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Over the last week or so the Khmer people were celebrating Pchum Ben. A holiday where they honor their ancestors and spend time with their families. I was fortunate enough to get an invite from my host Pastor to join him and his family in the province of Kampong Thom. I accompanied him on his journey home on Sunday the 11th. We hopped on his moto bike and traveled out of Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom. Our journey was about six hours in total from start to finish including a nice stop for lunch and a quick hammock break as well as a few other stops to stretch our legs. Upon arriving I realized I was no longer in the city anymore, I was going to be a country boy for the week. Here are some observations that I had during my time in Kampong Thom:
- The villages are becoming more modern.
The typical ox and wheel cart are taking a backseat to the motorized tractor pictured below. You see this everywhere in the village, many people use them for various transportation needs. It can transport: people, animals, food and much more in large quantities. The steering mechanism is quite interesting though, when making sharp turns the driver must get off their seat and walk alongside the cart as they make the turn. Overall it works quite well and has become very popular. It fits like a glove onto the small roads of the village as well. Just wide enough to navigate the narrow pathways that lead through the neighborhoods.
Electricity is making its way to the villages as well. Some people have had it longer than others. The first village I visited seemed to have had it for a while where the second place I stayed had just gotten it the year before. However, I am assuming there are still some places that don’t have it as well. Some houses had a TV and some didn’t, I did see a few that had satellite dishes on the side of their house as well. Water doesn’t run unless you pump it yourself from the well or splash it on your body with a cup but that seems to be just fine for the people it serves.
- Khmer Picnics are a blast.
It was about 3 o’clock on the first full day of me being in the village when the pastor’s wife came in and said it was time to go. I quickly grabbed my camera and walked down the stairs to wait for our departure. I sat there as a large tractor (as described earlier in section 1) pulled up and parked itself. We loaded it up and all 18 of us hopped on the flatbed and left for the field. We maneuvered the roads in the main village and then got to the entrance for the rice fields. It was a small stream that ran through the middle of the rice fields. We went fearlessly into the small stream and continued our bumpy pursuit of our destination. The destination was pretty far into the rice fields and the stream was no different than the bumpy path we had veered from. The way I would describe it was a lot like maneuvering uneven speed bumps every few feet or a street with many large potholes. Not the smoothest ride but what is fun about that? When we arrived some 30 minutes from when we began it was time to set up our picnic. I helped unload and lay some things out, others went off to gather plants and things and others began to start the process of cooking. A few people grabbed some mint leaves, some grabbed grapes and others grabbed some sticks that were carved into homemade chopsticks that we all used to eat.
As we ate and drank and had a wonderful time it began to sprinkle a little. I found shelter for my camera and then was right back sitting with my friends enjoying the rain and each other’s company. It slowed after about 15 minutes and we decided that was probably the lighter version of what was coming. So we packed up and began our journey home. As we left we were blessed with a beautiful sunset over the rice fields, a sign and reminder of how great today’s picnic was. About five minutes later it was pouring rain. Luckily we were prepared and had brought a large clear plastic tarp. We spread it from front to back of the flat bed and everyone was sheltered. As we were going along I realized there was a hole large enough to sneak my head through. I poked my head through and looked around at the rain storm happening outside. It was gloomy and dark and wet. I decided to turn my head to those at the back and smile…. They all laughed and began to speak in Khmer and laugh some more. Our trip home took a little longer at around 45 minutes but we all returned safely and decided to wait out the storm for a little bit before we unloaded all our things. We waited about 30 minutes until the storm had calmed down. We unloaded, washed up and got ready to go to bed. Before we went to bed the Pastor turned on “Puss in Boots” for his kids… Little did he know that was one of my favorite movies so I joined them on the floor and we all laughed and enjoyed a wonderful movie before bed time.
- Cheers…. A lot.
Pchum Ben is a celebration. When people celebrate they sometimes drink beer. When Cambodians celebrate and drink beer they like to “cheers” every 2-5 minutes on average. One person either seeks out someone in the circle and initiates with them, or just holds up their can/cup and everyone else joins. I loved it!
- I was an uncommon yet honored guest.
I only say I was uncommon because of the way I was looked at. It seemed as though many people who look like me don’t make their way to the village. As I rode through the village on a moto, danced at their village wide dance, or visited some of the friends of my host pastor I was stared at. A lot of the stares led me to believe that they don’t see people like me often. However, I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I am just that good looking that people can’t help but stare. People looked long and hard at me regardless and always had a lot of questions about where I was from, what my culture was like, and why I looked the way I did. Questioning my hairstyle, nose size, and choice of facial hair.
Despite me being so different from them I was very well received. Anywhere I went I was offered food and drink before I could sit down. I was always offered a comfortable place to sit, sometimes at the expense of someone else. I didn’t really know how to say no and spare that person’s seat, but they never outwardly showed being offended by having to give up their seat. At one point I realized that my presence at my Pastors parents’ house caused the death of a chicken. It is custom that when you have a special guest you kill a chicken is what my host pastor told me as he cut the neck of the chicken right in front of me. I never felt unwelcome and always felt appreciated and special. The hospitality was amazing and something I tried to not take for granted.
- Khmer dances are extremely fun.
One night my pastor told me he was going to take me dancing. If you don’t know me then you wouldn’t know how much I like to dance. I was very excited for this opportunity. After dinner he told me to change from the clothes I was wearing into a shirt with a collar and into some pants. I did so and we were off. It wasn’t hard to find the dance as we just followed the sound of the blaring music coming from close by in the village. We arrived at our dance and it was amazing. There were two lights lit in the entire are. One on each side of the dance floor hung from a string running from a tree across the road to the house who was hosting this party. There were about 75-100 people watching from the street and around the house, and somewhere between 25 and 50 people dancing depending on the song. The music was loud, very loud. It blasted from a large truck that held 12 large speakers. The music was varied and the dancing simple. When a Khmer song was on you danced a certain way. It was a sort of simple two step and you would dance around in a circle counter clockwise, two by two. If a song that wasn’t Khmer came on you could dance however you wanted. This was when I shined. Typically, the culture of Cambodia is pretty reserved and it is reflected that way through their dancing. Most of the time they just step back and forth kind of like a 9th grader trying to be cool at his first high school dance. To extend the metaphor I am more of the crazy senior at the dance who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. I was moving and grooving like I always do. This came with mixed emotions. Some people cheered and clapped, some stared and some just smiled and laughed. Overall it seemed as though they were all quite entertained by the white guy dancing his face off on the dirt dance floor. I realized later on after a few songs of dancing the way I did that there might be another reason for dancing so conservatively… Sweat. I was by far and away the sweatiest person there, however that didn’t matter to me. I had a blast!
- Animals everywhere.
The people of the village are typically farmers. When you are a farmer you typically have a lot of animals. Most families have a few cows, a handful of chickens, two or three dogs and equal as many cats. The cats and dogs roam the neighborhood and play with each other much like the children of the community. It is typical that if you want a dog you trade a chicken. As was the common price. Cows are seen as a very important investment as they are sold for a lot more and can sometimes be given as gifts to young people as a sort of investment for the future.
- Beautiful smiles for beautiful people.
Everywhere I went I saw the smiles of these wonderful people. They welcomed me with open arms and huge smiles on their faces. They fed me well and made sure I felt welcome and comfortable in a place that they knew was very different from my home.
- The houses are on stilts.
What started as a necessity to avoid a flooded house turned into a stylistic trend throughout the years.
- A mosquito net is not just for mosquitoes.
You know how sometimes you don’t really appreciate something until you don’t have it? Well that was the case for myself and mosquito nets. One night for whatever reason I didn’t use one. Huge mistake. As I was going to sleep on a bed for the first time in a few days I felt as though nothing could go wrong. As I lay there waiting for my eyes to get heavy and for sleep to overcome me I was greeted by a little friend. Briefly a rat decided to make his presence known to me as he ran across my face…. His little feet pitter pattered right across my cheek and then he was gone. However, he was not gone from my mind. Little guy had me rattled. Let’s just say that wasn’t my best and most peaceful night of sleep. I was looking over my shoulder like an enemy of the Godfather… Not the best for when one is trying to sleep.
- Rice is my new corn.
Growing up in the Midwest I am accustomed to seeing many a fields of corn. On road trips to visit my brother or sister at their respective colleges in Moorhead, MN or Decorah, IA I passed plenty of corn fields. They are everywhere in the Midwest. Corn is to the Midwest what rice is to Cambodia… Everywhere. Driving from Phnom Penh to the outlying provinces you pass by many lush green fields of rice. It is beautiful and I loved the sights of my road trip very much. In a way it did remind me of some of my road trips to and from the colleges of the Midwest that my siblings attended. A small and welcomed reminder of the home and the people that I love dearly.
For the students at the church that I am living at they typically see their families twice a year. Once over Pchum Ben and once during the Khmer New Year in the beginning of April. After hearing about my trip to the province with the pastor I have had many students offer to have me at their home for Khmer New Year. I will have to figure out a way to see a few more places so as to make sure that I can get a larger look at the beautiful countryside of Cambodia. There were many other sights to behold however these are the things that stuck out to me most. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the country and am looking forward to my chance to go back.