Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Village

Once we’d made our way through visa adventures (we were last in line for some reason) and changed some money in the tiny Siem Reap airport, we were met outside by a guy holding a sign emblazoned with the PEPY logo and our names. This was Yut, our guide for most of the trip. We made a quick round of introductions, and he led us to a van. I was pretty loopy from the whole getting up at 4am (3am, Cambodia time!) thing, and it was now about 8:30.

  Yut explained that we were going to head to the village homestay straightaway, with a stop along the way to visit a silk-making place. He passed us some snacks (one bag was full of chips and things, the jackfruit chips being my favorite, and the other bag was full of assorted fruit like tiny bananas, lychees, mangosteen, and other things too exotic to be within my memory grasp), and then we were seeing how silk was made, both old and new methods of spinning, dyeing, weaving, and so on. Cambodian silk is always a yellow color before dyeing. We got to hold silkworms!

Next, we stopped for lunch; Yut said it was an early lunch, but to me it felt like about the right timing.. we’d been up for a whole day’s worth of time, and it was throwing me off. Yut casually explained what kind of ice is okay to have in your glass (round cylinders with holes are okay, but stuff that looks like it was maybe hammered off a big ol’ block is not so good) and ordered us a round of freaking delicious soup and other food.

We progressed on the road to Banteay Chmar, which is northwest of Siem Reap, near the Thailand border, stopping once for gas (and fried banana chips sprinkled with a dusting of sugar). Spent most of that time just staring out the window at the landscape. Miles and miles of houses on stilts, muddy large-puddles or mini-ponds filled with ducks by the roadside, large expanses of now-dry Riceland populated with wandering cows.

At Banteay Chmar, we settled our stuff in our homestay locations, two houses across the street from one another, and regrouped at the town’s local center for tourism and international things, which we came to consider our base or clubhouse, as we often met and ate there.

We had our first language lesson with Yut, who had taught us some Khmai (Khmer) in the van (we had immediately wanted to know how to say things like hello and thank you). Being a whole team of language teachers, we practiced it on each other. Then we took a walking tour to one of the small temples that is part of a set of eight that surround the big temple of Banteay Chmar. A group of cows made way for us and we learned about the four-faces style of the Cambodia temples from our locally (as in Banteay Chmar) based guide, and from Yut (who is from just outside Siem Reap).


We walked back through the village saying hello and taking in sights as we headed toward dinner at our clubhouse. Over dinner, we discussed an article we’d been asked to read about the recent flooding in Cambodia. The big lake between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Tonle Sap, grows and shrinks with the rainy and dry seasons (that is why houses are often built off the ground level), but this year the rainy season brought flooding more extensive and intense than in years before (read about it here).

After dinner, we were all pretty tired. We returned to our homestays where I washed up with the ladle and resovoir of rainwater in the tiled bathroom while Kameron, Katie, and Miriam practiced Khmai with our host family in the ground-floor living room. We then went upstairs to bed under mosquito nets in little wooden rooms with the shutters open. Our local guide had explained we can shut the windows when we get cold, and we’d laughed, but that night the wind made things pretty chilly and we ended up taking his advice.

Being in the village was like hitting the opposite of everything I had been sunk in even just the day before, in our plush hotel in downtown KL with room service breakfasts and shopping malls across the park at KLCC. I felt, in Banteay Chmar, farther away than I had ever, ever been from everything I had ever known. Our homestay house was a rich one, I knew, because they had a TV and it was on in the evening when we came back. Across the street there was parked a Toyota Camry. There wasn’t running water, so you flushed the toilet by pouring water in with a ladle-scoop. The roads were dirt, and incredibly dusty in this dry season.

That's the front door; our rental van at right.
 Kids ran around both shoed and barefoot, chickens seemed to be living the free-range life. Everything seemed much more raw and vivid, like the terrifying idea of living hand-to-mouth, only for real out here, not through some conduit of paychecks and well-lit open-late grocery stores. There were no grocery stores, nor things that required 24-hour refrigeration because the electricity turned off at night. That’s why (I conjecture, anyway) Cambodian coffee is served with condensed milk (and fresh milk is more a sign of luxury). Trash just littered the streets near the front of the market area, old, part of the ground almost.

Charging batteries for nighttime use.
The children were curious, the people were all very friendly. They were poor, of course, but there was something else. We, from America, New Zealand, and Canada, could make comparisons and think of what they lacked, but did they even know? And if you have never had a thing, can you miss it, can you long for it?

It was sort of.. swallowing. Certainly perspective-lending, which I will say I found myself in perfectly fitting need of right at that time. Beneath the Cambodian winter sun, standing on the dust and watching the dogs wander and people go by on trucks piled high, on bikes seating two or three, on long-horned automotive creatures, it really could not matter about this or that or all those other things I had already forgotten as soon as we got out of the van. The world is so, so much bigger, with so so many more problems, issues, opportunities, and things to understand than we can possibly know.

 Outside our bedroom window lived an extremely loud goose. Even without the goose, though, we were wakened early by a loudspeaker somewhere blasting music and sounding like a morning radio show (was that the weather in Khmai?) or something. I drowsed through it with my mad combination of sleeping-near-a-highway skills and earplugs until about dawn, when we all rolled out and back to the clubhouse to get ready for this second day in the village.

In the morning we went through the market, full of goods (someone tell me why Angry Birds are all over Southeast Asia?) and another part with food, buckets of still-flopping snake-headed fish, women shooing flies off of cuts of meat, lots of fruit and vegetables. Everyone who smiled at you when you said hello, or smiled at them, or sometimes for no reason at all. Little kids shouting hello in English.

I didn’t take any photos because I felt self-conscious about it, and because once we reached the end of the market and turned around, something was happening on one side. A woman was shouting at a man. I happened to be walking near Yut, so I asked him what was going on. “Domestic violence,” he said as we edged past the couple. I blinked. The woman had a meat cleaver. No way. “She’s very angry, he’s drunk.” Yut added.

In the rainy season, people have to work hard and fast to plant rice and get everything taken care of in time, but once it gets dry and wintery, people can relax more. It’s the harvest, and wedding season too. Our bike ride through the area had us end up near a place where day one of a wedding was to be held later that day. The preparation, a grooming ritual about cutting hair and making yourself ready to wed, I think.. there are seven days in a usual wedding, and on this day the bride and groom would wear red. We decided to go back to it after lunch instead of going straight to the old temple.

We visited another silk weaving place, and this time I bought a few things. We had another delicious lunch and learned some more Khmai (counting!), read some articles and had a nap before heading back to the wedding.

The goddesses are at far left and right
The wedding was strange to me, not for the customs but for the way we were treated. We were given seats and included like what I would call guests of honor, even though we were foreign strangers. I felt like we were gatecrashing a family event, but I heard later that they felt really honored that we came to that part of the wedding, graced it with our curious presences, I suppose. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that exactly. The wedding’s leader/holy man/emcee was really cool, and a pair of other people did a skit about goddesses coming to earth. It sounded like there was wordplay going on, and one of the goddesses was a guy dressed up in makeup, but all in all it was very cool. Lots of bright colors and music, and kids running around, playing games where if you win you get to hit each other.

From there, we headed to the temple, where we climbed all over. I’m used to sites where you can’t really touch anything, but this was a whole other place. We learned a bit about the naval battle and the fromage trees that are destroying temples everywhere (even if you cut them down, they come up somewhere else from the same root system, I think?). A boy from town followed us around, I guess to practice English.

Naval battle!

Fromage trees

As evening fell, we returned to homestay to clean up, another bracing rainwater bath, then we had our picnic dinner. We went back to the temple ruins and sat under the stars (there are a LOT of stars out there) by candle and torchlight while musicans played traditional instruments and had our dinner. A group of French tourists sat nearby, but I think we were having more fun than they were. After we finished eating, we got up and were taught traditional dances around a torch; we laughed and flailed. It was one of the magical moments of the trip, for me. Simon taught us the Maori haka, and we thanked the musicians and the cooks from the clubhouse and our local guide, because we were to leave the next morning.

The village stay, since it was so very far from everything, everything, is one of the most significant parts of the trip to me. I think I may still be working it all out.. something about living simply, about needing and wanting, about work or freedom or… something.

Katie with Tupaco

View from our homestay upper porch
More photos from this part here.


  1. I just have to get this out of the way first, but your group jump photo is the most awesome one I've ever seen. You all timed it so well and got ridiculous amounts of air/hang time. :) Anyway, I can totally understand how this part of the trip was one of the most significant for you, indeed, magic. I feel the same way about the mission trip to Mexico I took the summer after GHP. I'd love to know what it is you took from your experience if you've worked it out yet. I have very strong feelings about "living simply, about needing and wanting, about work [and] freedom", and I'm very curious to hear your thoughts about it all. :) I'm loving your stories and photos and can't wait to hear the rest. It was clearly an amazing trip. Oh, and kayatoast sounds AMAZING, like, exactly the kind of stuff I'd want to spread on my toast in the morning. I guess I'll just have to settle for butter and apricot preserves. :)

  2. Thanks for the comment, F. More jumping pictures to come!
    I am starting to figure it out, but I might respond in a post rather than a comment? We'll see... :)
    Apricot preserves sounds good, too!