The best snacks were for sale in front of the bus station. Before we were even outside Phnom Penh city limits, I had eaten half of Aya’s shared bag of green, unripe fruit sprinkled with chili-sugar-salt. The mangoes are my favorite. Aya had also bought roasted pumpkin seeds, and as we crunched through them I told her about how the seasons are changing back home, and friends were talking about apple-eating and cider-drinking and pumpkin-picking, cool weather and cozy blankets, and these pumpkin seeds were the closest I’d have to fall this year.
Two hours later, we arrived in Kompong Chhnang province capital, but it wasn’t the end our journey. We had to take a tuk-tuk 60 kilometers down a long red-dirt road to the village where my NGO sponsors a youth club. On the way, we passed green fields of rice, and palm trees with perfect poufs of fronds, so tall and straight they looked like they had been purchased in the tropical décor section at a party-supply store.
An hour into the ride, the day’s ran began to fall in big, rinsing drops. We zipped down the carriage’s heavy canvas sides. The tuk-tuk bumped hard and we rolled to a stop. The driver said he hit a hole in the road and broken a tire; he had to unhitch his moto from the tuk-tuk and walk it down the road in search of a repair shop.
Houses were few and far between, and commerce even more scarce, but my colleagues assured me there were small moto repair shops closer than the province capital and we wouldn’t be spending the night huddled in a moto-less tuk-tuk by an irrigation ditch.
Some time after the rain had stopped, the driver returned with his wheel repaired, and we arrived at our host house just as it was beginning to get dark. This village’s houses were more spread out than the last one I visited, and aside from one close neighbor, I couldn’t see any other homes.
The house was much sparer than the one at my last homestay. The walls were plain board, with sections of woven palm fronds and a plain tin roof. Below the house, raised platforms were used for cooking, eating and gathering. Inside, magazine glamour photos were tacked to the wall, but aside from that there were few material possessions. The owners slept on bamboo mats on a wooden platform, and we slept on bamboo mats on the floor. The steps to the house were slippery beneath my feet.
This village had no evening electricity, and no bathhouses. For light, our host family had a couple of fluorescent bulbs gator-clipped to a car battery; they charged cell phones on the same battery. For bathing and cooking, they collected rainwater in a large ceramic vessel, and bathers wrapped in a sarong dumped buckets of water over themselves. For toileting, the youth club president escorted me, flashlight and hoe in hand, to the mud field where the water buffalo were tied for the night. My colleague called after me to be aware of snakes. The youth club president hacked a hole in the mud, which immediately filled with groundwater from the day’s rain, and waited several meters away to make sure I got back to the house safely.
In the morning, I visited the market with Ratha so we could purchase youth club-meeting snacks from local vendors, and as we approached I saw that it was the center of the village’s activity. Residents were buying food and exchanging the day’s news. Fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and wriggling fish were on display, vendors fried bananas and potatoes, and women squatted behind trays of small cakes. Storefronts sold household items, nonperishable foods, moto parts and gas.
And this time, there was a snake snack for sale.
Back at our host’s home, the youth club’s workshop had already started. The NGO team came here to lead a workshop on self-development: listening skills and speaking skills. It was clear that the youth were excited to be together and meeting with their advisors from Phnom Penh.
In the afternoon, I interviewed some members of the youth club, learned how challenging life in this village is, and how it was representative of so many villages in Cambodia. For most, farming rice is an inevitability, not an economic choice. It pays little, and because there isn’t much modern farming technology available, like irrigation systems, crop yield is almost entirely dependent on weather conditions.
One member of the youth group, a guy who’s 30 and married with a young son, farms with the rest of his family. He only completed first grade, because when he was a child during the years the Vietnamese army was fighting the Khmer Rouge, that was the only education available at the local school. A 20-year-old girl said she completed sixth grade, but when she was 17, because she didn’t begin school until she was 10. It struck me that she was wearing glasses—something I hadn’t seen much, especially in rural communities—and she mentioned that they were new, given to her through a joint effort from several organizations, and she was now able to read clearly. Another guy, 24, was in the process of finishing high school, but since it was 20 km away he was living at a pagoda with the monks. I don’t know if there are any options like this available for girls whose commute to school is too long for a daily trip.
The day’s work ended, and the water buffalo returned home from the rice paddies. We had spicy chicken in addition to our fish and rice for dinner. The flavor was delicious, but like all meat in Cambodia, no part of the animal was wasted: that meant the entire bird has been chopped up, feet and all. Each bite was mostly bone, which a bit of meat and some skin and tendon. I’m not good at eating chicken this way, crunching a bite and then not-so-discreetly depositing the bones back into my hand and tossing them to the dogs waiting beneath our platform.
Aya and I left in the morning so we could travel to Siem Reap for a different youth workshop. We caught a Cambodian shared taxi—a 12-seat van that had at least 15 people already in it—for a ride back to Kompong Chhnang province center. When we arrived I thought we’d transfer to the same kind of large coach bus we took out of the city, but instead we transfer to another 12-seat van, jammed with 18 other passengers.
The back of the van was packed with at least 10 huge bags of charcoal. A dead duck was tied to the back door. I wondered if it was decoration or dinner. Halfway to Phnom Penh, we stopped at a roadside stand, and everybody climbed out. Why? The driver had to wash the van.
My last two questions of the morning:
Q: Why did we have to wash the van? It wasn’t particularly dirty—the windows weren’t caked with mud; the driver could see out—it looked like any other local vehicle that had been driving on a dirt road.
A: Because in the city we could get pulled over for having a dirty vehicle.
Q: Why did we pack 18 people into a van with only enough seats for 12?
A: Because it was “the Cambodian way”: people would rather travel cheaply than safely.
We made it back to Phnom Penh just fine—we didn’t get pulled over, the duck didn’t fall off the back door until the first stop (at which point the driver just tied it right back on), and we had enough time to stop by the office for a shower before heading to the next bus station to travel to Siem Reap.