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Bowled over by Battambang

Just as it is a great comfort to see the familiar immigration counters and the automated gates after getting off the plane at Changi airport, the first Mass back at St Ignatius after some time overseas always feels great to be back home.

Whether I had been to empty pews of Stockholm or the jam-packed aisles in Korcula, the imposing granduer of Rome or the soaring spirituality of Barcelona, it was always great to be back home, among the familiar faces I see every week.

This December I had a new experience. Instead of feeling “I’m home” when I got back to St Ignatius I felt an unusual longing to be back at a different church. A single storey, single aisled church with no airconditioning, and with mats on the floor instead of wooden benches. Barely six hours back in Singapore I was already wanting to return to the parish church of Battambang.

While Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, and Siem Reap is the site of Angkor Wat, Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia. North of Phnom Penh and west of Siem Reap, Battambang is nearer to Thailand than it is to the other two cities. It does not have an international airport.

Back in December 2013 I went on my first mission with ACTS to conduct Catechesis of the Good Shepherd sessions with the children of Phnom Penh. When I heard that the Battambang mission was happening the week before the Phnom Penh mission in 2014 I thought that it would be a good deal to get two mission experiences for the price of one airfare (by far the major expense of the trip.)

And so with no expectations and also very little idea of what I would actually be doing for the next week, I found myself at Siem Reap airport with 40 malaria tablets in my bag, being welcomed by a group of enthusiastic and friendly people in blue T-shirts, most of whom had never heard of let alone visited Battambang before.

For the next seven days I settled into a very comfortable routine of waking up to a gorgeous sunrise and a hearty breakfast at 6:15am, Mass at 7:30am, working at the kindergarten from 8:00am to 3:30pm and then interacting with the older children from Battambang Parish until 5:30pm when those who had travelled out of Battambang for the day returned for our evening reflection and from there a shared meal together around 7:30pm. While others went back for their showers the organising committee carried on with meetings until about 9:30 or 10pm.

The combination of Fr Jovita’s exhortations during Mass every morning combined with Br Nick’s reflection questions every evening made for a very Spirit aware day. As a group we prayed together and for each other and shared with each other whatever joys and tribulations we had each day.

For those of you who have been on the missions to Phnom Penh the routine might sound very familiar, but the mission to Battambang turned out to be quite a different experience.

The first difference arises out of the location itself. Battambang is smaller and less urbanised than Phnom Penh. There are no traffic jams and the buildings there are both smaller and lower-rise than in the capital, and with plenty of space in-between. For those travelling out of the city the villages they visit are sparesely populated and surrounded by fields devoid of buildings. I hesitate to say the people in Battambang are poorer even though by monetary measures they are, but urban poverty brings with it different deprivations from rural poverty.

These villages are not accessible by large buses and this leads to the second difference between the two missions. The transport arrangements mean that the teams visiting the villages have to fit into a mini-bus. Small teams make it easier to get to know each other and the entire mission has a more personal and intimate feel to it.

Performing unusual tasks in unexplored surroundings with unfamiliar people leads to unexpected surprises. Miscommunication, misunderstandings and things generally not going according to the plan are almost the norm rather than the exception.

As with any group of people who don’t really know each other very well and have not worked together before there were the inevitable conflicts. While most bumps were smoothed over with a laugh and a hug, some required deeper reflection and the intercessions of others. Letting go of egoism and wounded pride and embracing humility and servanthood are not easy things to do. But the shy smile of a little child, the comforting words of a collaborator and the daily reception of the Sacrament can work wonders. And I hope that the hard lessons I have learnt during my mission will continue to light up my life back here in Singapore.

And there it is: the reason I will be going back to Battambang again at the end of this year (if not before.) ACTS stands for A Call To Share. We travel to Cambodia not only for us to bring change to Cambodia but also to allow Cambodia to bring change in us.