It’s a five hour bus ride from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap. I was the only Barang on the bus which is a reasonably unusual experience, especially on a route to the very touristic town of Siem Reap. Seat 29 was my allocation but someone had already taken it. One of the many young men surrounding me asked as I stood in the aisle, “excuse me madame, what is your number?”. I showed him my ticket and a reshuffle ensued on my behalf, despite my protestations that I could take one of the vacant seats near the back. A short way along, the young man in the aisle diagonally opposite me began taking selfies. When he positioned himself to get a selfie with me firmly in the background, I gave his telephone a smirk. A few moments later, admiring his shots, he spotted my photo bomb and turned to smile at me. From then on I was included in his crowd of friends. When he turned to offer his mates some bread, the first overture was made to me; when he offered everyone a piece of fruit, it came via me first. It’s hard to imagine such geniality being extended to an old girl from a twenty-something young man in my world, but it’s considered normal here in Cambodia, I suspect as a consequence of the communal living experience. They were en route to a friend’s wedding together and there was a very definite feel of celebration in the air.
Rav was at the station to pick me up just after lunch. In the afternoon we sat for a drink together, joined by an apologetic Seth, who should not have told me his problems, etc. To cut a long story short, Rav has a decent tuk tuk with a decent moto meaning he can attract better paying passengers. Both of these vehicles were given to Rav by grateful and generous customers in the past year or two. Nevertheless he also struggles with many tuk tuks competing in a tight market of tourists. Many days pass with no income and on a good day he can hope for $15 to $20 for a full day’s work. Prior to his good luck, he also had a worn out moto, attached to a rented tuk tuk. Seth, despite his good English, cannot attract the same passengers or income because his tuk tuk is run down and his moto is so archaic that it cannot travel as far as Angkor Thom, the walled city of temples. He is restricted to taking people around town or as far as the airport. He has four children and their living conditions are much more dire than Rav’s, mostly because of his severely limited income. This was difficult to imagine because I’ve been to Rav’s little room where he and his wife share a bed with their two children inside four walls. During our discussion I scored an invite to Seth’s home and he picked me up this morning.
Last week his 6yo son was playing near the front of their so-called home, a series of home made shacks put together on his brother in law’s land, when he was attacked by wasps. Looking up into the palm trees, the little boy spotted a nest and decided that throwing stones at it would be fun. Multiple stings later his mother rushed him to hospital with an anaphylactic reaction. I saw the tree, wasp nest and shacks that they call home, this morning and again, it unraveled me. This young, strong, healthy, well dressed guy who interacts so competently with tourists from across the globe, lives like this?
Bitumen turns to muddy streets which turn to muddy lanes leading to a muddy little driveway where I walked up a muddy single lane path along the side of the palm leafed shack in the front, belonging to his brother in law. Brother-in-law has agreed to Seth, his wife and their four sons, living on a raised platform behind the shack, rent-free. They’ve been here five years but will have to find alternative accommodation next year when the in-laws plan to build a home and will not have room for so many extras. The family eat, sleep, shower and live on a square of wooden slats about 3m x 2m, about 1m above the muddy ground below. Their allocated section of platform is between Seth’s parents’ share of the platform further inside the enclosure, and the open air entranceway. All of it is covered with tin and tarpaulin, beside an ice-making factory over a brick wall which growls constantly from 3am to 9pm daily. I side-stepped around the back to view the little open air toilet between their platform and the ice maker’s boundary fence.
It became a no-brainer and I explained that while it is not possible to help everyone, I wanted to help Seth. However, I needed him to have a plan so that I can attract donations because noone donates if you ask for “free money”. His plan was expressed immediately – he needs a decent motorbike so that he can take customers to Angkor Thom. I then explained that I don’t have enough money to buy a motorbike but I do have access to a loan from the bank, so rather than wait for donations, I would take this money and buy him a motorbike. Rav, in his ever-modest style, replied “congratulations”. I’d asked him earlier how he would feel if I helped Seth, and was told without hestitation that “the more people who you help, the better it will be for everyone including me. I don’t get jealous, and if my friends can have customers then when I have money problems, there are more people I can ask to help me”.
We traveled back to town over the jarring muddy roads, Rav shouting out to Seth “wow your road is very bad! My heart fell out to the ground!”. We stopped at a number of different motorbike shops over the course of about an hour. With no interest in motorbikes and their various dimensions or features and aware that my presence would require everything to be translated, plus risk an automatic rise in assumed price, I left the boys to shop while I waited, a dissolving lump of lard on the synthetic tuk tuk seats. Eventually we came across a shop with a motorbike in our price range and of an acceptable quality to pull a tuk tuk for long distances. The next chore was for me to find enough ATMs to withdraw the money I needed, which was complicated by one machine only dispensing riel currency; three machines not recognising my card and another machine wanting to charge an excessive withdrawal fee. Finally I had enough $ in my possession and we made our way back to the motorbike shop. Seth invited me in to pay but I declined, passing the money to him without even thinking about it, and asking him to check it. He stopped to count it slowly in front of me. During lunch Rav laughingly announced that Seth took a photograph of the motorbike money when he took it to the shop counter. Seth added “because I never touched so much money in my life”, before pulling his phone out to show me the fanned-out crisp $100 notes sitting on the shop counter. More unraveling of my world perceptions courtesy of these composed young people who have not had a fraction of the advantages that I take for granted.
With Rav riding Seth’s new wheels beside the tuk tuk, we lurched our way back to the shacks where I was invited to lunch by an overjoyed family filled with thank yous. We ate on the platform where all of this family’s life plays out. Rice with fish soup cooked on an open fire in the mud. A conversation ensued between Seth and his wife about whether I would be okay to eat this food, but Rav assured them that “she is not like the tourist, she lives with the Cambodian people, it’s okay”. He also translated at another point in the mostly-Khmer conversation, “you came from Australia and brought some Australian lucky with you for all of us”. During the conversation I mentioned that I like Bowng Dea Drey Broarmar, a fish-pancake served with fresh vegetables and rice, which it turns out is Mrs Seth’s speciality. Tomorrow night we’re sharing another meal together on the infamous platform so she can share her culinary skills with me again.
After lunch Seth drove me home to my hotel. This afternoon I lay for hours on my back in the hotel pool, looking up at the cloudy sky through blooming frangipani flowers hanging from branches peering over the fresh blue water. I get to sleep under a solid roof tonight, unaware if it is even raining outside my sound proof walls. I handle $100 bills with an air of irritation because they need to be changed to smaller currency. And when I look to the sky, where so many see wasp nests, I get to view flower blossoms.