Coinciding this year with Easter, Cambodians are celebrating Khmer New Year, one of the most important celebrations on the local calendar. Festivities commemorate the end of harvest, giving farmers a chance to frolic and relax before the Wet Season begins. Contributions are given at pagodas before the ensuing paltry months when the monks take a break from their daily routine of parading the streets underneath yellow umbrellas, stopping at every vendor to exchange alms for blessings. Many businesses close for Khmer New Year, as families living away from each other reunite to celebrate. Despite the usual commotion of trade and economic activity coming to a near-halt for the weekend, the streets come alive with a party atmosphere every afternoon. Vehicles even more overcrowded than usual cause traffic jams as hordes converge at parks, temples and riversides. Young people hurl water and white powder at each other and at passers-by. Street performers entertain, pick-up trucks boom music from loudspeakers as their passengers use the trayback as a dance floor, the same music booms from the few open restaurants and bars.
With four days off I wanted to visit various people in the villages which are too far away for me to pop in regularly as I once did. Three expat colleagues decided to come along for the ride. I contacted Dan, who found and booked a hotel that was open for the weekend and we made our way on Friday morning, to Kampong Cham. Dan met us at the bus station, delivering us to the hotel before heading home for his own family celebration. We did not see another tuk tuk at all during the remainder of that day. With no bicycle hire or other transport available, we found a restaurant near the hotel and seat-danced our way through a late lunch. After a rest in our rooms we strolled to the Bamboo Bridge to gate crash the street party.
On Saturday we sauntered along the abandoned riverfront, noticing a solitary tuk tuk parked in the distance upstream where usually there are galores of “Madaming” tuk tuks. Dan called to ask when we needed him. Midway through our conversation he announced “Oh I can see you walking, I am coming now”, as the lonely tuk tuk u-turned and crawled toward us. We drove the short distance to Central Market for a $1.75 Khmer breakfast. The others then climbed on board for a day playing tourist through the villages to Wat Maha Leap (one of Cambodia’s few remaining wooden temples), 20km downstream of town. After waving them off, I hit the smattering of open stalls at Central Market to find clothes for the children I planned to visit. Skinny Tuk Tuk was with his family until mid morning but had agreed to pick me up and drive me in the opposite direction for said visiting. When we met I asked if he’d ever been with me, to John and Sarah’s house, on a remote dusty lane about 15km from town? “No but I know that place, on the left, beside my father in law’s rice field”! A small hut on a small track amongst rice fields in a very small world!
We made an interrupted trip. First via a rice vendor where one by one, two 50kg hessian sacks of rice were heaved onto a shirtless man’s shoulders and piled onto the floorboards of the tuk tuk, making an elevated footrest between the front and rear-facing seats. Second stop was at Skinny’s little home on the outskirts of town. Upon questioning he explained that when they married, his wife had three cows which they sold to get the cash to build this little hut on his parents’ land. Perched on a raised mound to avoid wet season flooding, the concrete floor merges with concrete walls ending at about shoulder height. Panels of red corrugated tin sit on this concrete shelf, forming the remaining walls to the roof, made of the same tin. Square holes have been cut in the tin to form glass-free windows which can be covered over with the excess tin when they need to be closed. A single electrical wire affixed at intervals to the wall climbs to the ceiling where a light bulb hangs down above the centre of the room. This modest little home is clean and obviously loved.
His wife greeted me on the dirt path to usher me inside. As a plastic chair was brought into the room for me his father, lying on a wooden platform bed dressed only in a pair of black silk pyjama pants, sat up abruptly. We held a conversation together in Khmer and English, guessing what each other was saying and smiling in mutual amusement at the experience. Five year old son was sitting on the concrete floor beside grandad’s bed and two year old was swinging asleep in a hammock tied between the foot of the bed and a hook on the wall. After a brief visit, the children were swept up and seated alongside their mother opposite me in the tuk tuk, staring at me in unblinking astonishment. When I started bouncing exaggeratedly with every pothole their serious faces broke into giggles.
About 10km along the track towards John and Sarah we pulled into an elevated wooden home where I was once more invited in, this time to meet the in-laws. Wife and children were spending a few hours here while Skinny and I went visiting. A young brother in law sat beside a hammock suspended between two supporting poles, swinging his baby daughter to sleep; toddlers pottered on the bamboo strip floor, peering out over the homemade bamboo baby gate at the doorway. I was instructed to sit under the ceiling fan and Mother-in-law sat on the floor beside me for more Khmer-English conversation. Bottled water was presented to me and I was asked if I needed the toilet or a shower!
Soon enough Skinny suggested we leave and so we bounced our way down the dirt lane towards John and Sarah’s self-built wooden hut. John was crouched at the back wheel of a motorbike, repairing a puncture at his front door while his customers sat on the homemade wooden table where all visitors convene. Care taking a villager’s cow for a small fee, she was standing beside John chewing on hay, her long triangular ears moving forward as though listening to our conversation as she watched us through long, pretty eyelashes. Chickens and a tiny dog with puppies pottered underneath the table. Skinny heaved the first sack of rice out of the tuk tuk and hauled it into the dirt floored hut, landing it on the raised wooden platform acting as a low mezzanine level where the family sleep and live.
Last time I visited I asked if the children had enough clothes and was told no. In my bag were a few outfits for each of the three children. Once Dad’s customers drove away I presented the clothes. The children’s eyes lit up and 8yo son could not wipe the grin from his face. He and his 6yo sister ran inside the house and pulled the wooden shutter across the square space in the wall to close the window. Moments later they reappeared in a new outfit each, which to my relief fit perfectly – new clothes that don’t fit might as well be second hand. Dad dressed 20 month old and Skinny translated for me that these were not from me, but from family in Australia who want to help. We posed together for a photograph, Dad instructing the children to put their hands together in a gesture of thanks. A beautiful keepsake photograph which I’ve since shared with the donor, whose generosity offers me these joyous moments.
We talked about our plan to purchase a cow with money I received from other family for Christmas and agreed that when I visit next month, the purchase can happen. This has taken a while as I initially thought I could use Cows For Cambodia but they are based in Siem Reap and the transport costs were prohibitive.
As we were sitting in this serenely beautiful place which always evokes my favourite childhood books, Little House on the Prairie, a row of villagers sauntered past us up the track towards Dara’s village, a few km away. Soon enough we said our farewells and began the drive towards Dara’s home. The row of three women and two small boys had entered and were traversing a rice field. As we drove near, one of the women waved us down and Skinny pulled over. She shouted something which included Dara’s name and Skinny asked me, can we take them home because they live near Dara? Sure, jump in! Two of the women and the two boys climbed on board, all feet meeting on the rice sack. The oldest lady stopped on the track, apparently refusing to get on until I insistently waved her in. Later Skinny explained that he had joked to them that it would cost them 10,000 riel ($2.50) and she was too afraid to take it as a joke until he reassured her! They chatted to me in Khmer the whole way, I have absolutely no idea what we were talking about until they jumped off at the corner near Dara’s home, thanking me and calling out that they’ll see me next time!
Hugs and laughter greeted me at Dara’s house and we were ushered up the ladder into the house. Dad hoisted the rice sack onto his back and climbed into the house looking like he’s done this a million times. Lots of conversation went on about where I work now, about Dad trying to work in Siem Reap but his employer refused to pay him daily, meaning the family had no income except once a month on pay day. Dad came home again because they cannot afford to survive without a daily income. Sixteen year old daughter tried working as a cleaner for a wealthy family south of Phnom Penh but has returned home. The incessant search for an income to keep the family afloat is most evident in this robust but struggling family. The children are on holiday, Dara was upset because Mum wouldn’t let him join the New Year party which we could hear booming in the distance. He soon cheered up when I pulled out some clothes which he took to the corner of the room to try on. I hadn’t guessed him well and the shorts and shirts were too big, but a pair of ripped-knee jeans fit. Someone found a pair of scissors and Dad cut the sealed button hole for him before he sat next to me and continued sulking at Mum and Dad while sneaking me the occasional smile.
I promised to visit again next month and we headed back towards town. Unaware that I was in town with friends, Skinny had other ideas for me. We stopped at his in-laws’ home again and this time the plan appeared to be that I would stay for a family party. A pot of steamed rice, a plate of honey-marinaded chicken and a plate of noodles were placed in the centre of the floor and Skinny joined me for the most delicious homemade lunch! They then asked me if I wanted to lie down for a snooze, when I declined, did I want to have a shower? Meanwhile dozens of people arrived, men with ice and beer, women with plates of food, snails and beef and freshwater shellfish were all on offer and when I said no, then surely I wanted a beer? What a thrill it would have been to join a village family for New Year celebrations, but I had to spoil the fun and get a lift back to town, promising to join them next time.
Back in town the others were full of adventure and fun thanks to Dan’s trip to the Wooden Temple with them. Feeling semi-responsible for their enjoyment, it was fun hearing that they’d enjoyed a day in “my” rural Cambodia as much as they had. We joined the throngs at the Bamboo Bridge again for more street partying that night, sitting above the revelers traveling to and from Koh Paen Island as we sipped G&T or coconuts in their shells.