At 8.30am we left for our 4 – 5 hour drive to the province of Kampong Thom and our village of At Su where we will stay with a local family tonight. Driving out of Phnom Penh along the Mekong River we saw lots of street life again: People eating out on the street, washing themselves in a basin outside, children in uniform getting onto their bikes to go to school etc. We also saw flashes of narrow alleys with small huts (on stilts). It looked like a much poorer part of the city and surrounding areas.
There were lots of fishing boats on the Mekong River and also some floating villages. Fishing is good in the dry season when there is less water in the river; the fish are more confined. In the wet season the Mekong overflows and the floating villages have to go. The further we drove into the rural areas, the more houses we saw (sometimes just huts) made of wood with thatched walls and roofs. The stilts are necessary at the river because of flooding in the wet season but Kom told us that it is also custom to build your house on stilts. Most of these places are still built with wood. Wood is getting very expensive and so more concrete is used. Under the regime of Pol Pot much of forests were cut down to make room for rice fields. Cambodia does not have timber anymore for export.
New roads are being built from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and in the north east of the country. Some are partly done and we drove for quite a while over a road under construction which was now a bumpy gravel road. Have we told you that it is hot again? Every day the same, between 35 – 40 degrees. In the bus is air conditioning and when we step outside the heat just falls on us.
We had lunch on the way and then bought fresh fruit for the two families with whom we are staying tonight. We arrived at “our” village in mid-afternoon after enduring some pretty dusty, bumpy roads. Again! It is hot! We were greeted by our hostess and treated to a cup of lukewarm green tea. It tasted great! We met our local guide,Mr. T. He lives in one of the villages close by and his English is very good. He told us that he is a rice farmer, has two children and is very thankful for this chance to learn English and have this job. There are no jobs in the villages. He calls us ladies and gentlemen all the time and tells us to help him “improve” his English. He is very gentle and kind and very genuinely proud to tell us about his life. We feel touched by his way of being.
The village is built along the road. The road is red gravel and generates an enormous amount of red dust. Dust is everywhere, especially when trucks and motor bikes go by. At the end of our stay we are covered in red dust.
Our group is divided between two homes. The houses in which we stay are built on stilts. Our “rooms” are at the top of very steep concrete stairs. The “walls” between the rooms are curtains. The floor is made of wooden slats with spaces between. We can see the ground underneath the house. It is hot up there. Fortunately there is air flowing through the “windows”: open spaces in the wall with shutters – no glass. We also have a mosquito net over our beds. We have real beds, at the other house they have matrasses on the floor. We have our tea underneath the house at a wooden table with plastic chairs on the ground. Their animals walk all around us: a few dogs, cats, a rooster, hens and chickens and later we see a cow and a calf. We try to engage the little kids. They are a bit shy. A girl of about 8 knows some English and we can make some conversation with her.
After our tea we take the bus to the temple site Sambor Prei Kuk. These ruins are in the forest and are from the 7th century. It was hot and yet peaceful to walk underneath the trees. The old ruins were impressive. They are built from clay bricks held together by resin (sap from the trees). They would only take a certain amount of resin from one tree; if they took too much, the tree would die. The carvings on these ruins are still so clear! There were a group of children trying to sell us scarves. They are very persistent and know how to do a sales pitch! “Hello Mr. Handsome, where are you from?” “Madame Beautiful, buy a scarf?” We are advised not to buy from the children so as not to encourage child labour. We came back hot, dusty, sweaty and thirsty – so we sat our “restaurant” – the house where we are having our meals. This is a different house from where we are sleeping. Most of us had a cold beer (from the cooler filled with ice) or a cold drink. Eke had a soy bean drink – not bad. Brian had a beer named Klang – meaning strong. Mr T. called him Mr. Klang from then on.
Mr. T. told us that when the community was asked if they wanted to provide services to tourists, the community had a meeting and decided together that it would be a good idea. Then the people of the villages were taught how to treat tourists and learn a bit of English. The homes that provide homestays had to have the room, a bathroom, a place for tourists to wash themselves and it had to be clean. The toilet is a squat toilet and the toilet paper goes into a bucket. You “flush” by pouring water from a trough into the hole. It works fine as long as you can squat. The people here squat for hours – their knees are still very flexible!
Mr. T. took us on a walk through the fields to a water purification station just outside the village. This station provides the fresh drinking water for the people. This project is funded by Oxfam and managed by people from the village. It was really neat to see the money “we” donate at work!
Dinner was served outside under the stars at candlelight. Mosquito repellent kept the mosquitos at bay. It was a very good meal of cabbage soup, pork and vegetables with rice. Dessert was a banana. All of us enjoyed the meal. The women do not have a stove here nor a well equipped kitchen to make their meals. They cook on a fire outside and their pots and pans plus utensils are all very simple but functional.
At about 8 pm everyone decided to call it a day. We both wanted (and needed) to get some dust and sweat off our bodies so we decided to have “sponge bath” (without the sponge) with cold water from the trough! It felt great! The bed in our “room” was comfortable and during the night it did cool down a bit. We are with 5 of us in this house – the others are two “doors” down. It is the custom to remove one’s shoes and leave them outside before entering someone’s home. But at night we had to bring our shoes upstairs so that the dogs would not take off with them!
Going to the bathroom during the night proved to be easier than expected. Our hosts had a battery and the lights “downstairs” were left on all night. By downstairs we mean down the steep concrete steps to the ground level outside,underneath and around the house. Then a walk through the yard to the separate concrete building containing the squat toilet and "showering" facilities.
There was a funeral being held in the village and literally all night the music was playing. It did stop for 5 minutes once and a while (when the tape had run its course) so that we could fall asleep! The roosters started – as promised by Mr. T. – at 1.00 am, stopped, started again at 3.30 am, stopped and finally at 5 am started again and did not stop until 7 am or so.
A very interesting experience totally outside our own world and thus expanding our horizons!