It was an unscheduled stop in my travel through Cambodia, but by the end of the few days we were all joking at about how my new friend Toni would start her own tour business called “Toni’s Tours” and find fame and fortune by hooking people up with off the beaten track experiences.
I always jump at new opportunities to meet locals or expats in a foreign land because I feel that it brings me that one step closer to wherever I am at. From where to find the best and cheapest eats, where and where not to go, and opportunities to meet other people, I guarantee that it will be a more enriching experience than one that you can get from a guidebook. Who would have thought I would have spent my time in Playa del Carmen avoiding the bars and clubs and exploring the local eating scene, pigging out on ceviche, arrachera and pozole with new friends Sarah and Tyhrone. Or spending six weeks in Medellin learning Spanish and salsa (badly) and exploring neighbouring towns with new Colombian friends. So when the opportunity presented itself to visit a town outside of Siem Reap that’s less frequented by travellers and to meet some new friends, I jumped at the opportunity.
I was introduced to Toni through my friend Madz, an expat who lives in Phnom Penh. Toni is a volunteer with the Red Cross and works in the midwifery department at the Sisophon Referral hospital, about two hours from Siem Reap. Coincidentally, she was in Siem Reap for a few days visiting her friends, Sue and Stuart from North Queensland who were travelling through Asia and then on to Europe. We arranged to meet up with them at Mrs Wongs bar in Siem Reap and immediately hit it off with all of them and their down to earth personalities.
A couple of nights later we caught up with some of Toni’s mutual friends who had been living in Siem Reap for the past year. They had invited us to their place to view the annual puppet parade which is organised on by the Children’s Community Arts Project. Its role is to provide a creative platform for disadvantaged children to foster and promote self expression and confidence through art. Their balcony was right on the main road where the parade would go past and would be the perfect view point. Before we knew it, the parade was passing through and there were a few additional people on the balcony taking photos. I later found out that they were just strangers from the street who wanted to come up to take photos from the balcony so our hosts let them up.
Before I knew it, I had accepted an invitation from Toni to come and visit the town of Sisophon where she lived. One of her colleagues was having a ceremony back at her village home involving blessings from the local buddhist monks which included a feast of some sorts. I didn’t know what to expect but nine times out of ten, things have always turned out hunky dory and with the inclusion of feast, why not go with the flow? Nothing ventured nothing gained right?
We had arranged a driver to pick us up and take us to Sisophone which would take a couple of hours. I had planned on getting some shut eye in the car but if you’ve seen people drive here, compounded by the bomb crater like pot holes in the roads, it proved nearly impossible. Luckily the scenery is interesting to look at and I even learnt how crickets were caught in mass to sell at the markets just by using a sheet of paper and a fluorescent light.
After dumping our gear, we meet both of Toni’s colleagues: Borey and Manic who would give Toni and I a ride on the back of their scooters whilst Sue and Stuart would ride in the car. Thirty minutes later after riding through the country side, we arrive at Borey’s home. Shortly after, the monks arrive the main part of the ceremony commences which lasts for thirty minutes of prayer and chanting. I was told that the ceremony is a Bon Bachai Boun ceremony where a person generously donates one of the four requisites to the buddhist monks need in order to fulfil their duties, which are: clothing, provisions, shelter and medicine. Such deeds are considered noble and is deeply appreciated and celebrated.
It felt like the entire village is present at the ceremony and there is quite the hive of activity at both the front and back of the house with most of the women dressed in their best white tops. We head off to the back where I felt the action was in the outdoor kitchen where various bowls of food are being plated onto the multiple serving trays to be dished out on each table. The rule though is that no food is to be consumed before the monks have had their share, so while they are eating, there is more prayer and chanting.
When the monks have finished eating, the meals are ready to serve up and we’re all ready at the tables and waiting in anticipation. The dishes are mostly stews and I find myself going back for seconds and thirds of the tender beef with chunky bits of fat hanging off it. We were being such greedy pigs that we all had multiple servings, or maybe i was just me doing the eating? It felt like as soon as the eating had started, the men were already starting to pack up and dismantle the marquee, so we say our goodbyes and roll ourselves out.
On our way back, we stop by at Manic’s place where we’re greeted by her mother and sisters. I’ve never seen such a smiley family who was most welcoming. When we arrived, they were preparing fish to be dried in the sun while we sit back and relax drinking fresh coconut juice from their coconut trees. The coconuts were a lot stronger in flavour and acidity to what I normally have it back home but it was still delicious and I needed to help settle the belly full of food that I had just consumed.
We decided to have some more coconut juice and both Stuart and I decide to have a go at plucking the coconut from the tree by using a hook attached to the end of a long bamboo stick. I don’t mean to brag but I manage to get one on my first go I love this self sustainable lifestyle. Within the short period of time we were there we were drinking coconut juice and eating green mangos with a chilli salt all from their yard which consisted of many other types of fruit and herbs.
The following day Toni gave us a guided tour of the midwifery department of the hospital she worked at. If we have any complaints about the facilities back home then a visit here would put an end to that. Everything here is pretty bare bones with most of the equipment having been donated by various organisations around the world. Things we take for granted such as the proper hand sanitisation units and sinks have all been donated as well.
We go through the various rooms such as the birthing and assessment rooms and then move on to the post birthing area which is quite bare in facilities. Mainly firm beds and a few seats make up the essentials, there isn’t a nursing station or facilities to teach new mothers to care for their newborn. New toilet blocks have been built because the old ones didn’t even have doors or locks on them.
The main challenges identified is not being able to source the equipment or funding, but is in having the resource available for the day to day maintenance and running of the location and facilities. Common problems exist that can be easily fixed such as blocked drains from washing plates in hands washing basins occur all the time because there’s no full time resource employed to fix it. From my observation, it seems to be an issue that is present throughout the entire country.
The following day Borey and Manic said they’d take us out to go eat corn in the fields. If you told me that at home then I’d say that you’d be dreaming, but here in SE Asia, something so simple and innocent usually turns out into quite an adventure worth sharing. Now of course they both had something different in mind that I had envisioned which would involve a love park, hillside caves and creating a fire in the middle of a eucalyptus plantation.
The first stop obviously was to find some corn. Most places in Asia, they have streets dedicated to acquiring certain things. If you wanted wallpaper, there would be a street that would just sell wallpaper. As for corn, we went a couple of kilometres out of town to a section patch along the main road next to a paddock where ladies would be selling piles of fresh corn. Of course we don’t know how much to get so we load up about three bags full of corn. Gods knows what we’ll do with three huge bags of corn but at least they were quite cheap.
Next stop, we pull into a Wat on top of a hill. It was quite an impressive one and it was obvious that some generous donations had been made marked by the individual flags lining the walkway in with the names of the donors and the amounts that they donated. I hadn’t been to a Wat such as this one that had some pretty cool caves in them. Apparently it gets busy during special occasions but on that day there was hardly anybody.
We checked out one that had decked out with prayer flags, rugs and a shrine in the middle of cave. I didn’t know the significance of it and how it is usually used. I probably should have asked but it was pretty cool nonetheless. The temperature in the cave was cooler but the stillness in the air wasn’t aiding the copious amounts of sweat escaping from every pore in my body. Back outside of the cave, there was the odd monk walking around but there was also quite a bit of work going on with the construction of a larger temple. Normally I’d be impressed with something like this but by now I’m experiencing what you could call temple fatigue. After seeing Angkor Wat, I would imagine that nothing else would compare.
Back on the road and out next stop was a love park. As strange as it sounds, it’s a park where people go to get married and have their photos taken at. There were plenty of swings to laze about on as well as statues of matadors, comic book heroes and villains as well. I’m not the biggest amusement park kinda guy but I was enjoying having a break from the burning daytime sun and chowing down on an ice cream.
It was now late afternoon and with no relief in site from the sun. The girls had intended for us to cook and eat out haul of corn in a corn field but there the sun was still beaming down on us. Never to let something minor ruin a good corn eating session, the girls ventured off into a scrub ahead to see if they could find a shaded area and of course, they manage to find our own secluded plantation of eucalyptus trees. There, we all collect branches to create a fire to “burn” our corn.
This is when our tuk tuk driver turned into chief fire maker and chef. To cook the corn it was pretty simple. Get the fire going and throw the corn, husks and all onto the fire to let it cook in the fire. The charring of the husks imparted a beautiful smokey flavour into the corn. In another act of Cambodian hospitality, Manic and Borey went off to get us some beers and cold ice as well. They also came back with extra snacks and Manic’s nieces who were quirky and interesting to chat to. For the rest of the afternoon we eat corn, drink beer and have a few laughs.
Driving back to Sisophon in the tuk tuk we passed other groups of people just hanging out by the corn fields along the lake as the setting sun was painting the sky the usual shades of orange and pink. It feels to me that it’s just a common ritual amongst a lot of people here, where it is quite easy to just drop everything and enjoy the moment in an open space with your friends. I think of how much we’ve done the past couple of days on the back of a scooter. It’s amazing the sense of freedom you can experience driving or riding on one. The places you can explore is only limited to your sense of adventure. All you need is a couple of beers, a sunset and some smoky corn to enjoy it.
A few days prior to arriving in Siem Reap, I was asking myself what was I going to do with my time there. Would eight days be overkill in an area where people just stay for a few days? What started out as drinks with new friends turned into an adventure in a distant town, experiencing a local ceremony, exploring the countryside and concluding with eating corn at sunset. It was the perfect ending to my Cambodia trip.