito net over the bed. Then she points to an organic shampoo bottle in the bathroom, stops, glances at my scalp, covers her teeth and giggles nervously. Sorry sah, not for you, sah, giggles some more…happy people, these.
Which favors of Allah can I deny?
The room is large, with every conceivable modern amenity I would want, even a small-enclosed terrace with a mini jungle of flora that boasts of a jackfruit tree with young fruit on it, perking my immediate interest. Let me tell you about the tropical fruits of this country. My four days in Cambodia is a delight in thanking Allah’s bounties, verses of the holy Quraan foremost in my mind as I gleefully indulge in fruits that defy imagination; will it be like this in paradise? Mango, pineapple, guava twice the size of a cricket ball, papaya, watermelon, star fruit, banana, rambutan, leeches, mangosteen, custard apple (seetaphal), sour sop (ramphal), jammun, boori, coconut madafu, passion fruit and others I cannot identify, I am breathless. And evil smelling durians…I give them a wide berth. I taste a new variety of jackfruit, a mini version; split one side of the fruit, spread the skin wide and out pops a bunch of about 6 – 7 plump golden meaty juicy pleasure; I gleefully gorge in ecstasy…no stickiness, no mess. What blessings of my Lord can I deny!?
Mansoor Suleiman and Redha, a student from the local Hawza that Mansoor runs in PP come to meet. We meet at a charming mini-forest with a swimming pool and open-air restaurant right inside the hotel lawn. Mansoor is a product of Hawza, now back in Cambodia, struggling to establish a centralized point of worship and reference for Cambodian Shia Muslims; Redha is a Buddhist convert studying at the Hawza. It is very rare to meet a Buddhist convert; he has come with Mansoor because he can speak some reasonable English.
There are Shia converts primarily in PP, Kampuntisila about 120 miles to the West of PP and Kapunchan, about 180 miles to the East; we plan to go to Kampuntisila tomorrow, Kapunchan the next day and final day I reserve for myself, I want to spend a day cycling outside PP in Muslim fishing villages I see advertised in a local tour pamphlet; our plans are set. After a so-so dinner at a Malaysian restaurant, I retire early to the company of a single mosquito who makes my sleep impossible. I get up, sit still while it comes sniffing at my super-fruity sweet blood then quash it to a tiny bloody pulp with a smug smile on my face, Yusufali blood is not for free; I sleep like a baby.
Since I have eaten so much last night and out of habit, I go for a run along the Mekong riverfront very close to the hotel. Although poor, Cambodians are cheerful, clean, lively and industrious people, up and about with me, many dancing away calories to the tune of music from a portable radio. There are a few foreigners I see running as well, mostly Whites, probably aid workers with the UN.
Majority of Cambodians commute on motorbikes, the streets are full of them. Even though traffic is heavy, unruly and confusing, there is very little honking, vehicles very courteous with motor bikers. As we head towards Kampuntisila, I am full of curiosity and banter with Mansoor who has wisely brought along an icebox full of bottled water, soft drinks and more fruit. About thirty miles into the drive, the air-conditioning conks off and we come to a full stop. A vehicle has hit a motorbike with recently married couple on it, both lay dead on the side of the street with people gawking, including Mansoor, who leaps out to aid; it is alas too late. We somberly continue in silence through thick jungle and arrive at an eerie sleepy village of Kampuntisila.
We meet with a small group of remaining elderly individuals at Kampuntisila, majority of men are in the fields, sowing rice in preparation of coming monsoons. There is a small Wahhabi mosque here, built by Gulf donors but strangely, our Imam leads prayers. More importantly, a madressa is coming up next to the mosque; donated by a single donor from Singapore and the madhab of Ahlebeyt (A) will be taught here insha’Allah.
Upon return to PP later that day, we stop at the Hawza run by Mansoor; a pitiful rickety wood structure that is the school, sleeping quarters, kitchen and dining area, sleeping area and a library all in one. Sixteen students from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos study here, which could have been a huge language problem except all Muslims in these countries speak a common tongue called Cham. The problem is Redha, the Buddhist convert who speaks only Khmer, the Cambodian language, so it is juggling between translations. The facilities are woefully inadequate but they make the most of it. They eat rice most everyday and a lot of vegetables with fish or chicken couple of days a week, cooking the food themselves. CAI has sponsored Iftaar for the whole month of coming Ramadhan for these students, insha’Allah.
After a super seafood dinner at a local halaal Cambodian restaurant, I am zonked out, under a mosquito net this time
The drive to Kapunchan next day is uneventful except Mansoor gets lost a couple of times so he hires a guide to take us inside the village. It is amazing; right in the middle of dense jungle is a Muslim community with about 250 Shia families. A resident welcomes us, takes us to his home and we pray Zohor salaat. This is Allah’s blessing, no? Right in the middle of dense jungle, I can say my salaat in complete tranquility amongst my brethren. Remember, Cambodia was a killing field not so long ago and three million plus humans were massacred here.
There has been a death in the village so the entire place is busy with burial preparations; I go to pay my respects as well. We converse with the hosts and discuss their unique problems; they want a mosque sponsor. These people are not poor by any means; they have proper homes and own land that grows rubber trees from which they reap a reasonable livelihood. I let them know a mosque is house of Allah so they must put their recourses together to build one. Perhaps I am too blunt, for the conversations get suddenly subdued. I don’t think I leave the village a popular man; we return to PP.
My final day in PP turns out to be quiet lively. I am picked up at the hotel after breakfast and taken to a tour office and provided with a bicycle, then with a couple from New Zealand for company, we follow Maman, our 22 year old guide through streets of PP coming to life. All we have to do making a turn in the busy morning traffic is indicate intention with a wave of an arm and cars give way; try doing this in Mumbai or New York for that matter, I’d be chatting with munkar nakeer.
Maman leads us through a wonderful morning of cycling around sleepy fishing villages and small farm, few Muslims owned. Maman speaks good English, except a lot, is very eager to tell us a lot of things about her country. Like an eager child, she demands attention and babbles away like a parrot eager to please a master. Attached photos of this day will reveal a thousand words; a superb reward on this side trip. Alhamd’Allah.
Another treat visiting SE Asia are inexpensive massages; alas, Pavilion offers these but masseuses only. I request for a masseur; they have none. In the evening, I go strolling out in the bazaar full of commerce; I concentrate on the fruits in a local food market and come upon a spa offering massages. I stand studying the various massages offered and prices when out comes a very feminine teenage boy; the following is our conversation, ballpark:
Hello Sir! You Indian, no? Long eyelashes bat my way.
A shrill giggle. Oooooh nooooo! Uuuuuu Indian. Veeeeery nice, Indian, American, Cambodian…veeeery nice. High pitched feminine voice; warning bells chime in my head.
I nod my head. Yes, very nice.
You like massage? Cambodian massage, Thai massage, Indian massage? Very niiiiice, very cheeeeep, very goooood. You feeeeel very relaaaaaxed. Good for uuuuuu.
Um, you have male masseur?
Eyelids bat rapidly; the smile turns into a wide happy grin. Meeeee! I am maaaaan! I give goooood masaaaaage!
I look him up and down uncertainly and decide to pass; I shake my head no.
Disappointed, the grin suddenly turns into a thin line and the high tone becomes a whisper. You like boy? Virgiiiiin! Ten years onlyeeeee! Five hundred dollaaaaah, very cheeeeep, only for uuuuu! Good priiiiice!
I recoil and take a hurried step back, looking around to make sure there are others around; there are plenty, none paying us attention. I feel I have been slapped.
No, thank you, I say and turn around, walking away as fast as I can. The guy switches to Cambodian and hurls shrill, feminine sounding angry words at my retreating back; I begin a trot.
All is not lost. When I arrive back at The Pavilion, still flustered and bathed in sweat, the front desk girl has good news. A masseur (a real man this time) has been ‘borrowed’ from another hotel; I can have a sixty-minute deep tissue massage for US$20. I shower and then give myself up to an hour of absolute bliss.
Which favors of Allah can I deny?
Note: CAI will, insha’Allah, sponsor the building of first Shia masjid in Cambodia (Phnom Penh); land has already been purchased. This masjid / center will cater for new Shia Muslims from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Those interested in taking part in this great mission may contact CAI @ email@example.com.