The Kingdom of Wonder is a very flat land. Consequently, any small hill is well known and often named as a “mountain”. One of the first places I visited in Cambodia was perhaps the most well known mountain in Kampong Cham province, where I cycled with colleagues at the end of 2013. During that visit, mesmerised by the beautiful views over the Mekong River and villages stretching along her shores, I took one of my favourite photographs, not knowing the hundreds of times I would travel these specific dirt tracks by bicycle, car, motorbike and tuk tuk, nor the significance that this tiny patch of the world was about to have in my life. Most recently a new meditation resort has been established on this hilltop, where tourists can spend $40 per night on spiritual retreat, perched above extreme poverty that they can remain blissfully unaware of whilst lining the pockets of wealthy entrepreneurs making fortunes off the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
There is a saying here, that Cambodia is the Kingdom of Wonder because everyone is frequently left wondering. It’s an accurate comment. I only returned ten days ago and I’m already reeling in wonder.
I wonder how to control the frizz that a combination of sweat, dust and wind transforms the mop atop my head into whenever I have to go anywhere in this hot, dusty country. Why do I look like some sort of wirey-headed shaggy sheep alongside local women gliding about with straight, silken, shining elegant manes? I wonder at the sensation of a small animal landing on the top of my earlobes before realising it’s beads of sweat which then trickle down my head, neck and back to drench me.
In Cambodia’s oldest and largest Islamic community, we encounter once more the generous hospitality of Cham people inviting us to their home during a crowded wedding celebration. Cham people live in wooden elevated homes much like Khmer people only their houses tend to be built much closer together. My educated guess is that this signifies the closer ties Cham people have with each other. As the mini van pulls up an Islamic woman greets us and insists on taking my bag, wheeling it along the narrow street, then through some alleys, under some houses, and up the ladder of a small home decorated with a combination of satin, velvet and tinsel. An excited bride appears in glittering white with henna imprints on her fingertips to symbolise her newly married status. As we pose on faux velvet seating for photographs I wonder how many people are crowded into this tiny wooden home with one single fan offering the only air movement and just how much hotter I can feel sitting on this warm material with what feels like a thousand pairs of eyes smiling back at me from under an array of colourful hijabs. The bride joins us on a floor mat in one corner of the room as dishes of food are placed in the centre. Three of us dine on beef curry and rice together while the other thousand sit around us, staring and smiling.
We are then guided out of this house by a man in a pink tunic and matching skull cap who tells us about his community and invites us to visit anytime and if we ever need to rest, his home is our home. I find my shoes at the bottom of the ladder, amongst hundreds of others. We meander dirt tracks, past a row of five enormous steel pots sitting on five open fires lined along a tiny gap between two elevated houses with a woman standing at each pot, stirring many litres of beef curry and perhaps hundreds of kilograms of rice. Many dozens of people are seated at tin tables on plastic chairs across at least eight elevated houses, all an extended part of the wedding congregation. We reach the riverside and climb into another house where we are shown the bathroom downstairs past the wire bird coop and I take a shower with a pot of cold water to the rhythm of pigeons cooing, before climbing back up the narrow wooden ladder above the pigeons to pack away my things. On my companion’s insistence I smear more make up over my sweating skin. We are guided back to the brides’ home via a riverside stroll with our guide who talks about the Cham people’s history in Cambodia as a group of men watch him from the sidelines. Back with the bride we pose for more photographs and squeeze ourselves into a space on the floorboards where plates of sweet food are served into the centre of every informal human circle.
Half an hour later the minivan calls to say he’s ready to return us to Chom’s family a little way downstream, where we are sleeping the night. We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing on the wooden platform underneath the family home. During my time here I wonder at how different my experience of being in a bathroom is, compared to most people in the world. And my experience of a kitchen. And my experience of home life in general. As the sun sets over the Mekong, children wrestle each other in the dust; cows pull a wooden cart home from the rice fields; the hum of moto engines interrupts crickets chirping; dogs wander in and out of unfenced yards; neighbours wander the same tracks, stopping in on each other for a chat on dirt floors underneath elevated houses; chickens peck around my feet; a chicken that recently pecked fries with ginger and spices on an open fire beside a pot of boiling rice; customers pull up at the little wooden local store perched at the front of the house to purchase goods; sellers stop their bicycles to offer rice cakes, fruit and other snacks from baskets on their carriers.
As dinner time approaches I’m instructed to “take a bath”. I make my way carefully in the dark to the back of the house and a little brick out house furnished with a hollow concrete block filled with “bath” water next to a squat pan toilet. A plastic pot perched on the edge of the bath serves the purpose of flushing the toilet as well as for “showering” yourself. Standing over the squat pan, I wonder where to hang my toilet bag, pyjamas and towel, then I wonder where to put my cleansers, then I wonder how to coordinate the process of washing, holding, rinsing, drying, in this tiny hot space where sweat and cold water compete fiercely with each other.
As darkness descends, life underneath the house moves upstairs and the wooden front door at the top of the 12 step ladder is locked for the night. Dinner is served on shining wooden floor slats. Grandad gets behind his mosquito net in one corner of the room as someone explains that today he is fasting as Buddha recommends once every seven days. In the morning he puts his mosquito net away and starts to pray by 5am, facing some small monuments against the wall and chanting consistently despite wakeful children and women chatting as we wait for our mini van to arrive for the next leg of our journey. The upstairs bathroom is another new experience, with gaps between wooden slats big enough to send your water waste to the ground about 3 metres below. I wonder if I can step on these slats safely as my hosts reassure me that they are solid and secure. I take a plastic bowl of water from the clay tub to use for brushing my teeth, spitting out through the floor slats as my host places the torch strategically for me to see what I’m doing.
The way home is a combination of mini van, ferry, motorbike and tuk tuk. Paula’s brother and sister arrive at the ferry on motorbikes, pile our cases on the handlebars and we climb on the back, the breeze whirling the wire on my head into even more of a spin just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse! Today Paula weighs 48kg and she is the picture of good health – almost 2.5 times heavier than when I met her in 2014! Another Islamic meal on floormats is shared with the family before our tuk tuk arrives, joins us for breakfast and then we make the final leg of the journey back into Kampong Cham town.
One final visit along the way is a tiny wooden shack sitting precariously on the riverbank underneath the mountain where tourists go for their spiritual retreats. We picked up some noodles and soy sauce for the family along the way. It’s almost two years now since this mother lost her three year old when he drowned in a pond at the base of the mountain. Today she has a tiny newborn baby. I wonder how I can possibly translate my newly acquired health promotion skills as a Child Health Nurse in this environment. In Australia Child Health Nurses working with newborn babies focus on promoting and/or monitoring safe sleeping, smoke free environments, breastfeeding, maternal mental health, growth and development. In this environment the baby is underneath a mosquito net on bamboo slats through which you can see the Mekong waters flowing below. She looks small – perhaps premature or perhaps small for age? There is no way to know. There is no way to weigh her. She has never been, and may never be, weighed. Without appropriate translation I can’t do very much at all. My tuk tuk is reluctant to translate my question about breastfeeding but it seems hopeful as it was a home birth and the family have no money, that Mum has not been targeted by any formula companies who tend to work out of private maternity clinics. A pot of rice is cooking on an open fire as smoke bellows around the open room, the only saving grace being the massive gaps in the floors and walls allowing some dilution of the smoke. I ask my tuk tuk friend to explain to Mum that smoke is dangerous to the baby. I wonder how the house has not already burned down. I don’t know how to address anything else this baby deserves as much as any other baby in the world, so we leave our meagre offerings and promise to visit again.
I wonder all the way home.