A Girl Called Nothing: A Tale of Cambodia

A Girl Called Nothing: A Tale of Cambodia

by Elizabeth Anne Biddle


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I squint through the rising heat waves of the stifling Cambodian sun. They beat down on me like the cane my father uses at home when I bring home no money.
Carved faces watch me pitifully through their dark, stone eyes. I stare back at them, determined not to look away...
Inspired by a true-life encounter between the author,
Elizabeth Anne Biddle, and a Cambodian girl, A Girl Called
Nothing is a vibrant collection including an original short story, Cambodian myths, legends, and history, accompanied by enthralling photos taken by the Biddle family. It is the first book in a series by the author called Through Other
Eyes. Artist Joey Yau hauntingly illustrates these tales of
Cambodia. Perfect for anyone who loves history, adventure,
majestic images and epic stories, A Girl Called Nothing will transport you into one of the most exotically enticing countries of the twenty-first century. By purchasing this book, you will help children in Cambodia who deserve a brighter future. Please visit www.mloptapang.org for more information.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450220170
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/11/2010
Pages: 124
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.29(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Anne Biddle moved from
Seattle to Hong Kong when she was seven and her life has been an adventure ever since. A recent graduate of
German Swiss International School in Hong Kong, she is now attending Smith College in Northampton,
Massachusetts, and studies opera and theater among other interests.

Read an Excerpt

A Girl Called Nothing

A Tale of Cambodia
By Elizabeth Anne Biddle

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Elizabeth Anne Biddle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-2017-0

Chapter One

A Girl Called Nothing

I squint through the rising heat waves of the stifling Cambodian sun. They beat down on me like the cane my father uses at home when I bring home no money. Carved faces watch me pitifully through their dark, stone eyes. I stare back at them, determined not to look away.

My short black hair is drenched in sweat, strung over my face. There are flies at Angkor Wat. They buzz around my head. I wish I could swat them away and move into the beckoning shadow of ruins centuries older than I am, but I cannot. I look at my stubs of legs and the place where my right hand used to be. A landmine, left by the terrible wars of Cambodia, took my limbs one year ago. These wars killed millions and separated families forever ... as they separated my limbs from me.

My McDonald's cup sits beside me. My only friend. My only comfort. On many days I imagine that this cup is filled with the most delicious drink I have ever known. It is a drink that I have craved since I was young. It is a drink the foreigners call "Coca-Cola."

My family is poor. Every day they carry me here. They leave me without food or water, even on days like these.

My life was not always so hard.

I used to be a beautiful girl who would dance like the wind in the grass outside our tiny living quarters. I earned money for my family by singing and dancing in restaurants. I taught myself English. I listened to foreigners speak. I worked hard, but it was all in vain. I could have grown up to be a great woman, a doctor or a teacher. But I am no good now. I cannot walk or dance or write. All I can do is sit up against a stone pillar and beg with my McDonald's cup.

I once thought that the gods had me destined for a life of privilege. I once thought that I was destined for the kind of life that no one had lived since before Pol Pot, the man who had turned Cambodia communist.

Before I was born, Pol Pot encouraged the uneducated people of Cambodia to rebel against anyone who had helped our country become great. The educated were jailed in tiny cells and in what used to be secondary schools and financial buildings; they were kept like dogs. In those halls-halls still filled with an eeriness I cannot describe-Pol Pot's soldiers tortured, killed, annihilated the educated of my country. Corpses piled up to the skies. Blood ran like rain. Everywhere you see the result of Pol Pot's vicious rule. You see many, like me, with missing limbs, forced to beg on the streets. And many, like me, are children.

My life used to be like the beginning of spring, when there was always something new: flowers growing, baby animals with their mothers. Everything was joyful and beautiful to my eyes. Now, the beauty and loveliness of the world has turned its back on me. All I see now is depression and death. It is now a world of too many winters. It is a world of cheating, thievery, and anger. Nothing is living now. All you see is misery.

My parents are starving. My father repeatedly beats me if I don't get enough money. I hate my life, forced to lay here in the heat waves, waiting to die. No one has come to this part of Angkor Wat for three days now. My mother blames me for it. She believes that this is punishment. They don't call me by name. They just call me, "Nothing."

Waves of heat engulf me. They blind me. I see Dara. I blink. I know she is gone. Tragic memories flood back to me.

She was five. Four summers ago, she began getting weaker. She grew paler. We did not have enough money to cure her. My little sister suffered too much. Dara had always made our lives easier. She had loved everything, from the tallest tree to the smallest ant. She was like the beautiful butterflies that I used to see while working in the fields a long time ago. Their gentle and innocent nature used to make me see, even in the most terrible times of my life, that there was good in this world. Like a butterfly, she had to fly for the last time.

There was no burial ceremony or a tombstone. We placed her in the yard that I used to dance in, so long ago. Her favorite flower still grows where she lies, reminding us that love and joy might still exist.

Tendrils of hot air dance with the stone of Angkor Wat. I can see Chea and Dacil coming towards me. They are ready to take me away to a beautiful heavenly paradise. I yearn to go with them, they are gone. I know that they are not coming back. They were killed last winter.

My sisters had been walking home from the market when they decided to take a detour. Their path led them through an abandoned field. One of them stepped on the long-forgotten landmine. My oldest sister, Dacil, was to be married in a few short weeks. The man who was going to marry her, Rithisak, was a shopkeeper in the big city. He has not recovered from her death.

I have daydreamed again. I look up, barely able to open my eyes. There is commotion up ahead. I see a foreign family. Several Cambodians trot beside them. One is holding flutes, another holding shirts.

"Very good quality, Madame," a vendor says to the foreign woman. "Only fifty riels, Madame."

"No thank you!" replies the foreign woman. Next to her is her husband, a tall man with black hair and glasses. Behind them are ... my heart stops. I try to sit up but I cannot. I am too thirsty and dizzy. I put together my stubs of hands. When they get close enough to hear me, I mutter in broken English, "May God bless you and may you have long life. Please, can I get money?"

There are two girls behind them. One of them looks my age. She stops to look at me. Her golden hair is short like mine. She has blue eyes. "Mom ..." she says slowly.


"Look," whispers the girl. She stares at me. So does her mother, father, and younger sister. I squint determinedly at the dusty ground. I am ashamed by my own appearance. I can imagine what people like that would think of a person like me, with my hands and legs missing. I grovel in front of them, asking for money to feed my starving family. They look sad. I wish they would just look away.

I hear someone come towards me, and coins begin spilling into my McDonald's cup. I look into it, and see the largest amount of money I have ever seen!

I am speechless. I bow my mutated body to the dirt floor with all of my remaining strength. I cry, "May God give you long life and prosperity!"

There is silence. I look up. The girl stands in front of me, tears in her eyes. Now I am the one to stare. Our eyes meet. I suddenly notice that she looks very much like me: the same hair style, the same facial features. It was fate to meet.

I watch her turn away from me. She starts to walk back to her family. I lean against the stone pillar once more, an unfamiliar feeling pulsing inside me. Is it happiness? I will not be beaten, and I will not sit here in the sun for so long.

I lean against the stone pillar once more, an unfamiliar feeling pulsing inside me. Is it happiness? stone. I pray to God to bless the girl with the big heart. I close my eyes. The sun begins to sink below the shadowed stone figures standing majestically before me. The Buddha, who had been taking pity on me before, is smiling. He bows to me, like I had done to the girl. He says, "May God give you long life and prosperity." I smile.

"Thank you," I breathe. I close my eyes and fall into a world of dreams, where everything comes true and where butterflies remind you of how beautiful the world can be.

Chapter Two

A Peek into the Past: The History of Angkor Wat and Ancient Cambodia

The Khmer will never perish because they built Angkor Wat, and Angkor Wat is their soul.

Angkor Wat

The story you just read took place in one of the most incredible landmarks the world has ever known. As much as I have loved sharing my story with you, I would also like to share the history of where it took place. In this way, you can understand and love the country as much as I do.

Angkor Wat, also known as Paramavishnuloka (the Great Vishnu Shrine) means "town temple" in Khmer, the native language of Cambodia. Angkor Wat, in the Siem Reap province, is the most massive and magnificent Hindu temple in the world; in fact, it stands as the world's most colossal religious monument. Covering more than 500 acres, an area larger than that the US capitol grounds in Washington DC, it was first built as an ancient capital city, then used as the royal temple, royal reception hall, and, in later centuries, a Buddhist sanctuary. Now a wonder of the ancient world, these stone ruins are visited by more than a million people every year. Thousands also travel through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand to see remnants of other great Khmer relics.

When I visited these buildings at the age of twelve, I marveled at the intricate detail of the stunning stone carvings and the gigantic stature of the structures themselves. Although only a handful of temples and shrines stand today to tell the tale of ancient Cambodia, they are some of the most well-preserved buildings of the ancient world. How Angkor Wat came to be, and how it was rediscovered by western cultures, are perhaps the most remarkable stories of them all.

Ancient Cambodia

In ancient Cambodia, the Angkor region was a magnificent jungle paradise of fertile soils, everlasting supplies of fish from Tonle Sap (the Great Lake), and thriving kingdoms. The Khmer people originally emigrated from India, although they may have been of Mongolian, Malaysian, or Indian descent. The tale of how the Khmer Empire came into existence has been passed down over the centuries and is still told today.

Both Indian and Chinese folklore describe how an Indian prince named Kambu sailed across the turbulent oceans to the mysterious kingdom of Fou Nan, a region within the modern Mekong Delta. Around 2 BC, Kambu happily married a naga (serpent) princess who ruled Fou Nan and settled on the southern shores of modern Cambodia. It was from this blissful marriage that the Khmer civilization began in the ancient capital of Vyadhapura (City of Hunters).

Over the following centuries, the kingdom of Fou Nan prospered and flourished. In the year 6 AD, Fou Nan was combined with the northern areas of ancient Cambodia to form the new kingdom of Chenla. This unification of Cambodia created a vibrant and powerful empire that remained strong until the eighth century, when the country was once again split into smaller regions. Rule of the region fell to warring Indian kings, and Angkor suffered from brutal fighting between states.

The violent wars between principalities ended in 9 AD, when a brave monarch named Jayavarman II declared himself king and reunified the nation, calling it Kambuja. The new capital of Kambuja was renamed Hariharalaya, and the Khmer Empire was finally independent of India and China. It was during Jayavarman II's reign that one religion began to dominate all others: the Bhaki Cult. This religion taught that statues of gods and goddesses would come alive, so its followers treated the statues like human beings, even giving them clothing and food. During the forty-eight years of Jayavarman II's reign, the Bhaki Cult became the Cult of the Devaraja, or God-King. This new religion became a key feature in Khmer civilization for centuries to come.

It was late in the eighth century that architecture became an everlasting symbol of the Khmer Empire. Indravarman IV, nephew of Jayavarman II, is remembered as the first Khmer king to begin the building process. Under his instruction, dams, canals for crop irrigation, and reservoirs like the Barai were constructed. Indravarman IV's son Yashovarman established a new capital called Angkor Thom (Large Town), and from then on Khmer power grew. Architecture remained a central focus of the Khmer people until the region of Angkor was suddenly abandoned. Fortunately, King Rajendravarman II meticulously restored it two decades later.

Five more prosperous monarchial reigns passed. Then a Thai Buddhist monarch appointed his son as the next ruler of the Khmers; by the eleventh century, a new dynasty had begun. It was later in the twelfth century that the vision of Angkor Wat was born.

In 1130, King Suryavarman II initiated the construction of Angkor Wat during the Golden Age of the Khmer Empire. Under his affluent rule, architecture and Buddhism became increasingly popular, and several Buddhist temples were erected in the Angkor region. Although previous kings had worshipped Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, King Suryavarman II worshiped the god Vishnu, also called the Preserver. Therefore, Angkor Wat was built to worship Vishnu, and King Suryavarman II was buried there, embodied as the god himself. It is because of King Suryavarman II's passion and love of architecture that the Angkor region remains renowned today.

Jayavarman VII was the last great king of the ancient Angkor kingdom. In 1181, he undertook the largest building plan the empire had ever known. A legendary conqueror, a merciful ruler, and a fervent Buddhist, King Jayavarman VII greatly expanded the empire whilst warding off attempted invasions from neighboring countries. The structures he built include the magnificent site of Angkor Thom along with hundreds of temples, hospitals, rest houses and buildings, as well as a vast network of roads, across both modern Cambodia and Thailand. The empire was far from perfect, of course; slavery ran rampant throughout the realm, and the king spent vast wealth on foreign escapades. By Jayavarman VII's death, the height of Khmer splendor was dwindling, and the ancient civilization was close to bankruptcy.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Khmer were increasingly threatened by China, Thailand, and Vietnam, and the ravages of constant wars were extensive. Thailand, also known then as Siam, began to retake and plunder large sections of the Khmer Empire. All Khmer men were conscripted into defeated armies; the population dwindled until it was practically non-existent. The construction of glorious Khmer buildings, once the pride of the Khmer people, grew terribly expensive, and the labor became tedious and time consuming. By 1431, Angkor Wat had been abandoned and the Khmer Empire had fallen. Today, descendents of the Khmer people are spread throughout Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. However, it is interesting to note that many Cambodians are believed to be descendents of the very architects and artists who made Angkor Wat great, and modern Cambodians speak the same language as their skilled ancestors.

Though much knowledge about the Khmer Empire has been lost, the ancient civilization has left us with the grandeur of Angkor architecture. It is because of these spectacular structural feats that the ancient Cambodian people are remembered and revered today.

Life of the Khmer

Even as it began to decline in the thirteenth century, ancient Cambodia remained a conglomeration of thriving cities and lush jungles, and international trade still boomed. Therefore, much of our knowledge of ancient Cambodia derives not from Cambodia, but from China, one of its major trading partners.

Late in the thirteenth century, the Mongol emperor Timur Khan, predecessor of Kublai Khan, sent Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan (pronounced "Chou Ta Kuen") to live within the Khmer Empire. Between 1296 and 1297, Zhou Daguan lived in the ancient capital and wrote Notes on the Customs of Cambodia. Luckily, a good portion of this manuscript survives today and is the source for much of what we know about the life of the ancient Khmer people.

At the height of the Khmer Empire, Cambodia comprised thirty thriving cities. Rich families basked in the spectacular and vibrant cities-twenty thousand families lived in wooden houses on stilts around Angkor Wat-and could own more than one hundred slaves at a time. The poorer families lived in the countryside and tended to livestock and farming. While there was not a specific caste system, intermarriage between rich and poor rarely occurred.


Excerpted from A Girl Called Nothing by Elizabeth Anne Biddle Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Anne Biddle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


A Girl Called Nothing....................1
A Peek into the Past: The History of Angkor Wat and Ancient Cambodia....................15
Buddhism in Cambodia....................47
Twentieth-Century Cambodia: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime....................53
Cambodia Today....................73
The Children of Cambodia and M'Lop Tapang....................91
Meet the Artist....................103
Meet the Author....................105

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