Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Cambodian Countryside

After our day of sightseeing in Phnom Penh, our friends and I loaded ourselves and a huge pile of stuff (most of it Alexa-related) into a taxi-van and made the 315 kilometer (~196 mile) drive to Siem Reap. We planned to leave the house around 9, but I think it was more like 9:30 by the time we’d finished breakfast, loaded everything, installed the car seat, changed Alexa’s diaper one last time, and finally hit the road. The trip usually takes five to six hours, from what I’ve been told; we made it in around six, including a stop for lunch in Kompong Thom.
The CPP is the political party in power; they had buildings in every hamlet

I’d been both dreading and looking forward to the drive. Dreading it because, although Alexa has been a good traveler up to this point, I keep expecting her to wake up one day and realize that toddlers aren’t supposed to be good travelers. I worried that this would be the trip in which she’d decide she hates the car seat (which would be entirely reasonable, since she hadn’t been in one since our arrival in October), hates being in a not-open-air vehicle (i.e., not a tuk tuk) for more than 15 minutes, and has to pee—or worse, poop—every 20 minutes. Luckily, Alexa retained her “good traveler” label through both this drive and the return drive just a few days later.

I’d been looking forward to this drive because it was my first opportunity to get outside of Phnom Penh and see the Cambodian countryside. I’ve had images in my mind reminiscent of my father’s old National Geographic collection; I’m sure you know the images—flooded rice paddies, men and women in loose clothing and conical hats, naked children chasing cows or dogs. Those are the images of rural Asia that westerners see in movies and magazines. Now, I did realize that I was unlikely to see much flooded anything, seeing as how we’re in the middle of the dry season, but I wasn’t sure what else to expect.

If I had to describe in one word what I saw, it would be this: green. Everywhere I looked, there was green grass, green leaves on the trees … so much green. So different from Egypt, so similar to the southern United States. But only the color reminded me of home. Everything else was very different. And very beautiful.

A Cambodian mile marker
I saw rice paddies, but they appeared mostly dry. If there was water there, it was a relatively thin layer. The paddies consisted of short green shoots that appeared more like grass from my speeding roadside perspective. There were some watering holes, small ponds in which the occasional worker stood up to ankles or knees while bending down to work. And of course, there was the Tonle Sap River, visible in many places along the way.

But even when the water was not in sight, it was in evidence. The road itself testified to the water's presence: the road virtually never was level with the surrounding land. It was raised several feet, presumably to prevent it from washing away during the rainy season, when the land floods. The houses also bore silent witness to the water—almost all of them were at or above the level of the road, built on stilts so that the one and only enclosed level was at the height of a second, or sometimes third, floor. In this dry season, the area under the houses was in use, sometimes as a dining room, sometimes as a workshop, and sometimes as a place to string clotheslines. But in almost every case, the structure itself was elevated, accessible by steps that often looked more like a ladder than stairs. Even the hay was piled onto platforms that were elevated several inches off the ground.

The houses themselves were pretty similar to each other. Occasionally we’d see one that I presume belonged to someone wealthy; those houses, minus the stilts, would have fit in well in a lower socioeconomic status neighborhood back home. But most of them would not. The pattern seemed to be single rooms, from what I could tell through the doors, of which at least half were open. The walls were made of materials ranging from 2 x 4 pieces of wood—often with holes where the boards didn’t quite meet—to metal sheeting to a couple that appeared to be thatch. A few stood off alone, but most were clustered into groups of three to five, more around the small towns. There was no evidence of electricity or indoor plumbing, but that wasn’t very surprising, as I’d already been told that most poor Cambodians are accustomed to doing their business around the corner or in the trees, and I know that even urban Cambodians don’t always have such “basics” as washing machines—my housekeeper laughed at me when I told her that I don’t purchase hand wash clothing because I won’t do it by hand; she does all her laundry by hand. Overall, it was clear that rural Cambodians must live much as they would have decades ago, and although it made for picturesque scenes for this western tourist, I understand why many young people go to the cities to earn extra money to send back to their families in the provinces.

We passed through a few small towns and one larger city, Kompong Thom. We stopped there for lunch. The driver took us to a restaurant on the main road, at the intersection of National Highway 6 and Prachea Thepatay (Democracy Street). I’m not sure of the name of the place, but it may have been attached to a hotel, and it was good. When we arrived, I rushed to the restroom—luckily I was carrying the diaper bag, which was fully equipped, because there was no toilet paper—and the others were ready to order when I came out. Jeff told me, “I want the sweet and sour pork, I haven’t picked anything for Alexa, I’m going to the restroom,” and disappeared. Approximately 30 seconds later, it was my turn to order, so I ordered sweet and sour pork for all three of us rather than hold everything up by perusing the menu. Our friends misunderstood my reasoning and promptly began teasing me for my lack of adventurous spirit. I shrugged and proceeded to enjoy my food anyway. I perused the menu a little after I’d ordered, just to see what was available. It was a mix of Khmer and Thai food, all of which sounded delicious.
Since I won't do another post for the drive back, let me also say that the American Restaurant in Kompong Thom, on Democracy Street not far from National Highway 6, also was very good. Our friends decided to stop there for lunch on the way back instead of the Khmer restaurant, I think because they thought we didn’t like the first one since we’d all eaten the same thing. The calzones were excellent, and Alexa seemed to like her chicken nuggets and fries, too. The bathroom, however … let’s just say it left much to be desired.

After lunch, we drove the remaining couple of hours to Siem Reap. We checked into the hotel and marveled at the staff’s celebration—we’d told them that it was the birthday of someone in our party and asked if there could be a cake and a few balloons waiting in the hotel, for which we’d be happy to pay. They informed us that they would provide those items for free, in accordance with their policy. We arrived at our villa to find a cake on the coffee table and balloons wrapped around a pillar in the kitchen, attached to the patio doors, in a large arch over the TV, and attached to the stair railing. Several staff members, one of them quite senior, were there to say “Happy birthday!” to our friend. It was way more than we expected, and the adults quickly tired of the plasticky balloon smell, although the highlight of the trip for Alexa was playing with the piles of balloons and having Daddy cut one off for her to take with her each and every time we got in the van.

Overall, the drive was very nice. The van was comfortable, the driver was friendly and safe, and we had a cooler full of cold drinks to enjoy on the way. The camera was close to hand, and although I didn’t get many pictures and even fewer good ones, it wasn’t because the scenery wasn’t photo-worthy; it’s just because we passed by it so quickly on the much-better-than-expected road.

Next up: Siem Reap. I’m not sure yet how I’ll divvy up the days into posts … I don’t think anyone wants to read a separate post for each of the six or so temples we saw. But in the next couple of posts at least, possibly more, I’ll tell you about our time in Siem Reap.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I read on your other blog about your stay in Egypt that you had contact information for volunteer opportunities in Egypt. I will be in Cairo for about a month this Summer and I want to make the most of my stay. If you have any contact information for organizations I can volunteer with please email me at

    thank you,



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