In the midst of our teaching tenure in Cambodia, we had the fortune to experience our third New Years’ celebrations of the year-and once again it proved to be quite the special experience. This chapter of our adventure was all about Heng, one of the student teachers.
To give you a little background, Heng has had some quite considerable ‘adolescent challenges’, and has made a quite remarkable turnaround in his life over the last 6 months. It is not for me to go into details with regards to his former issues, but what I can say is that he became something of an inspiration to us-and you could even regard him as a mentor to me, teaching me so many things about Cambodian survival skills. With Khmer New Year being the most important of celebrations in Cambodia, Heng had invited us to Kampot province to spend time with his family.
It is no exaggeration to highlight that the prospect of hosting two ‘barang’ at his family home over the Khmer New Year was a major coup for Heng, allowing him to demonstrate to his family and his peers his complete character reformation.
The school actually broke up for a week for the celebrations, so we planned to spend a few days with Heng’s family, as well as a few days revisiting Kampot town and the surrounding areas. Quite fantastically Jo had found a treehouse over the Kampong Bay River, adding to our excitement at the week ahead.
The morning for our departure for the school arrived, and found ourselves travelling to Phnom Penh on a local mini bus with the trainees-big mistake! Hot, cramped, uncomfortable and erratic-we should know by now that minibus is often the worst mode of transport-but then again it is the cheapest form of transport. Still, we eventually arrived in Phnom Penh in one piece, albeit a little grumpier than we would have liked-and we allowed ourselves a couple of days in the city before setting off to Kampot province. For the second leg of the journey, we reacquainted ourselves with the wonderful Giant Ibis bus service.
Worth it? Oh yes!
We got the bus to drop us off in the village where Heng lives, approximately 20 miles from Kampot Town-prompting quizzical looks from the driver. As we disembarked the driver double checked if we were really sure this was where we wanted to be…This wasn’t where you usually find foreigners. And surely enough the locals mirrored the puzzled face of the driver as we collected our bags, and made our way towards Heng’s home. Heng’s family business is that of ice sellers-providing all local families and businesses with whatever quota of ice that they need for that day. A vital service, and over the coming hours we would appreciate just how much of a thriving business it proved to be. Each night they travel in a huge truck to collect blocks of ice from the ice factory, upon their return they keep the ice in an insulated shipping container outside the front of their home-and serve out various measures to everyone in the vicinity. As we arrived at his home, it was apparent that Heng had been working the night before, and had just managed to raise himself from his slumber!
So with great excitement Heng introduced us to his step mother, his little brother and soon enough his uncles and many ‘surrogate’ family members as well-Heng knew absolutely everyone, and they were all curious to come and meet his houseguests. Ironically the most important person that he wanted us to meet, his father, was stuck in Phnom Penh at a meeting, and so we would have to wait to make his acquaintance. In the mean time everyone was falling over themselves to make us feel welcome, and certainly we were drawing much attention from the locals.
As things were busy on the ice shop front, we took ourselves off for a walk around the village. Feeling adventurous, we ventured off from the main road and wondered down a dirt track, appreciating the modicum of shade provided by trees dotted along our path. We had a few hellos from the local children, passing one house a girl came out quite obviously confused by our presence-the immediate reaction being to ask whether we were lost? Where was our driver? Soon enough, once we had managed to communicate the fact that we were just having a wonder, we were invited in to meet her family and receive a glass of cold water, she spoke good English and told us she worked five days a week, and spent her weekends studying an accountancy course-and they were simply delighted to have us join them for some afternoon refreshment in the heat of the day.
The intrigue and generosity didn’t stop with this family, and as we made our way back towards Heng’s home we were called in by an older couple on the main road, they too were just chuffed to pieces to meet us. It transpired that they had spent 6 months in Alabama 30 years ago, and so were excited to be able to chat with some English speaking guests. Especially so given that their criticism of their time in the states was the lack of interaction between people, clearly not a problem in Cambodia! Again we were given refreshments and then the lady came out with a big bag of mangos for us as a gift.
On our return to the family home we met Heng’s grandmother, although we didn’t actually know it was her as there was no introduction! Quite simply she was an elegant, friendly, smiley lady who stroked and hugged Jo-again we just thought it was a random person being friendly!
Eventually it became apparent that she was related, and actually the matriarch of the family, and we were to be invited to spend the evening at her home to stay the night. As is the Cambodian way, we had eaten a number of meals before we arrived at the grandmothers house, but Heng’s grandmother insisted we eat with her as well, how can you refuse? Beautiful chicken and the standard rice, then nuts and corn and more mangos. To sleep we were offered the bed, but we could not take grandma’s bed much to the amusement of Heng’s uncles. So with our mat on the wooden floor and mosquito net set up we went off to sleep sharing a room with Heng, grandmother and two uncles. Some noise in the early hours signified the leaving to work of grandmother and uncles, apparently this was about 4am, which included a quick sweep before leaving. We woke up about 6 am and waited for the sleepy Heng to wake up about an hour later.
Order of business for the next day was actually a funeral ceremony for Heng’s 20 year old cousin, who had recently died in a road traffic accident. Our Britishness, made us a little awkward about attending such an event, but as we arrived we were greeted with the usual warmth of the Cambodian people and fed again, Cambodians are feeders… and apparently incredibly interested in how we, the barang, eat; yes we eat rice, not just bread and milk.
First up rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves….One of them was a long sausage shape, as I picked it up they said it was snake-Jo took great joy in relaying the image of my face-apparently it was an absolute picture, but upon unwrapping and eating it transpired to be yet another rice cake.
This whole time we had a crowd of people gathered around just watching us-it was quite surreal that we were a focal point of attention given the occasion.
Finally the funeral ceremony began, signified by the elders of the family walking three times around the funeral tent before settling in for funeral prayers and songs. At this point things became quite emotional, and Heng took us off to his uncles house to escape to the comfort of some hammocks, while the men gambled on a card game, all in the shadows of the beautiful mountainscape around us.
After our introduction to the family, we headed off back to wonderful Kampot Town-a lazy French colonial town with plenty of ‘Western comforts’ for us to indulge in following our three rice meals a day regime at the school. French bakeries, gyoza restaurants, pizza, BEER….It was great to let our hair down and engage with civilisation once again. We arrived a couple of days prior to our booking at the treehouse, so we found ourselves a great little guesthouse with a pool table, generous Happy Hour (Kampot Kenny’s) and amusing resident locals to entertain and share stories with. Time passes easily in Kampot, and the couple of days at Kenny’s were gone in a heartbeat-now time to take residency in our treehouse!
We returned to Heng’s family to celebrate Khmer New Year, and to finally meet his father. He seemed absolutely made up in his sons transformation, and was delighted to be hosting us on an evening of celebration. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived, but once again we were thrust into centre stage at the local Khmer New Years party. It’s really going to be strange returning to the UK and not living like some sort of minor celebrity, for this evening we were guests of honour at the top table to the New Years feast, and it would seem that we also had the responsibility of leading the dance. What followed was another wonderful evening of dance, drink and laughter-although I fear that much of the laughter was at us, rather than with us! Long into the evening we danced, with little choice in the matter, and eventually we returned to Heng’s to cosy down on the ceramic tile floor for a night of intermittent and uncomfortable slumber!
With our third New Years hangover under our belts, we returned to our treehouse for a few days recovery before having to get ourselves back to school. As so often on our travels, it is the most ‘untouristy’ experiences that stand out in the memory.