Apr 22 2008
Cambodia’s tourist trail looks like this: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The end. Siem Reap is home to the monumental Angkor Wat (which is what everyone really comes to see) and getting to Siem Reap generally involves passing through Phnom Penh. Our visit to Cambodia was shaping up to look no different, until Brittany stumbled on something intriguing online. An American expat has been going around posting on different travel forums, advertising a homestay opportunity in his Cambodian residence: a small village near the eastern town of Kampong Cham. E-mails were exchanged, and before we knew it, we were adding a slight detour to our Cambodian itinerary. So when we left Phnom Penh early one morning, we did not catch the bus north for Siem Reap. Instead, we headed east, to meet our new friend Don.
Don is originally from Michigan, but has been living in Cambodia for years. When he met us at the bus stop in Kampong Cham (we weren’t especially difficult to spot among all the villagers on the bus), he introduced us to his English-speaking Cambodian wife, Kheang. A twenty minute tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at their village home, where we would stay for the next two nights. Don and Kheang have been operating their homestay for less than a year, but they have a smooth system in place. We would sleep in a stilted bungalow detached from the main house, and eat home-cooked meals with the family. Which includes not just Don and Kheang, but their two adorable children: a 5-year old son (Ra) and a 4-year old daughter (Na). In between sleeping and eating, Kheang would lead us on walks around this village where she was born, acting as tour guide and translator along the way.
Don’s online description touted that we would even LEARN something during our homestay. Ha! I folded my arms, shut my eyes, and turned my head to the side. Not if I have anything to say about it, I smugly thought to myself. It turns out that I did not, in fact, have anything to say about it.
THINGS I LEARNED DURING MY CAMBODIAN VILLAGE HOMESTAY
1. Mosquito nets keep out scorpions
Good thing too. I have been clinging to mosquito netting throughout SE Asia as my best night-time defense against malaria, dengue fever, and the like. When Don told us that their last homestayers had encountered a scorpion in the guest bungalow, I made sure to tuck that frilly mosquito netting up under the mattress. This meant no breeze at night (which was made harder by the absence of any fan) but no venomous tails or pincers either. Fair trade.
2. Ra and Na are the most photographed children in Cambodia
Or so insists Don, who is probably statistically correct. Thanks to the endless cycle of homestayers coming through, these two kids, who have probably never seen a television in their lives, are semi-professionals in the area of digital photography. Looking back over the photographs from our visit, I discovered that half them show Ra and Na mugging for the camera. The other half are out-of-frame shots taken by the kids themselves. Oh well, the kids are just too cute to say no to. Somewhere, Don grunts his disagreement.
3. Fresh tropical fruit is the ultimate dessert
I quickly learned to look forward to every home-made meal Kheang served us, from grilled eggplant to the Cambodian signature dish, fish amok (fish grilled in a coconut). But truth be told, I will forever envy all people from this region their daily dessert. After every meal, Kheang served us a plate of fresh pineapple, jackfruit, and sticky sticky mango. I’d never even heard of jackfruit before a few weeks ago, and I don’t know where to begin trying to describe it. Just look at the picture to the left. As the Greeks would say, it’s very e-spe-see-al. Sticky sticky mango speaks for itself, and has become a staple of my diet that will surely prove painful to remove.
4. OK, maybe it’s a tie with palm sugar
On one of our walks, we stopped to watch some villagers refining palm sugar into warm, maple-colored blocks. Kheang bought several blocks to use for cooking, and the delighted villagers insisted on giving us all samples to our heart’s content. But the hearts of those who have never before tasted palm sugar know no satisfaction. Brittany and I ate a LOT of palm sugar. Considering that it’s like drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle, we should probably be ashamed of that. But it’s so warm and sweet, and really, Ra and Na probably ate more than we did. Later, everyone but Kheang had tummy-aches.
5. There is a reason no one wants my sweet rice balls
We saw one lady in the village sitting cross-legged outside her home, selling little white balls of sweet rice. We’ d already eaten everything else in the village, so I bought six balls for our group, for the price of 100 Cambodian riel (about $0.025). They were so good that after leaving her and walking down the road a bit, I broke off from our group and hurried back to buy some more. I asked for six more rice balls by holding up six fingers and putting on a very hopeful face. She looked surprised, and then started grabbing rice balls by the fistful and stuffing them in a plastic bag. I was confused for a moment, and then suddenly realized she thought I’d asked for 600 riel worth of rice balls. Since 600 riel is still only about $0.15, I let it slide and became the proud owner of an over-stuffed plastic bag of sweet rice balls. With way more sweet rice balls than our group would be able to successfully keep down, I tried offering some to every villager I passed on my walk back to the group. But every time I offered, my intended recipient would lean away from me, laughing, and wave both hands in the air. I began to become confused: why doesn’t anyone want my sweet rice balls? Having been turned down by three different people, I approached a girl sitting in a chair by the roadside, apparently managing a small shop with her brother. I held out my bag and pointed to her and her brother. She nodded (at last!) and I handed her the bag. I waited for her to take some sweet rice balls, but instead, she closed the bag and placed it in her lap. I stood there waiting for her to take a few. She sat there staring at me. I stood. She stared. I looked around, confused. She kept staring. I backed away slowly. She stared. I started walking backwards down the street. She stared. Finally, I turned and hurried away. In all likelihood, she stared. What happened?
Later that evening, Brittany uncovered the answer. What she’d noticed (and I obviously hadn’t) is that whenever a Cambodian wants to give something to another, they give the whole thing. So, if you want to give your neighbor some cucumbers, you don’t come over with ten in your arms and offer five. You put five in a bag, bring it to your neighbor, and give her the whole thing. “Have a few and give me my bag back” is an alien concept. So, my giant bag of sweet rice balls had simply been more than anyone I met had wanted to take off my hands. Until I found roadside girl and her brother, who are probably still eating from that bottomless bag today.
6. To Cambodian children, everything = toy or food
Every house we passed on our village walks seemed to have a yard full of kids, screaming and pulling all sorts of make-shift toys behind them. Beer carton + a bit of string = racecar, and anything not square = ball. Ra and Na were too busy eating everything we passed to have any time for such play. Every time I looked around, one of them had climbed a new tree to grab cashews, mango, berries, seeds, flowers… anything that would fit in their mouths, went into their mouths. There’s some kind of worm that leaves a slimy trail on tree leaves, and the kids love to lick its goo. Yum! Actually, it was striking to see all the village children playing outside, when Ra and Na didn’t seem to have playmates in the village. I asked Don about it, and he told me that the villagers don’t consider Ra and Na to be Cambodian. Since they have a foreign father, they don’t fit neatly into the established social equation, and are thus viewed as outsiders. But Don isn’t too anxious about how Ra will be received by his classmates when he starts school next year: having an American father has ensured that he is much bigger than any other village boy his age.
7. Never trust the Cambodian government
Don and Kheang didn’t always live in this village where Kheang was born. In fact, when they met, both were living in the capital of Phnom Penh. Don was teaching English, and Kheung was working for a NGO, and she had recently purchased a home in the city center. Then, something unexpected happened. Lots of foreign investors got very interested in city real estate, and property value in the capital suddenly soared. For Kheang, this should have been great news: her investment had paid off in a bigger way than she could have dreamed. Instead, the corrupt Cambodian government decided that it should be great news for themselves. One day, government agents showed up at Kheang’s door, and told her that they were claiming her home. It was worth so much now that they had decided to sell it to foreign investors. Oh, but don’t worry: the government had graciously decided to give Kheang replacement property: a small parcel of unfarmable rural land, miles outside of Phmom Penh. Market value: one fifth of the price she’d originally paid for her city real estate. Amazingly, she managed to find a buyer for this rural parcel, and she and Don went about stripping her city home of all useable building materials. With these supplies, and a little bit of cash from her sale, the two moved out to Kheang’s childhood village, bought some land, and built a house. Both Don and Kheung had to leave their jobs in Phnom Penh, and running a village homestay is now their sole source of income. Did I mention that the current “President” of Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla? Makes a lot of sense, actually.
8. Seriously, you can’t trust the Cambodian government
Don and Kheang’s home doesn’t have electricity, which isn’t too hard to believe. We are talking about Cambodia, after all. But here’s an unexpected wrinkle: they live in a village that DOES have electricity. Huh? A couple of years ago, the government came through and connected the village to the power grid. But when they came to Don and Kheang’s small street, they decided that there weren’t enough homes here to justify installing a meter. Translation: not enough money in it to bother working up a sweat. And so, while the rest of the village entered the age of electricity, a handful of homes were simply passed over. Lights shine throughout the village every night, except for one dark patch. Don, Kheang, Ra, and Na are right in the middle of it. With no electricity, we found ourselves turning in at night around 8:30. But as part of some cruel joke, the village chief DID receive electricity, and each night we lay awake into the wee hours of the morning, listening to his outdoor speakers blasting Cambodian karaoke.
Tales of governmental corruption in Cambodia are seemingly endless. I doubt any government has a more transparant facade of democracy than this one. To learn more lessons like these, we highly recommend staying at the Rana Homestay near Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Don has a million and one tales to tell. As a bonus, you can join Ra and Na in enjoying such village delicacies as jackfruit, palm sugar, and sticky sticky mango. And let us know when you go: I’ll tell you where to find a girl with a big old bag of sweet rice balls.