Vice and Slate writer Nathan Thompson encounters a disconcerting side of Khmer rural life: the treatment of stray animals
The dog was a right old mess. Its patchy fur exposed grey skin gathered into folds and each eye was blood red. Its head drooped as it crept around the temple.
I first saw it trying to mount the temple bitch, its member extended like a red lipstick. She shook it off leaving the mutt scrabbling in the dirt and thrusting into the air while she trotted off, her saggy teats swinging.
The dog had some kind of disease and I watched with fascination as it disintegrated over the months I spent in the rural temple. No-one else seemed bothered. The monks didn’t notice, the Pali teacher wasn’t bothered and the clergymen didn’t give it a second glance.
The dog became a key feature of the paranoia that pawed at my nerves. I couldn’t speak the language and my hot imagination soon began to come up with unpalatable interpretations of reality. The fact that I was also the only person who seemed concerned that a zombie dog was eating from the same bowls the monks and children ate from only served to strengthen my isolating sense of paranoia.
You can’t just let diseased mutts run around with impunity. In the UK, diseased dogs are euthanized creating some kind of canine super race. It is only in Cambodia that the true state of affairs is apparent. Here, the dogs show the horrific blossoming of disease.
The lack of hygiene was a fact twanging on my thoughts. Some monks had scabies; the bowls were washed without soap using water from the reservoir that often contained water buffalo. Even though I had developed a powerful immunity the psychological discomfort of simply knowing that my bowl could contain any number of terrifying bacteria and parasites was a problem. I was OK in the end though.
Which is more than I can say for the diseased dog. As months passed it began to lose more of its hair revealing scaly, zombie-grey skin. Gaping red scabs began to appear. Its head hung lower. It began to resemble a limping canine zombie. When I caught sight of the thing I was seized with a horror made worse by the fact that I was the only one that had it. I began to question my sanity.
The other temple dogs were comparatively bright-eyed and vocal – particularly at night when they howled in chorus. When it came to their diseased brethren they engaged in some form of Darwinian euthanasia. They chased away the stricken hound from their bowls in an act of self-preservation for the group – they wanted to prevent the illness spreading.
But their efforts were in vain because the pestilent mutt was sustaining its wretched existence by eating the leftover rice and soup in the temple food hall. The monks would eat twice a day sitting cross-legged on the floor with a gold-painted statue of the Buddha at one end. After they had finished, the laypeople, myself included, would eat using hastily washed bowls and spoons. There are less laypeople than monks so plenty of bowls were left on the floor waiting to be cleared. It was these bowls the diseased dog would snarf and lick at.
In between mouthfuls of rice and dishwater-grey soup I was sickened by the sight of the zombie dog licking and munching from the bowls in heavy rotation at the temple. The clergymen and temple urchins who ate with me were troublingly unconcerned giving only languid waves and grunts if the dog ventured too close as we ate near the statue of the Buddha at the end of the hall.
“You know, in England, if a dog looked like that we would kill it”, I said to the temple English teacher one day. “Why would you do a thing like that?” He replied. For the Cambodians the zombie dog was not something to be despised; they accepted it as part of life.
I began to question my reaction – it was not contagious so why should it die for my own sense of aesthetics? A mercy killing seemed to be a cop-out to deny the true reason I didn’t want the revolting animal around. Perhaps it served as an unwelcome harbinger of the fact that my life too will end in a similar disintegration – a fact the Cambodians seemed more at peace with.
The dog died. I wasn’t there for the burial. Now when I visit the temple there are no lolloping corpse dogs to disgust me. But I learned that if you want to enjoy Cambodia in its true insanitary state then you have to let every diseased dog have its day.