The taxi driver hoisted my suitcase on his shoulder, stepped gingerly around the puddles and slopped through the mud on the earthen path to my homestay family’s stilt house. He had just driven me three and a half hours north of Siem Reap, into the bucolic rice-fields-and-palm-trees wilds of northern Cambodia, a half hour from the Thai border.
Sokoun, the smiling, soft-spoken village resident who had coordinated my homestay, sloshed with us onto the concrete-paved living area under the second story of my host family’s wooden home.
A middle-aged couple, the man in a polo shirt and shorts and the woman in a bright sarong, stopped what they were doing and turned to us. “Don, these are your hosts,” Sokoun said, indicating the man and woman, who were both now smiling broadly. “They don’t speak much English, but they are very happy to have you here.”
They said something to Sokoun and he turned to me. “They said welcome to their home. They hope you will be comfortable and happy.”
The man gestured toward a wooden staircase that rose to a sleeping area above the ground-floor, no-walls living room. The taxi driver flicked his sandals off and carried my bag up the staircase. I pried off my muddy shoes and ascended with my backpack.
Sokoun called up to me, “Make yourself at home! I’ll see you in two and a half hours for our tour of the ruins!”
The taxi driver set my suitcase beside the queen-size, four-poster, mosquito-netted bed that dominated my bedroom, said he would see me for the return trip to Siem Reap in four days, and left.
I stood alone in my room. Outside a rooster crowed, then more in succession. Dogs barked; a baby wailed. Adults called back and forth from home to home. I looked out my barred windows at a half dozen wooden stilt homes, palm trees, muddy open spaces, a scrabbly vegetable garden, smoke pluming from a garden fire. The noontime sun seared through the windows. The humidity hammered on my brain.
Entirely overwhelmed, all I could manage was to lift the mosquito net and crawl under it to lie on top of the bed. Two questions careened through my head: “What am I doing here? And how can I possibly survive three nights?”
I lay like that for two hours, unable to move, listening to the cock-a-doodle-doos and yaps and wails and cries of the world outside. Then I realized I needed to get ready for my tour.
I made my way unsteadily down the stairs. In the living area the husband knelt in a corner, cleaning a tool. The wife was chopping some green vegetables. She pointed to a bundle of blankets beside her, where a tiny miracle of a baby lay.
“Oh!” I said. “Beautiful!”
“How old?” I asked.
Three,” Dad said. “Three mon.”
“Three months!” I said. “Wow! So beautiful!”
There was silence. We all smiled. I pointed to my watch and made a walking motion with my fingers. “I go on tour now.”
“OK, bye-bye,” they said.
I had arranged my visit through the website of the Community-Based Tourism group (CBT) of Banteay Chhmar, the northern Cambodian village where I was staying. Sopheng, the president of the organization who also turned out to be my tour guide, had told me that because my host family wasn’t equipped to serve meals to guests, I would be eating my meals at the CBT office, a two-room thatched-roof building that doubled as a classroom and library for the community and was a two-minute walk from my home.
After an afternoon touring the ruins, I returned home, found the family’s concrete-walled toilet-bathroom and showered in the trickle of water that dribbled from a wall-mounted shower cable, napped for an hour, then walked back to the CBT for dinner.
By the time I finished dinner, it was dark. Sokoun gave me a large, high-power flashlight—much better than the pocket version I’d brought—and I walked down the unpaved main street trying to figure out which house was mine. I kept walking for about five minutes, until the road was framed by rice fields and thickets of trees. I turned around and walked slowly back. Finally my light found the one-foot-by-two-foot sign planted at the side of the road that said in English “Homestay.”
My hosts were hunched in their alfresco living room around a cooking burner. I saw the veggies Mom had been chopping earlier and something that looked like dumplings sizzling in a pan. They waved and I walked over to see more closely what they were having for dinner, then—suddenly fearing that out of custom, they might feel obligated to ask me if I would join them, and then I would have to either awkwardly say no and start our relationship on an unacceptably rude note or enthusiastically say yes and be rendered sick for the ensuing three days by whatever they offered me to eat—I pressed my palms together and put them under my head. “I go sleep now,” I said.
“Goo nigh,” they said, smiling.
The next morning I rose at dawn and spent the morning touring the ruins on my own, and then with the manager of the Global Heritage Fund-supported group that is working to restore the magnificent site. The tour ended at noon, and as I walked down the dirt road past the CBT office toward my home, I spied some kids playing in the dirt. I gave a tentative wave. Their eyes lit up and their faces brightened into ear-to-ear smiles. “Hello! Hello!” they said, waving wildly.
A few houses farther down a mother balanced a child on her hip. I waved again. “Hello!” the mother crooned. “Hello!” the child echoed.
When I reached my home, Mom was in a hammock rocking Baby. I came over and extended my left pointer finger, and Baby latched on. We all laughed. After a few minutes, with Baby still latching, Mom said something to Dad. He laughed. Still Baby latched. Finally I took my right hand and slowly but firmly unlatched my finger. As I extricated the digit, Baby latched onto the pointer finger on my right hand. The adults howled.
Finally I managed to escape and clambered up the stairs and under the mosquito net for a much-needed nap. Soon I was awakened by the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced.
As the rain cascaded, the village sprang to life: Mothers and children ran to grab laundry from clotheslines, chickens clucked into storage areas under raised floors, people hustled back and forth to huge open-air water containers, bearing buckets which they filled with rainwater and then carried back to their homes, where they emptied them into enormous covered ceramic vessels.
A quartet of kids emerged from the surrounding houses and started gleefully jumping in the puddles, diving into them and skidding through them, pedaling their bicycles crazily through the miniature mud swamps and ponds. As water coursed through the compound, Dad yelled something and the kids set to work gathering materials to build a dam to slow soil erosion. Two of the kids quickly tired of this and returned to puddle-jumping, but the others kept at it, finding a plank of wood here, a brick there, a sharp branch they could pound into the soil to keep the homespun construction from toppling. After 20 minutes of focused effort, they had managed to erect a passable dam.
Eventually the rains stopped and life steamed back to normal. When it came time to walk up the road to dinner, I decided to walk the other way first. I passed placid cows and corralled horses and families gathered in their under-house, open-air living areas. I waved and the children broke into huge smiles, calling “Hello! Hello! Hello!” and sometimes “Bye-bye! Bye-bye!”—their laughter and eyes as pure as the air.
Soon everyone was greeting me—teenagers on motorbikes, young mothers bent over cooking pots, middle-aged men sitting around tables and talking over beers. I reached the rice fields and tree thickets of the night before and saw that beyond the fields was the gleaming golden roof of the local Buddhist temple. Shaky festival music from a makeshift speaker drifted across the paddies.
The next day, after a morning tour of other nearby temple ruins, I again walked back home for my afternoon nap. By now I recognized people—the elegantly attired gray-haired woman who always smiled serenely my way, the model-beautiful young mother who waved her baby’s hands and said hello, the hipster teen who spent a few hours each day working on his motorbike, the neighbor kids who studied English at the CBT classroom and asked me, “How are you today?” then answered “I am very fine!” when I asked them in return.
Back home that evening, as the sun was setting and dusk was settling over the village, I prepared to leave for my final dinner in Banteay Chhmar. Before I descended the stairs, I stopped on the second-floor covered porch of my home and thought, I can’t believe my last night is already here. How quickly it’s come!
I looked out on the compound. I can’t say that I silently wished to live there forever, and I can’t deny that a part of me was exulting in the prospect of hot showers, flush toilets, and the comforts of my other home—but still, in that moment, sadness sat heavily on my soul.
I surveyed the suddenly familiar world around me: the stilt houses, the tilting palm trees, the roosters pecking, dogs scampering, parents bathing naked babies, children inventing games with sticks, the neighboring seven-year-old careening on her bike through the muddy puddles, the next-door neighbor mending his fishnets in the dying light. Dad was below me, I knew, rocking Baby in the hammock, and Mom and the woman with the serene smile were stirring food in a pot.
I breathed in as deeply as I could and tried to absorb that singular moment, that singular whole: I wanted to bring my village home.
Here are four books that offer abiding insights into ancient and contemporary Cambodia:
- A Woman of Angkor, by John Burgess, illuminates the rites and rituals of 12th-century life in the Khmer kingdom—which, at its height, included much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia—as majestic Angkor Wat is being built. Burgess focuses lovingly on mundane subjects such as rice cultivation and temple construction—as well as on the intricacies of palace intrigues and political maneuverings—to create a rich portrait of Cambodia’s ancient past.
- Complementing A Woman of Angkor, John Shors’s historical fiction Temple of a Thousand Faces focuses on the later 12th-century period when rival Cham forces under King Indravarman IV overran Angkor Wat and wrested control of the empire. As in Burgess’s book, Shors interweaves tales of commoners and royals to bring the era—and the new Khmer King Jayavarman VII’s quest to restore his people to power—to palpable life in this sweeping novel.
- Norman Lewis is one of the 20th century’s most discerning travel writers and Asia aficionados. In A Dragon Apparent, Lewis recounts his journeys in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in 1950, near the end of French colonial rule. His eloquent tales and reflections reveal an area and an era on the cusp of change—as well as the gentle manners and aesthetic sensitivities that still distinguish Cambodia today.
- Just decades after Lewis’s travels, Cambodia was shattered by Pol Pot, a brutal despot who masterminded a campaign of genocide that killed more than one-quarter of the country’s population in the 1970s. Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan describes the atrocities of these years and the remarkable resilience of the Cambodian people as embodied in the main character, a girl named Raami who, though only seven years old at the beginning of the book, manages to retain both her heritage and her humanity. Ratner’s deeply personal fiction is an indelible historical record and an inspiringly transcendent testament to the redemptive power of hope and love.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.
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