21 January 2013
Today we left Phnom Penh and travelled out into rural Cambodia to Kampong Thom where we have a homestay. As we drive through the countryside I am struck by how much the saying “same same but different” applies to the countries in this region. At first I couldn’t identify what made it feel different but then started to identify a whole list of little details that make Cambodia quite different from Vietnam apart from the population density.
The people have much darker skins and instead of the ubiquitous conical hats the women here have scarves on their heads often knotted off at jaunty angles and they carry baskets on the tops of their heads rather than balanced on the ends of a bamboo pole. There are still tuk-tuks willing to take you anywhere you want to go but here they are shaped more like a carriage with side rather than rear entry and often have a fringe around the top (“in a surrey with a fringe on top”). Even the buses have rather too busy fringes around them along with much decorated curtains.
We learn from Kom that a big difference is that Vietnamese strive to do business and make money and Cambodians want to be happy. This more ruthless approach is evident in war as well apparently with Cambodian, Thai and Lao people sharing a system of honour and fighting fairly never stabbing anyone in the back but Vietnamese allegedly are much trickier and will use any tactics they can to win.
We see that typical Cambodian houses are built perched up on high stilts to cope with the seasonal expansion of the Tonle Sap lake which occupies a large portion of the country and substantially more in the wet season. In the wet season the river flows into the lake and at a certain point in the year reverses and flows out again. The lake is so important for so many people. It provides a critical water supply for both fishermen and the farmers who need the water for their rice fields and vegetables. Rice can only be grown in the wet season and in some areas it gets too dry and people can only grow trees like cashews and coconut palms that can cope better with the dry season rather than being able to grow vegetables. Much of the produce is grown for export such as cassava for further processing in Thailand and Vietnam.
The soil is a rich red colour and is already dry enough that traffic stirs up huge dust clouds that then settle to blanket everything within several metres of the road. We see some new styles of transport here with carts being pulled by horses as well as buffalo; there are long skinny trailers attached to everything, transporting everything from farm workers to building supplies. Most unusual are what I’ve called ‘long tailed tractors’ and Kom calls ‘motor buffalo’. These tractors are used for ploughing the fields and the long handle separates the activity from your feet. There are giant haystacks by every house and the cows here are predominantly white.
We pass by spider farms but I don’t take the opportunity to sample these at our ‘happy room’ break. There are fish farms and duck farms and lotus flowers growing in rapidly receding ponds. The seed heads provide a tasty local snack. Hundreds of fishermen congregate on the small river that links Tonle Sap to the Mekong river.
There are masses of road and bridge construction projects in Cambodia funded by China and Korea. We cross lots of smaller bridges adorned with the Australian kangaroo emblem. The end result is much needed but for us it means miles and miles of dusty bumpy dirt roads even before we reach the remoter regions.
Even in the remoter regions the roadside is festooned with political party hoardings for the Cambodian People’s Party, Funcinpec and the Human Rights Party even though the 5 yearly elections are not due for another 6 months. Kom explains that people don’t tend to talk about their political beliefs. He is coy about the reasons but from discussions with other people we met indicated that corruption is still widespread and many of the people in the Pol Pot regime are still in positions of power. There is hope that once this generation passes there is scope for positive change.
There are strange bottles filled with yellow liquid stacked for sale at the sides of the road. We discover that both petrol and various cooking oils are sold that way. When the bus stops to refuel we suggest that we could simply pick up a few bottles to go.
Eventually we reach Kampong Thom and are introduced to our homestay families by local guide Mr T. This is a community tourism project initiated by the Germans and now supported by groups like Intrepid to bring much needed work and income for these poor rural communities. Mr T is the organiser for this village and makes sure that visits are distributed to different families. A small part of the income is taken for administration. He has been doing this for 2 years and has really good English. He had to go to Phnom Penh for training. It was his first time out of the community and found it really difficult. He hasn’t travelled away since and doesn’t want to.
To participate families must have sleeping quarters, proper concreted toilet and washing facilities and grow organic vegetables and have clean water (so that visitors won’t get sick). Loans are available for them to upgrade their facilities.
We are split into 2 groups to go to different families but we eat together at a 3rd house. The bedrooms are in a typical stilt house accessed by very steep and precarious stairs. Inside it is divided into rooms by curtains strung across. Our house is the deluxe version as our mattresses are on wooden beds rather than the floor. Each bed has a mosquito net and there are no fans. Ventilation is by opening the shutters.
Beneath the house are hammocks and seats wriggling with children, ducks trailing clusters of ducklings, hens and chickens clucking around under the supervision of time challenged roosters, and puppies alternating boisterous bickering with stretching out in the cooling shade. The shade is welcome but scarcely enough to fight off the heat. It is supposed to be the cool season but temperatures have been above 35C. Whilst we grumble drenched in sweat we think of the locals who are already struggling to feed their families and animals and will face worse conditions if this heat wave continues. In contrast we hear that in August and September the schools are closed and everyone has an enforced holiday as it is too wet to go out. They must go stir-crazy with the whole family cooped up in the small houses.
Later Mr T takes us to see the Sambor Preikuk Temple. This site has 6-9th century pre-Angkorian temple ruins in the nearby jungle. They are fabulous and I hope they are able to preserve them as a draw card for visitors.
After a cooling drink we walk out across the now vacant rice fields to a lovely little lake area where there are cows and orderly rows of cucumbers and long beans. There is also a community water purification unit from Oxfam providing drinking water for the community and a man has the job of delivering and collecting the big plastic containers. As we watch the sunset we provide ideas to Mr T for expanding the experience for visitors so that more people will visit and stay longer: fishing trips, boat trips on the lake to enjoy the sunset, cooking.
Back at the eating house the tables and chairs are set out for us outside in the shade. A big red chilly bin stocks beer and soft drinks for a dollar each. We also get to sample some locally brewed rice wine out of plastic water bottles – it is really strong and none of us go past the first sample. We see our hostess prepare a feast for us in a tiny primitive kitchen and cooking fire outside.
It gets dark quickly and early and rudimentary lighting provided via a car battery makes sure we don’t accidentally step into the squat toilet or fall off the stairs. A small TV entertains the family whilst we invade their space but they are friendly and really seem to welcome us to their community. We have gifts of fruit for our host families, along with hotel toiletries and small toys for the children. The children didn’t know quite what to do with the toys to start with but were soon squealing with delight and showing each other what they had and cameras became the next toy as we showed them the photos we had taken of them.
We sit around after dinner and talk for what seems hours but we are surprised to find that it is only 8.00 but we are all ready for bed. My back is playing up after the bumpy bus trip and I decide to take a sleeping tablet. This turns out to have been a great decision as I missed a symphony of snoring, barking dogs, crowing roosters and the loud music from a party up the road. I also missed the opportunity to negotiate my way down the stairs in the dark to find the toilet without waking the menagerie or breaking my neck.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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