Poverty and hardship are very visible aspects to Cambodian life. Yet, coming from a wealthy background as overseas travelers do, seeing skinny children or elderly people hunched over themselves, beat-up old modes of travel, overcrowded vehicles and banana leaf shacks on dusty old highways, we don’t necessarily equate these very interesting sights with a level of hunger, physical labour and economic hardship that is completely foreign to our own experience. It is easy as a visitor here to simply overlook such things as interesting and often amusing holiday images, without appreciating what brings these images to life. It’s a common phenomenon, that visitors to poor countries such as Cambodia “get templed out” on the tourist trail, stay in the best accommodation, travel between famous tourist sights and don’t really “see” the real Cambodia, despite rubbing shoulders with it through the service staff and other locals they meet in locations such as restaurants and shops.
But just because people are economically poor, that doesn’t mean there is no wealth in their lives, and this fact presented itself to us in spectacular fashion last night. Bea is about to complete her MSF mission in Skun, an intersection town where two of the main north-south highways join to connect with Phnom Penh. The easterly highway goes to the north-eastern provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, as well as crossing both Vietnam and Laos borders. The westerly highway goes through Siem Reap, the tourist hub beside Angkor Wat, and further north to the Thailand border. Skun is a fascinating rural market town which I have loved visiting. Living there, Bea has had some very rustic experiences. So when she invited me to partner her to the wedding of one of her staff, I jumped at the chance.
After obtaining my visa at Phnom Penh Airport, I spent a night in the city resting up at my favourite hotel. Yesterday morning I made my way out onto the street, ignored a few persistent Tuk Tuk Madames and walked to the corner where a much less persistent TTM waved at me. I stopped to negotiate and he gave me a reasonable price so I then offered more if we could make a brief stop along the way. I had my final post-needlestick-injury blood test taken the other day and needed to pick up the results.
We putted our way through the bustling streets, weaving in and out of trucks, cars, trailers, motos and bicycles, past an accident where the back end of a moto was crushed under the front end of a car, the older car driver scratching his head next to the young moto driver speaking on his phone. Stopping at an intersection, some small children approached me in the busy road trying to sell me a chain of flowers. Other children were feather dusting a car as it was stopped at the same intersection, presumably for a price. Yet another small boy was buffing scratches off a car parked on the footpath at a manual car wash. Vendors selling from moto-drawn side cars were ringing their bells and making announcements over the loudspeakers on their roof, women walked with round flat baskets on their heads piled high with breads, shellfish and various other local food. A small boy pulled a big flat homemade wheelbarrow filled with recyclable cardboard and plastic/aluminium. Customers sat on red plastic chairs, hunched over bowls of rice and noodles at metal tables, at many streetside restaurants. We stopped at the few crossroads controlled by lights but at other busy intersections we traveled into the middle of the road and gently worked our way through oncoming traffic who either weaved around us or stopped to let us through.
On arrival at the clinic, TTM said he would watch my bag and I promised I’d only be a few moments. Returning with my final negative results in hand, he was standing at a sidecar shop parked on the busy road, purchasing a bag of “pekoo-a” (apple-potato). Food, as with so many other aspects of life here, is always shared and so I gratefully accepted the pekoo-a he offered me and crunched my way to Central Market where he dropped me at the bus station. The next bus was almost three hours from departure, so I sat at the busy station watching the world go by, offering small currency to the elderly beggars who regularly passed by, stopping with their heads bowed silently in request of a donation. I took a wander around Central Market in the humidity, waving my fan at myself along the way.
The bus trip to Skun was reasonably uneventful and upon arrival I began the walk from the bus station, 3km to Bea’s house. Within about a minute the predictable offer of a moto ride arrived and I gratefully accepted. With next to no Khmer and he with no English, we negotiated a price of 75 cents, simultaneously a bargain for me and a generous profit for him. He took my suitcase, putting it between his legs and the handlebars, as I climbed behind him. As he took off, the case was too heavy to allow him to steer so he motioned that I would need to put the case between us on the seat. I placed it against his back, climbed behind it, and we zoomed along the highway with the wind evaporating my many sweats.
Two hours later we were due at the wedding. As is the norm, we traveled in a group. Staff arrived at the house and we left in a staged convoy. Bea and I, in our dresses and make up, departed first on bicycles, following the MSF rule that expatriate staff do not travel by moto. The Khmer on their motos followed in time to meet us in the village about ten minutes later. Cycling for six kilometres on a busy, orange dust highway, each car or truck that passed us formed a thick cloud of airborne dirt which applied itself to the top of my foundation, sticking to the moisture of sweat and Clarins combined. We arrived at the wedding tents which extended along the front length of four village homes, a covering of orange powder matted to our skin, hair and clothes, and a night of feasting and frivolity began.
The reason that this part of south east Asia is sometimes referred to as “Indochina” is an interesting aside. Vietnam was ruled for 1,000 years by the Chinese while Cambodia was permeated by Indian culture, brought here by Indian pilgrims and traders in the first centuries AD. Whilst there is a distinct Chinese physical appearance to Cambodian facial features, there is also an Indian influence. Many Cambodians look more Indian than Chinese, with finer noses, rounder eyes and darker skin. With these two dynastic influences in mind, French colonists imposed the concept of a united “Indochina” in which Vietnamese culture was favoured over the lower-class Lao and Khmer, who were stereotyped negatively in many ways.
There are vast cultural differences within south east Asia, which were bound to result in the failure of the concept of a monocultural Indochina. One of the biggest differences is dance. Vietnamese reportedly “do not dance”. I have not been to Vietnam so I don’t know the level of truth to this statement. However, dance and music are an important part of Cambodian life, as I discovered on my very first night in Kampong Cham almost 18 months ago, and have experienced regularly ever since. According to one of my local friends, traditional Khmer dance is called ram vong and ram kbaach. A central feature such as a table or a pot plant, is placed on the dance floor. Everyone dances together in the same direction, in a very graceful and almost-choreographed motion around the featured centrepiece, moving their hands and arms in an ethereal, curvaceous flow. It is a beautiful, happy, flirtatious, fun and inclusive experience as men and women, children and the elderly, all participate, almost floating as a single entity, moving slowly forward, intercepting every few steps with a backward or side move, wafting arms to the left and then the right as you go.
Very early in the evening we were invited to dance and a couple of Bea’s colleagues escorted us to the dancefloor. Few others were dancing at this stage, and a young woman I had never seen before, dressed and made up exquisitely in a long fitted purple gown glistening with diamantes appeared in front of me, looking diagonally behind at me very often. Only as the dance neared it’s end did I realise she was very subtly taking care of me, guiding me with her moves and assessing my demeanour. As the dance came to an end she introduced herself in English as the groom’s sister and asked if I was happy, before guiding me gently back towards our table and disappearing until the next dance, when she reappeaerd and once more kept a close eye on me.
The feast included seafood, chicken, beef, duck, pork, rice, nuts, vegetables with various sauces and recipes followed by sticky rice desserts with variations such as coconut and banana, cut into bite sized portions. All of it was explained by our fellow diners as we ate together and everything was interspersed with free-flowing beer and soft drink. Not one for beer, I subtly served myself a red wine from a screw top bottle which accompanied me hidden in my bag, to the uproarious amusement of the “blokes” at our table! Regular visitors appeared to introduce themselves and clink glasses with us. This included father and siblings of the groom, the bride and groom both separately and together at different times. Children approached, standing shyly behind us with wide eyes at first, then slowly warming to us as we smiled and interacted with them. By the end of the night we almost regretted having started an interaction as the crowd grew bigger with each return visit, and we repeatedly played patta-cake, a completey foreign game to them at first, but by the night’s close they were dab-hands and even clapping together in English.
Our frequent invitations to the dance floor began with only a few joining us and a crowd on the edge, photographing and videoing the Barang from behind phone cameras pointed in our direction, no doubt documenting our uncoordinated and unusual moves as much as our physical differences. But as the night wore on the dance floor became more and more crowded and the crowds became more and more friendly. A crowd of children danced on the stage in front of the live band and as the night evolved, the microphone was passed between many villagers all vying for their turn to belt out a tune alongside the scantily-clad female back-up singers.
By the final dance, we had women laughing (at or with? Perhaps both) and following us, wanting to speak English with us between dances, and men bouncing toward and around us, encircling their flowing arms in a graceful floating motion which would definitely be considered flamboyant by any western standard! A crowd gathered on the dust road outside the tent, looking in at the lively dancefloor antics and we felt we were at least a part of the attraction. Our MSF friends told us a number of times, by way of explaining the excessive attention we were receiving, that “the people are so happy to see foreigners at this wedding”. As one dark-skinned, sun-beaten man danced beside me, almost agape, I suspected that he had likely returned an hour or two before, from the nearby fields with his ox-drawn cart or been out on the nearby lake fishing all day in his wooden boat, and that his apparent fixation on me was clearly to do with rarely having seen, much less interacted, much less danced, with a Barang before! As much as it was an exotic experience for Bea and I, it was made abundantly clear that the fascination was mutual.
Five hours later it was only 10pm but everyone was fading. Some of the tables had already disappeared, chickens and dogs were pecking around in the dirt for scraps and the live music died down with only a few remnant survivors on the dance floor. It was time to go home and so we gathered our group together and headed out to the parking area on a side track over the road. Boarding our bicycles, we headed off and the gentle pur of four motorbikes followed us the 6km home, lighting our way from behind the whole way. This chaperone was the final expression of collective Khmer hospitality.
Cambodian life is underpinned by rich traditions which are at odds with the simultaneous struggles people face. We arrived home buzzing at the honour at having been welcomed so inclusively in this festive cultural ceremony, providing us with another outsider’s glimpse of village life.