Going Local in Rural Cambodia

There are few places that give you a sense of a people and their culture than a local market. The sights and smells may be familiar or foreign, but from a market, you know what a community eats, how they flavour their food, the resources that are in abundance, the things they need for daily life, and the things they covet. Sellers attractively display their produce, vying to catch the eye of their next buyer.

We visited the local market in Chameroun village early in the morning to get a glimpse into the heartbeat of this bustling community. The market was busy, and with its location along a network of rivers that flow into an enormous inland sea, it was not surprisingly, fishy. One long row of mats were laid neatly on the ground and snaked through the market for hundreds of yards, lined on both sides with women cleaning, filleting, scaling and displaying fish of every shape, size and creed.

There were tiny little river fish, and big slippery (still alive) eels. There were spotted fish and whiskered fish, big fish, fat fish, and long skinny fish. And there were buckets upon buckets of fish paste, (or sludge), ready to be fermented into a popular base for soups and curries. Nothing goes to waste.

They laid their fishy wares out neatly in baskets, all eyes facing the same way or circled them into pretty designs. The slippery eels were for some reason kept alive, and they had a habit of escaping the shallow plastic bowls where they would likely fill their gills for the last time.

Scattered among fish ladies were the butchers, cutting up the whole hog that they’d sell that day. And just so you get the picture right – the butchers were women too. The men do the harvesting, and the women take care of the selling. Cambodians have been eating nose to tail before foodie hipsters made offal popular. They will eat anything andd everything that moves, and every bit of those boars were on display ready to be cooked into something delectable.

There were mountains of fresh herbs, plucked right from the riverbanks – wild garlic, cilantro, and green tomatoes, together with chilis, pickled celery, cucumbers, and many other herbs, fruits and vegetables I don’t have names for. But no rice — there seemed to be plenty of that drying on the front drive of every house in the village.

The ingredients for each strange, unfamiliar, and often delicious meal we had been served were colourfully laid out, right here in this market. This is the place where deals are struck, fortunes are made, and the fruits of the harvest – from the land and from the river – come together to define the true heart of the Khmer culture.

Local Cambodian Feast

By rice and water

We visited the village just at the end of the rice harvest, and this Cambodian effort appears to be much more of a commercial operation than in Nepal.

There, we saw villagers plucking the rice from steep terraces that contoured their way around the mountains. Here, the land is flat as far as the eye can see – more accommodating to machine harvesters and larger farms. It was dry season, and the fields had been emptied of their water. The rice stalks were being cut to make hay for the livestock, and the grains of rice laid out to dry on large nets in every available flat, protected service.

The rice is then bagged by hand into large 100kg sacks, and sold to a consolidator, who collects the harvest locally before selling it on to the big rice companies to be processed and exported – mainly to Cambodia’s neighbours – specifically to satisfy the insatiable appetites of the Chinese.

Like the rivers that snake their way across most of this country, the river in this village is the lifeblood that keeps it alive. It gives them food, transportation and a livelihood. For those living at it’s mouth, the river is the way of life. During dry season, the river is not much more than a stream running through a ditch. But in the wet season (July – September), it grows to up to 5km wide as it fills the fields and feeds the enormous inland sea that is Tonle Sap.

To accommodate the massive fluctuations in water levels, the houses near the river are built high up on stilts, rising as high as 40 feet in the air. We were escorted down a long dusty road through the rice fields to where the river becomes navigable, and took one of the hundreds of wooden boats through the “floating village” of stilt houses, where 90% of the residents make their living from fishing the river and nearby lake. The houses aren’t exactly floating – they just look like it in the rainy season.

The muddy river was barely navigable at this time of year, but that didn’t stop the stream of tourist boats fighting their way through to give a glimpse of a unique way of life, and to put another $30 into the hands of the government.

We cruised through the village down a long winding stretch of the murky river. Wooden houses looked haphazardly lifted onto the stilts, as though one puff from a big bad wolf would topple them all over like dominoes. Fishing nets were hung out to dry in the huge caverns under the houses, and tiny traps for small fish were neatly strung up between the poles. High on top of the stilts, the houses themselves were neat and brightly painted, but the stilts looked to be of questionable engineering. Yet they stand.

The village children swam naked in the banks of the river, and fishermen waded out into the murky water, burying their nets in the mud, ready to harvest the bottom dwellers that came their way. Women harvested thousands of tiny little mollusks, no bigger than a thumbnail, ready to sell on in the local markets and in the cities as a salted delicacy.

Everywhere you walked in the streets in Siem Reap and in the sourrounding areas, you’d find hundreds of the tiny purple shells, emptied of their minuscule bit of meat. Sellers could be found pushing wooden carts piled high with the salted and some with chili , just about anywhere one travelled.

In rainy season, the banks of this would all be under water. The fishing, the playing, the harvesting would all be done differently. The colourful houses would appear to float, as the water levels rise high above their current state. But for now, the yellow river is little more than a stream, as it snakes its way past the village and into a swamp – now dry – and eventually on to Tonle Sap.

A really interesting, really big lake

Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Asia, and we had the sense that we were entering the sea when we emerged from the narrow muddy river past the village. Fog over the lake created an eerie silence, and the water blended with the horizon so that you couldn’t see where one stopped and the other started. It looked like we were reaching the edge of the world in the movie, Truman Show.

We stayed out on the lake for a while, relishing in the peace, and wondering in awe at the eerie world we had entered.

Too polluted to swim in the dry season, we stayed in the boat. What is fascinating about this lake is that it is fed from one direction in the dry season, and the lake is fed from the opposite direction in the wet season.

It reverses it’s flow as the water levels rise, a natural phenomenon that fascinates hydrologists and the local community alike. When the water levels peak, there is a great festival of water. Everyone goes out to the lake and has a massive two day water fight. I’m picturing something like Holi, but without the coloured powders.

Their faces light up with joy when describing this celebration to us, and it’s obvious it’s a favourite of the year. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s the water, the lake and the river that provide life to this community and this country, and it’s arrival is celebrated not with a backyard barbecue and a cold bucket of beers (although I’m sure there are plenty of those). They celebrate the water by getting in the water and playing in it – adults and children alike. And who doesn’t like playing in the water?

New neighbours

The village is also a farming community, and we’re surrounded by chickens, pigs and cattle — tall, leggy Brahmans to be exact. My high school mascot was a Brahma Bull, so I’ve always been partial to these Asian cows with the odd hump. Our mascot was a big beefy imposing bull (of course it would be in Texas), but it’s cousins we’ve met in Asia are tall as horses, skinny, with long elegant legs.

We came home from the school one evening to find we had a new neighbour. A snowy white, wobbly kneed baby calf had been born that day, and it lay in the hay figuring itself out next to it’s exhausted mother. Austin saw it take its first tentative steps before dropping down again to rest up for another try. We watched as its mother lovingly licked it clean, and protected her calf from nosy chickens.

Eventually the newborn calf was up kicking around, but never strayed more than a few feet from mom. Seeing this baby come to life was a special experience for a city kid – especially one who didn’t like to go off the sidewalks and into the grass in London because he didn’t want to get dirty. He’s come a long way.

Joining in
The kids at the school let Austin join in their game of sandlot football. He kicked off his flip flops and joined right in, taking shots and rotating in and out of goalie.

He was younger than most of the field, but physically, the exact same size. Not sure who had the advantage there! At 6, he was the same size as the 10 year olds, and his big head and bushy hair stood out from the others like a beacon. That is, until the Swedes arrived. The two new Scandi boys were aged 6 and 5, and I’ll just say that Austin didn’t look like the hulk anymore!

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Our last day in the village, we took a ride on borrowed bikes on the raised red dirt roads through the rice fields. Away from the bustle of the village, we found the beauty of the land, and the quiet peace of thousands of acres of freshly ploughed fields. We rode through tiny hamlets, where children called out hello until we answered, and chased us as far as they wanted to go.

Austin managed to connect his forehead with the road (and his knees, hands and diaphragm), and a local kid was recruited to ride his bicycle back while Austin rode shotgun behind our host. He earned a nasty bruise across his whole “noggin” (he thinks the technical term for a forehead is noggin), but he was fine, if not a little shaken. As for his bruise, we put some Tiger Balm on it – because that’s what you do in Cambodia!

It felt wonderful sitting up there on that bike – free and in control like on the motorbikes that we love to rent, but without the roar of the engine, you could hear the birds, the kids, and the crunch of your tires on the gravel road — connected to the environment we were riding through.

This experience of teaching in the school, understanding life for “real” Cambodians, and living in a village with no wifi, no aircon, no cash machines, and sometimes no electricity was an experience our family won’t soon forget.

Sure, it was tough. The nights were hot, and the days sweltering. The market smelled fishy, and the food lovingly prepared for us has included things we wouldn’t normally put on a plate.

But the people around us, and especially the brilliant kids at JB School won us over in our hearts, and we know that the language and technology skills they’re building now will give them a future they aren’t even yet dreaming about.

I’m humbled to have been a part of that, and hope that we were able to make a difference – even if just a little bit.

About the author: Shalena

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