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Family living in Svey Rieng

By: Claire Barker Posted: October-25-2011 in
Claire Barker

During my second month in Cambodia back in September 2009 a Khmer friend invited a few people to spend the weekend in Svey Rieng province where she is from . An extremely sleepy place which warrants only 1 short paragraph in the lonely planet saying it is one of the poorest provinces and there is nothing to do. We were invited to stay at her Grandmother’s house and had visions of sleeping on the ground and washing in the well outside wearing a sarong. We drove in a minibus and had to cross the Mekong on a ferry on which we enjoyed taro ice-creams and lots of curious stares. The province itself is really a piece of land that juts into Vietnam. My friend’s grandmother’s house was fairly recently built on land that had been in the family a long time. We had western beds and en- suite bathrooms! Mine even had a western toilet.... complete with HUGE spider and half dead cockroach, but I decided to deal with this later. My friend slept on a floor mat with her Grandmother and Grandad slept in the kitchen.

We ate at my friend’s aunts house which was a km stumble down a pitch black road, we were guided by the sound of chirping frogs at first, but this soon turned into a cacophony of howling dogs as we passed each house. Everyone seemed to own at least 5 small sandy coloured guard dogs. My friend’s aunt cooked us a feast of frog soup, tofu or chicken vegetable stir fry and rice over a couple of bbq’s on the floor outside of her one room house. Here we washed our hands in well water and had a swing in the hammocks listening to recently diseased frogs relatives and watching fire flies dancing, totally relaxing!

We walked back through the chorus of dogs and retired to bed, I tried to forget about the animal life in my bedroom... In the middle of the night I stumbled to the loo to come face to face with the spider...what to do??? I’m afraid I said Waagghhh quite loudly waking up some other friends in the next room, and frightening the spider over the wall in to their bedroom ( brilliant plan!) The cockroach was no-where to be seen, so I cocooned myself back into my sheet and slept for about 30 mins until the cock –a –doodle doing started...oh yes everyone owns a cockerel and about 10 hen-pecked chickens.

I observed the pecking order in action, the chief chicken follows the cockerel around like a shadow and keeps her feathers, the others sport less and less plumage the further down the pecking order they are . The lowest of the low is completely naked, devoid of feathers and looks ridiculous...but which would you pick for the pot......there may be some re-dress for the bullied after all!

I re-discovered the cockroach after my shower when I grabbed the towel on which it was residing. I screeched and ran across the room and stood on the bath mat...completely ridiculous behaviour which I fail to must be a primitive female re-flex! Needless to say the cockroach then disappeared under my bed.

We had breakfast at my friend’s aunts, her grandma doesn’t cook but she bicycles 3 times a day to fetch the meals for herself and her husband – at 73 years of age!! This time it was porridge ( really chicken noodle soup) and co-co- nut waffles made on a griddle iron over hot coals ...yum! The aunt had, it seemed, borrowed every half decent push bike in the village for us to use, and we all set off for the local market with her to buy fish for lunch. One bike tyre exploded like a gun shot after about 100m and we had to stop. The rider then drew the short straw by getting the reserve bike with no brakes for the rest of the day.

EVERYWHERE we went we were stared at incessantly as I think we were the first ‘barang’ anyone had ever seen except for on the telly. It was odd at first, the double or triple take as people passed on a moto or cycle, but good fun ,as were the choruses of ‘Hello- your name’ which we got from almost every child we saw, our ‘hello’ repose prompted either laughing or hiding depending on how brave they were, some very small children cried...oh dear!

We bought live fish from a bucket, the fish was given to us still alive in a plastic bag with 2 cm of water at the bottom of the bag to ensure a slow death from suffocation , this didn’t sit well with me, just kill it for God’s sake...We bought some fly blown pre-prepared stir fry veg from a lady whose stall was next to a meat stall which was adorned with facial parts of animals and ‘insides’. ( Someone cycled past with a pigs head under his arm) It’s OK, I thought, she will fry the veg and that will get rid of the germs... When it was served raw later for lunch I just had to pretend I didn’t know where it had come from. Actually all the food we had all weekend was delicious and I wasn’t ill in the slightest!

After the market we decided to go exploring, we cycled on raised paths through fields of rice dotted with sugar palms and past little houses on stilts, the most beautiful scenery. We saw water buffalo half submerged in paddy fields and frightened a few more local children. We returned for lunch, The aunt sells the porridge and waffles and they also sell a few toiletries, cigs and petrol in water bottles for motos, this is how they make their living, so local people were coming and going all day under the pretence of buying sanitary towels but really coming for a look at the barang. My friend’s aunts’ fame at being the hostess for the foreigners had spread on the Svey Rieng grapevine.

One of her friends saw us having lunch and invited us to visit her house. It was too far to cycle so the man next door offered to take us. His transport was a sort of cart on attached to the back of a moto which is probably used for transporting anything and everything. The journey took about 30 mins and my backside left the wooden edge of the cart on several occasions the roads were rough and mostly made of mud! Great fun and it prompted a lot more staring . We finally got to the lady’s house.

It was a wooden house on stilts with a corrugated iron roof. We climbed up the ladder to go in. I felt truly humbled, the place was bare of any furniture, there were sleeping mats and a partially walled off area which was the kitchen. The bathroom was the well outside. I didn’t see a toilet building anywhere. There were about 5 women and loads of kids of various ages including a tiny baby, the obligatory dogs and chickens, a couple of ducks ,there were no men in sight. The oldest woman there ( in her 40’s? ..hard to tell) was in the paddy field transplanting the rice, a back breaking job, which two of my colleagues tried and couldn’t do.

The children viewed us suspiciously and were partially won round with Doritos ( we probably gave them their first E-numbers how awful in hindsight ) My friend’s aunt had come with us and she bought some flower buds (for cooking ) from the lady...God knows how they make any money.

We left again and went on foot to another house that we had been invited to. Now we really saw poverty, this house was made of mud, one room only, the toilet was a plank with a hole in it suspended over a green pond full of algae where someone was fishing. We then went on a fishing trip ourselves. My friend’s cousin had made us some fishing rods from bamboo grown in the garden, he attached line and hooks and off we went to a Mekong tributary. We sat and we sat.

Another Khmer friend bought some dried baby frogs, for everyone ( not me) to try, but (un) fortunately the wind blew the plate into the sand at the side of the river. Needless to say we caught nothing ( the next morning we woke to see the cousin pulling fish after fish from the tiny pond next to their house!)

That evening we dined on the remainder of the fish, did a bit more fire fly watching, saw a bit of Khmer boxing on the telly and were all in bed by 8.30pm. There really is nothing to do in the evenings!

I was up at 5.30 and sat outside Grandma’s house with Grandpa, watching the world go by and communicating with him through smiles and by petting their 3 legged small sandy coloured dog ( which I christened Santa’s Little Helper)the only dog that hadn’t barked at us and the only dog whose house we’d marched into on-mass! Her grandma came out and told him off for smoking, and listening to his radio too loudly and made him put his shirt on, even I with no Khmer could understand this! He rolled his eyes and did as he was told!

We set off to visit Ba Phnom Temple complex in Prey Veng province on our way home. We must have climbed 3-400 steps to get to it, and it was a complete surprise, it was in the middle of no-where on top of the only hill (My friend called it the mountain but really.......) It was gorgeous and deserted except for a teenage boy sporting a machete, and some very big millipedes which we taunted with a stick - as you do! It afforded great views of the countryside all around and was well worth the climb. There was no loo in site so a friend set off into the bushes only to be followed everywhere by the machete wielding teen and his mate who had been observing us from up a nearly tree after we came back down the ‘mountain’ . They were just curious I think and my friend only wanted a wee...It was my first fantastic taste of Khmer hospitality, kindness and the countryside experience. I would recommend for anyone who is invited to go to Svey Rieng province and to ignore the nothing to do tag, and to go and stay with a local family if you can.


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