After I graduated, I wanted to reward myself with a backpacking trip to South East Asia. I read a lot of books and ended up picking Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia as my destination. I packed my bags and left home at the end of November, flying to Hanoi. I told my friends and family I will be back on 10th of February 2015. But December 2014 was my first time in Cambodia and I fell in love with the kind people living there, their culture and modest lifestyles.
Instead of staying in this country for 5 days I missed my flight back home and I ended up staying for more than 5 months. At the end of May 2015 I didn't leave because I wanted to, but because I completely ran out of money!
I lived on a paradise island called Koh Rong, the second largest island in the south of Cambodia, with 4 local Khmer boys who soon became my family. Meeting the boys was a complete coincidence. They all worked in a bar called Bunna's place and one night I saw a happy hour sign and stopped there for a cocktail. I ended up getting way more than just that. My first impression was that they are crazy. And yes, I still think they are, but a good kind of crazy. And they have the biggest hearts. I soon decided not to leave the island; I got a job there and moved in together with them. At one point, we also opened our own bar, but that is a story for another time. Turquoise sea, white sand beaches, and mesmerizing sunsets are just a few reasons why this island became my second home. Thus began my adventure of living with the locals and backpacking in Cambodia.
Beautiful sunset in Sihanoukville close to Koh Rong in Cambodia.
The funny thing is that I didn't spend my favourite days on the island. Koh Rong of course, is full of unforgettable moments and events, but my favourite story didn't happen here. When the boys had a day off from work they decided to take a vacation to their hometowns. They asked me if I wanted to join them and I immediately said YES! And these were my best four days in Cambodia. After one hour on the boat to the mainland and half an hour ride with a car, we arrived at a small village on the mainland. The road was dusty, chickens were running around the houses, kids were chasing them, the buffaloes were eating grass – it was typical village life. The houses were small and made out of wood. There were no toilets and no showers. Once I desperately wanted to take a shower after a long hot humid day. But when I realized their shower is just a bucket of water in the middle of the backyard I changed my mind. Cambodian style is downright basic and totally different from European households. We stayed in the village for 4 days, spending daytime together with families and sleeping in the only hotel around. We couldn't sleep with the families. Why? Because the houses are already overcrowded. They have just one bed in every house and no mosquito nets. Even then the families welcomed me with open arms.
Thatched house in Koh Rong, Cambodia. Picture credits
The whole village was related; one big and happy family. I met the mothers, fathers and grandparents. I met the brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts. Not to forget the kids! I wish I could remember all the names. But that was mission impossible
because I met hundreds of them! Everyone was so nice to me. It is hard to explain the look in their eyes. Curious and scared at the same time. For some of them it was a day of many firsts - first time seeing a white person, first time seeing blue eyes. It was an unforgettable experience. At first they were all scared of me, staring at me from the distance. But after a while they realized I am just the same as them. They started smiling at me, talking to me in Khmer, offering me food and drinks and touching my hand, saying 'sart nas' which means very beautiful in the Khmer language. In Europe, we all like tanned dark skin, but here it is the opposite.
I can't remember the last time I drank and ate so much. The first day we started eating in the morning and I went to sleep in the late afternoon because I was so full. A traditional Cambodian meal is served on the ground, without tables and chairs. We just sat down in a circle and the ladies brought the food and drinks and put it in the middle. Next to the village is a river so most of the meals were made of fish and vegetables. Amok, curry and grilled fish. It was simple yet delicious. The meals were prepared by old ladies in the village. I really wanted to help them with the preparations, but every time I wanted to help I ended up with a new drink in my hand!
It was interesting that I was the only woman among all the men sitting in the circle. All the other ladies were watching from far away, eating their own food. When the plates were empty, the food just kept on coming. And the tradition there is that no one leaves the party before the guests. So when we left, everyone left. Even if some of the locals was tired or had to work in the morning they sat with us a long time. All they wanted was to make us happy. We spent the first day getting to know each other. I was very nervous at first, but they made me feel very welcome in their company. And after being away from my family for such a long time, this felt like home away from home. Next day we borrowed some motorbikes (the uncles and cousins each had one, so there was plenty of choice!) and cruised around the nearby towns, fisherman villages and markets. How do you ride a motorbike in Cambodia? With at least 3 people on it! At the market, I felt like a celebrity. Everyone was looking at me, smiling at me and wanted to meet me. Few people also asked to take a picture. We bought some fresh fruit and drove up the dusty road over the rice fields to watch the sun set. Later for dinner we stopped by the river and caught some fish. We put them on wooden sticks and grilled them over the open fire.
On the last night, we were sitting on the ground in the backyard and one older man brought a chicken. At first I had no idea what was going on. We were playing and petting it for the whole day. But then people told me that the chicken was our dinner. It was just bizarre. But the curry a couple of hours later was amazing. It felt so wrong, but I made a pact with myself that I will try local foods while traveling and this was one of those moments where I had to put my mind over what my brain was telling me is the right thing to do. But turning down the special meal they made for me was no option because it would be disrespectful to do so. One thing all the locals found very funny was how I am not able to eat spicy food. Every time my eyes started tearing up they were laughing at me. I cannot eat spicy food and the amount of chili they put everywhere was just hard for me to handle. When I was thirsty a young boy started climbing at 20 meters high tree with a knife in his hands and 30 seconds later I was already drinking a fresh coconut. The palm tree was so high and it had no branches to hold on to. And this kid just climbed to the top of it without thinking about how dangerous this could be. I was just looking at him with my eyes and mouth wide opened, and he didn't even realize how generous and kind this was of him.
People in the village live so modestly. They don't have much. But still, they wanted to give me everything they have! And they are happy with their lives. The smiles on their faces brightened up every day when I was in their company. It was hard to say goodbye. Even though they don't speak any English and I didn't understand a single thing they said to me, they taught me a lot. I learned that material things are not as important as we might think. There are a lot of 'things' which can make us much happier than that. Cambodians are the nicest people I met while traveling so far and I am looking forward to the day when I can go back to my home away from home. Header Picture by Wikirictor
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Local shop at a Cambodian village.