Since childhood Prince Vessantara had found joy in making gifts of his personal treasures. One day his generosity reached the point where he gave away a sacred white elephant that had brought prosperity to his kingdom. When his people found out, they were furious and thronged to his father to demand that he be removed from the throne. Heartbroken, his father agreed, sending the good prince, his wife and two tiny children into a dark and menacing forest.
The tale of Vessantara, who eventually committed the ultimate act of selflessness by giving away his wife and children and as a reward was restored to his palace and family by the gods, is taught to Buddhist children all over Asia. Tradition says that the prince was not an ordinary mortal but an incarnation of the Lord Buddha, who in a later life achieved enlightenment and broke the cycle of birth.
Small wonder that Vessantara should come to mind among Cambodian refugees who reach the safety of Thailand. Like the prince, these people were driven from their homes through no wrongdoing of their own, and they have survived long and terrifying journeys on foot through hostile countryside.
But not all refugees can remember details of the story clearly. During the four years that the Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot ruled Cambodia, mythological tales, Buddhism and countless other traditions evolved over the country's 400-year history were ruthlessly suppressed. Relics of feudalism, the cadre called them, symbols of the oppression of one class by another.
The Khmer Rouge attempted to unravel an entire way of life and retain only those practices and beliefs that fit into their plans for a totalitarian, agriculture-based society. Through indoctrination and mass executions, the Cambodian character was to be shaped.
Then, 16 months ago, Pol Pot was overthrown. Though his way of life is still enforced in small border enclaves that the Khmer Rouge hold onto, it was discarded with celebration everywhere else. Inside the country and in refugee camps in Thailand, people are rediscovering things Cambodian whether they be mythology, colorful clothes, or merit-making ceremonies.
The refugee city at Khao I Dang is only five months old but already it has a school of classical dance, with 125 students enrolled. The roof is thatch, the floor dirt covered with straw mats and the dancers mostly novice, but one can still see a touching reunion rendition of Vessantara's exile and restoration.
During rehearsals hundreds of people crowd three and four deep outside the school, hoping for a glimpse through its bamboo sides. Those who can't see can hear the seven-member orchestra. The players buried their traditional instruments during the Khmer Rouge years, it is said, then smuggled them out to Thailand. Today they are again making music in the five-tone scale common in the Orient.
With a chorus chanting the story line from stage-right, the dancers perform.
They are dressed in jeans and colored T-shirts bought in Thai markets, the standard garb of the refugee camps. But their movements are Cambodian, belonging to a time centuries ago, with precise, stylized motions that convey the sorrow of the occasion, two adult and two child dancers enact the scene in which Vessantara and his family are called into the place and told of their banishment.
When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, they emptied out the Ecole des Beaux Arts where classical dancers studied and herded them into the fields with everyone else. In the years that followed, many dancers -- there were perhaps 100 in the national troupe in 1975 -- appear to have been executed as reactionaries.
In the past year a few have resurfaced in Phnom Penh, where the new Vietnamese-supported government has fomed them into a national company and sent them abroad. Others have turned up in refugee camps like Khao I Dang, which has two dancers and one instructor from the old corps in Phnom Penh.
he instructor is silver-haired Mom Camel, 47, who despite everything has retained a mature beauty.
She first studied dance in 1941, she says. Then 34 years later, in 1975, she became "a peasant in the rice field." She feels she survived the Khmer Rouge only by playing ignorant. "I never told them I was a dancer. If they had known I probably would have been killed." She smiles lightly, revealing that she lost most of her teeth during her years on a commune.
Cambodians sometimes say that having no religion is like having no rice. They come to Thailand to find rice and there too they have rediscovered their old religion. There is Buddhism, the official faith of the Cambodian people. But perhaps more pervasive in the camps is the worship of spirits. Southeast Asian people were revering spirits centuries before Buddhism arrived from India, and since then the two have become intermingled to the point that the Buddha himself is seen as the chief spirit.
Since Cambodia is still a country at war, the most common request to a spirit is for protection. Children who scurry up and down the dusty lane of Camp 204, a sprawling shantytown perhaps a quarter of a million people often wear amulets around their necks. Sometimes it is a ring -- almost any ring will do -- somtimes a piece of wood wrapped in cloth.
With the right blessing, the amulets protect against "rockets," the Cambodians' catch-all term for rockets, bullets, bombs, shells, landmines and any other weapon of war. Amulets are universally respected -- no soldier, for example, would go into battle without at least one.
Sacred inscriptions and Buddhist iconography applied by tattoo can also give protection. Camp 204 has tattoo artisans, though they are definitely inferior to the pre-war masters, whose work can still be seen in the bodies of older persons. But like one young man who unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his entire torso covered with runny blue, refugees will settle for whatever protection they can get.
In a few huts one sees images of the Buddha, used for more orthodox devotions. Whenever large numbers of refugees build huts in one spot for an extended period, there is talk of building a temple. What better place to receive the Buddhist monks who periodically visit the camps? Such visits are still novel enough to draw a crowd. "For five years they've seen no monks," remarks a monk who had the good fortune to be studying in Thailand when the Khmer Rouge won the war. "Whenever we appear they flock to us to stare and ask questions."
He and two others were visiting the bamboo-and-thatch monastery just opened at Khao I Dang. Moments later they were ushered into a hut where some two dozen people -- most of them old and anxious to acquire merit for the next life -- were patiently waiting. Each person had brought a special dish of food to give as "alms." The monks sat down before an expanse of food that they could not possibly finish themselves.
Reconstructing religion and the fine arts will take years, even under the most favorable conditions. Not so for revival of day-to-day modes of behavior that the Khmer Rouge discouraged.
For instance, the sampeas -- a gesture in which open palms are placed together and raised in front of the face -- is in use again as a greeting. The Khmer Rouge had forbidden it, because the subtleties of its execution -- who did it first, how high the hands were held, how long it lasted -- indicated the two persons' relative social standing. It also had religious overtones.
The refugees' dress in the camps is another case in point. In pre-war days black garments had been common among peasants at work in the fields, with colored clothes being worn on festive occasions. The Khmer Rouge made everyone wear black all the time as a sort of national uniform.
Today when refugees reach the border, the black goes immediately. In the camps' illicit markets the wise merchant will stock the brightest, guadiest batiks for the women. For the men he will have the satisfaction of knowing the black is gone. And at the same time, a culture thought to have been beaten to death after 1975, is gaining strength daily in the refugee settlements.