It was early morning and the sun had risen to just above the line of the banana trees with their heavy, flopping leaves: just high enough for its rays to fall through the open shutters of my cosy thatched hut and caress my shoulder... a wonderfully gentle wake up call. I lay luxuriating in the warmth as it slowly crept down my body, listening to the birdsong and the cocks crowing... and gradually the sound of traffic and then children crying... hmmm, not quite
paradise! But that was the beauty of the homestay I was based at for two days: reality, warts and all, in a rare opportunity to experience the life of a rural Cambodian family. This was neither a backpacker guest house nor an artificially preserved 'traditional' home for tourists, this was the genuine article: a farming family in a small village, welcoming visitors into their home to learn about Cambodian life
My hosts were Kheang, a local woman, her American husband, Don, and their two young children, Ra and Na. My room was the guest hut in their garden. My meals were the normal family fare (which just happened to be the best food I had eaten in three weeks in this country.) My day time activities were sitting chatting to the family about anything and everything; walking with Kheang and the kids through the local rice fields, seeing what a struggle it is to save the crop from rats; cycling through the village with Kheang, stopping en-route to watch local life among her neighbours: men shinning up palm trees with bamboo containers to collect palm
sugar juice, women boiling and stirring the juice to make candy-like blocks, kids turning the leftover fruit shells into toys, a young couple with polio-related disabilities stitching away to create silk purses to sell for a living. My evening entertainment was the highlight: Kheang's mother talked about her life in the village, with first-hand accounts of the suffering under Pol Pot, and answered anything I asked. I had told Don I was uncomfortable asking about what I perceived to be a sensitive subject, not wishing to scratch wounds, and his answer was that they were no longer wounds but scar tissue. That made sense to me, somehow, and I asked away, learning more than I could attempt to detail here. The next evening Kheang's sister, a teacher, joined us and answered my questions about the education system and how she copes with the fifty seven kids in her class with minimal resources. I also had interesting discussions with Don and Kheang about the difficulties ahead of them in the raising of their kids, with the inevitable clash of Western and Cambodian values.
I left two days later on a bus for Kratie, feeling I had gained a unique glimpse of real Cambodian life, far more satisfying than anything else I had come across in three weeks of travel around the country. For anyone planning a visit to Cambodia, put it on your list (google Rana Homestay, Kompong Cham.)
Kratie turned out to be a wonderfully laid-back wee market town on the banks of the Mekong and I arrived just in time to catch a beautiful sunset over the river, causing me to fail in my attempt to give my liver a rest after a whole two days off... but a sunset like that deserved
a cold beer to accompany it!