Siem Reap, Cambodia
There’s still a chill in the air as we drive down the dusty dirt road. The Italians’ tuk tuk is stirring up a red dust storm in front of us, making it difficult to see and breathe even though Jeat is following at a distance. The road is so bumpy that I think I might bounce right out. It’s hot and extremely dirty. I wrap my scarf around my face to block out the dust.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, the main mode of transportation for tourists is a tuk tuk. The Cambodian tuk tuk is a little different than those seen in other Asian countries. Imagine the back of a rickshaw strapped haphazardly to a low powered motorcycle. Jeat has been my trusted tuk tuk driver throughout my stay in Siem Reap. The countryside has many ‘floating villages’, but Jeat has promised this one is better than the one recommended in the guide book. “Less touristic”, he says. I’m game! Two Italians staying at my guesthouse are also game, and are accompanying me today. They’ve already warned me that they don’t understand Americans.
Along the way the constant sight of extreme poverty is overwhelming, and there is so much trash recklessly strewn everywhere. But I’ve grown fond of Cambodia and the warmth and friendliness of the people. We finally arrive at Kampong Phluck, and transfer from the tuk tuks to a wobbly wooden boat that sits low in the water. The river is initially more of a creek, very shallow, very muddy and likely terribly polluted by the looks of it. It doesn’t seem to deter the local fisherman wadding in the water and casting wide fishing nets. We make our way down the river towards Lake Tonal, the largest lake in Cambodia. We approach the floating village, and I realize the villages don’t really float. They’re just houses on stilts surrounded by water. Some of the houses are colorful blues and greens, others depressingly dreary with unpainted wood. We see glimpses of life inside the homes. Large single rooms likely with multiple generations living there. The only mode of transportation for these villages is boat. We see boats full of produce and goods for sale, school children on their way to and from school, fisherman, local women, and occasionally another tourist.
We finally arrive at the village of Kampong Phluck. Because dry season has already begun, we’re able to walk through a small portion of the village, smaller than the size of a Wal-Mart. We dock the boat and begin exploring. A temple, a school, one floating restaurant, men fixing wooden boats. We walk pass the two room school, and hear the school children reciting their lessons. As we approach the second room, Jeat asks if I’d like to go in. Always paranoid about being the ugly American tourist, I decline the offer. It feels rude and intrusive. He continues to insist it’s ok, and I continue to refuse, becoming increasingly uncomfortable. And then he pushes me into the room. As I’m about to run out, the children in unison great me in Cambodian. They anxiously practice their English. “Hello lady. How are you?” “Where are you from?” It’s a small, simple room with an open door and open windows, a chalk board at the front of the room and simple wooden desks that seat two children each. The teacher returns to the classroom, and we chat briefly about the needs of the children, with Jeat serving as my translator. I make a modest donation to the school, take a quick photo of the teacher and her class, and do my best to say goodbye in Cambodian.
We then return to the floating restaurant to settle in for dinner—three Cambodians, two Italians and me. It is a quaint little restaurant with no other tourist in sight. Just my kind of place! We walk over a little wooden plank to reach the restaurant which is just a dock floating on the river. It’s open air but it has a roof to protect us from the heat, and colorful fabric serves as valances. A chalkboard on one wall with typical tourists phrases helps the locals practice their English. The restaurant has 6 or so tables covered in colorful cloth tablecloths and wooden chairs. The little kitchen is in back. As we sit at our table, we lazily watch the boats drift by, some full of colorful fruits and vegetables being transported to another village.
During this adventure, and especially this meal, I serve as the translator, sifting through the thick accents and broken English, trying to make sense of it all. The two Italians speak a little bit of English and I understand a little Italian. Two of the three Cambodians speak English with varying degrees of fluency but with very thick accents. The Italians can’t understand the Cambodians and vice versa, so I am left to translate everything, which doesn’t always go so well. They all understand me though, so when I misinterpret one of their stories they’re quick to call me out. I still don’t understand what the Italians were saying about the wife with a sore heart. Bad heart? Broken heart? Or did the wife break his heart? Whatever it was, they got quite a laugh out of my interpretation of the story.
We have a round of the local beer, Angkor, and toast in every language that we can think of. Cheers! Salud! Ting Ting! Prost! Spirits were high, and we are all having a great time despite the language barrier. The more I travel the more I find that the lack of a common language is not really a barrier to connecting with people. As we are laughing and toasting, I realize it’s Thanksgiving in the States. Cheers to Thanksgiving! How different this Thanksgiving is from the one my friends and family are having! I try to explain the Thanksgiving holiday. In my opinion, it’s the best American holiday, filled with good food, family and friends and not yet corrupted by commercialism.
The food arrives, and the sweet and sour fish is surrounded by tomatoes and other vegetables. It is so fresh, and has the perfect amount of flavor. As I’m gobbling down my dinner, I look out on the river. Surely a local man caught this fish in this river. Then I realize that I have thrown caution to the wind on this trip, and I haven’t been at all careful about what I’ve been eating. As I eat another tomato I think back to my first trip to China and how careful, almost paranoid, I was about not eating any food, especially fruits and vegetables, that might have been washed with local water. Perhaps my instinct was forewarning me.
Before we leave I use the ‘toilet’. It’s really just hole cut out of the bottom of the floor that empties directly into the river. It’s clean though. I’ve definitely seen worse. As I come out, I notice the old woman washing dishes. In the river. Downstream from the toilet. Oh no, this is not good. I try not to think about it. My fate is sealed. Besides, if nothing goes wrong on a vacation then you’re not really traveling! As I step back into the boat I wonder is my stomach grumbling or is that my imagination?!?