One of the greatest pleasures of traveling in really different places is seeing how regular people live there. Not the wealthy, not the expats, but the working local people. We’ve had three days of exposure to local life here in Cambodia now (“we” are the eight other people on this trip with me, although one is Cambodian, so he’s not being exposed to anything new).
Monday it was a five-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang. (This was a regular public long-distance bus, albeit nicely air conditioned.) Leaving the capital we saw shanty houses on the outskirts of the city, then farming towns separated by miles of padi fields, and finally, just before Battambang, acres and acres of flat, wet padi fields. I was reminded of Bali (but without the hills) and the northeastern part of West Malaysia — although here there is more attap and less wood for walls, and far fewer “mansions” (stucco-covered brick houses with multiple rooms and tile roofs) than in Malaysia.
Into the Villages
My motorbike driver told me there are three kinds of roads in Cambodia: (1) dusty roads; (2) roads with holes; (3) slippery roads.
Tuesday (yesterday) was fantastic, for the very reason I chose to travel with this company — we were put on motorbikes (with well-experienced local riders) and taken into the countryside via narrow dirt roads covered with potholes. (As soon as I find a decent Internet connection here in Siem Reap, I will upload some photos.) We went to people’s homes where they work making rice noodles or rice paper crepes to sell, and we went to a place where a few dozen people were making mega-quantities of fish paste, a staple in local cooking. Each of those three stops was separated by about 30 minutes’ ride, accompanied by very informative conversation with my moto driver, Bao. He attributed his excellent English to three years of language studies, after which he worked in the hotel business for some time.
After observing the local food industries we rode through multiple rainstorms (stopping at random people’s houses when it rained too hard, and once at a temple) to a mountain, the name of which I will find out later (there was a temple at the top), and which only three of us (not me) felt like climbing. Man, the road to that mountain was outrageous — potholes the size of ponds, and all of it coated in mud. Bao’s skill with the bike blew my mind. He could take a strip of road no more than five inches wide between two craters and never slip. Meanwhile, big white oxen, small dogs, or an occasional child wandered into our path, and Bao would beep the horn and slow down or swerve, and all was well. We ended up going back a stretch of dirt single-track to a farming family’s house, where they served up rice wine and fresh bananas and fresh pineapple. (By “fresh,” I mean they cut the fruit off the tree as we were arriving.)
Life on the River
Today we boarded a narrow open-sided motor boat with a solid roof and cruised up the river to the Tonle Sap Lake, which we crossed to reach Siem Reap. We left the dock at 8 a.m. and disembarked at 2 p.m., with only one short stop to stretch our legs (the boat seating consisted of two long benches with vinyl-covered foam cushions) and use a toilet at the back of a one-room house that doubled as a shop and a restaurant. The house was up on stilts in the water, like all the other houses. As you might imagine, the toilet was a hole cut into the floorboards, but it was tastefully surrounded by four walls of corrugated steel.
On today’s journey we saw not only numerous houses and villages on stilts — both in the water and on the banks — but also all kinds of boats big and small, fish pens and fish netting apparatus, cows lying down beside giant haystacks of rice straw, and people bent like upside-down L’s in the wet fields, pulling up padi to be transplanted to new fields. The rainy season is just beginning, and the small temporary homes at ground level will soon be flooded.
Delightfully, children everywhere run to the edge of whatever they’re on — boat or riverbank or veranda — and wave frantically at us and shout “Hello! Hello!” We wave back and reply “Hello!” (This happened Tuesday in the kampungs as well.)
When we got off the boat, a mini-bus was waiting for us. It had just started to rain. We didn’t get very wet, but the road very quickly turned to mud soup. There was one small hill that the two buses ahead of us got stuck on, unable to gain enough traction to make it to the top. After quite some time, the first bus started up again and disappeared over the top. Then another long delay, and finally the second bus went onward. Now that it was our turn, we saw what was going on — a large backhoe (part of a parallel road construction project) sat at the top of the hill with a long canvas strap attached to the hoe arm. Our bus driver handed a metal attachment to a man standing outside in the rain. He connected the metal piece to the strap, and put it underneath the front of our bus. The backhoe’s giant arm swung gracefully away from us and dragged our bus up over the crest of the hill. We stopped to allow the detaching of the strap. Our driver opened his window and the wet man returned the metal attachment. We continued on to our hotel.