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Kingdom of Wonder

Traveling through the Khmer countryside reveals a softer side of Cambodia.

By Tree Bernstein

Photo by Tree Bernstein

Cambodian children cavort in a field of marigold and celosia flowers. “Khmer kids are always ready to strike a pose,” Bernstein notes.

 

hile many tourists come to Cambodia for the splendid temples of Angkor Wat, my view of the Khmer culture is from the countryside, in a rural village. It’s a view that most tourists don’t take the time, or have the opportunity, to see. 

I came to Cambodia nearly two years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach English at a rural high school in the south. There is no electricity in the classrooms and the roof leaks when it rains. Students sit at the same wooden desks as their parents did back in the 1960s. But with a grant and community support, we were able to bring running water and four new latrines to the school. Progress moves slowly through these parts — as slowly as the cows browsing in the schoolyard. 

Once a week I teach an art class at Meas Family Homestay, which was the original training site for Peace Corps volunteer trainees 10 years ago. Now it’s a destination guesthouse, an open secret shared amongst travelers who want to get to know the people of Cambodia. The Homestay is down a dirt road, past rice fields and wooden houses on stilts. 

Village weavers work at the Homestay. Weavers, all women, have been practicing their art in this village for generations, but their skills were nearly lost during Pol Pot’s war in the late 1970s. A few years ago, a Canadian NGO instigated renewed interest amongst the village weavers and helped them start a co-op. The owner of the Homestay, who is also the librarian at our school, and her family provide the space and inspiration for the weavers’ business to grow.

One day during monsoon season, between downpours, I went biking out in the rice fields near the Homestay. I stopped to chat with local kids playing in a pond, to take a few photos. Khmer kids are always ready to strike a pose. I rode on to another field, focusing on close-ups of marigold and celosia flowers. A couple of the kids had followed me on their bikes and stole their way into the field, creating the perfect flower photo-bomb opportunity. The children of Cambodia love to laugh. 

My village is at a crossroads with a big morning market. Khmer-style farmers markets are not at all like farmers markets in California. For one thing, the mix can be startling. A decapitated pig’s head sits out in the open, seeming to gaze at a glass case of gold jewelry, which is parked between a noodle stall and the coconut shredder. The brilliance of texture and color can be as overpowering as the confluence of smells. It’s not always pretty, particularly if you are accustomed to buying your meat refrigerated and wrapped. Here, vendors display their deconstructed cows like red curtains, while the seller relaxes in a hammock flanked by strips of flesh.

Khmer style is evident at the market; pattern-on-pattern fashion is favored by local women. Split-toe tabi socks, either in mannequin yellow-grey or rainbow striped, can be dressed up or down. They are practically required everyday wear for Asian women and girls. 

From the Homestay it’s a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride to the provincial town of Takéo. At the waterfront you can get a motorboat to Angkor Borei and Phnom Da, circa 11th century, an ancient temple that pre-dates Angkor Wat. Archeologists believe the original Funan residents arrived in the fourth century; and Takéo is known as the cradle of Khmer Civilization. On the way you see fishermen wading in the river with nets, as they have done for centuries. Great flocks of ducks paddle in the water, their keepers nearby. The surrounding rice fields stretch all the way to Vietnam.

Back in the village it seems that each neighborhood has its own pagoda — and its own pond. Most of these “ponds” were created during the carpet-bombing ordered by President Richard Nixon in 1969-73, as part of his Vietnam War strategy. An estimated 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped. But Cambodian people are resilient; those left with craters in their fields planted lotus and water lily. Khmer culture endures. 

Many tourists arrive in Cambodia on their way to someplace else. They come to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in the north on their way to Thailand. Or they stop in Phnom Penh for a couple of days before heading south to Vietnam. Cambodia as a vacation destination can be challenging for casual vacationers. If, however, you are the kind of traveler who seeks the long way around, the back roads of Cambodia will reveal the Kingdom of Wonder in an entirely different light. 

Meas Family Homestay
Angtasom Village, Takéo Province, Cambodia
mshomestay@gmail.com.

Before joining the Peace Corps, Tree Bernstein taught at Brooks Institute and Ventura Community College. For more information, visit her blog at www.cambodiapc.me.

A fruit seller at the farmers market in Takéo Province shows off her colorful produce.

Weaver’s hut in Angtasom. A weaving co-op started by the women of the village keeps an important art and tradition alive, and also serves as a source of income.

A monk studies in the quiet majesty of the 11th century Brahman temple at Phnom Da, Takéo Province, considered the cradle of Khmer civilization.

05-01-2017

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