A day in a Cambodian Village
My first few days in Cambodia had been spent touring the incredible, but super touristy Angkor Wat. I decided I wanted to step off the typical tourist trail and discover more about how people actually lived. I had already been struck by just how underdeveloped the country was, and at the same time how genuinely warm and friendly the people I had encountered were. I heard about a program run by a local, which allowed you to spend a day with him in his village. It sounded perfect, so myself and Eric, an American I had met at the hostel, signed up. When Sambo, the local guide, arrived to pick us up in a 1960s US military jeep, a machine first used to fight the Vietcong just over the border, I knew it was going to be day to remember.
First stop was his aunt's farm, where his young nieces and nephews were waiting eagerly for us. I had got used to ridiculously cute children waving at us and shouting ‘hello’ as we passed, but to be playing with them and seeing how free spirited and uninhibited they were was an absolute joy. Just handing them my camera and phone to take snaps of us all seemed to turn them into the happiest children I’ve ever seen.
After a tour of the farm, we sat with the family in the open air lounge beneath their stilted wooden house - the prevailing architectural style in rural Cambodia - and listened to Sambo as he told us about his life and his goals for the programme, allowing tourists a real insight into the lives of Cambodians as well as providing some additional income for the village.
The ground was dirt, the sofas made from a hard plastic and various animals roamed around the place. In one corner a makeshift kitchen, in the other numerous hammocks suspended from the pillars. Slowly cooking on an old blackened BBQ was half a chicken, gutted and sliced fully down the middle, head and leg still attached. I remember wondering how much of it would be our lunch.
Soon it was time to start preparing lunch and discover the answer to that question: the chicken was completely shredded with a butchers knife, bones and all, before being added to a large wooden pecl and mortar with grated mango, chillies and lemon juice. Only the foot of the chicken was left out, later handed to one of Sambo’s little nephews to chew on; something he seemed very happy about!
I'll admit, with malnourished kittens clambering over me, dogs in serious need of a vet sniffing about and flies bouncing on and off the food, my ‘first world’ idea of hygiene was being tested in a way I'd never experienced before. I was convinced I'd get food poisoning and possibly die. Every single rule about safe cooking was being broken, yet for Sambo and his family, it was completely routine.
Once the food was ready, we ate with our hands, as is customary in this part of Cambodia, taking a finger full of chicken, some rice and a chilli. Suffice to say this did nothing to help my hygiene paranoia. Ultimately of course, I didn’t die. Nor to my great surprise did I even need to reach for the immodium. Not for the first time on my travels, my perception of risk, ingrained in me from growing up in a highly risk averse culture, was being challenged.
And, although the bits of shattered bone that crunched as you chewed were a world away from a Nando's, it still tasted pretty good. It felt like real food; food made by people who could not afford to waste a single calorie that a chicken has to offer, nor splurge on expensive ingredients. In fact most days, we were told, there is not even a chicken. Meat is eaten only on special occasions in the village. I guess we were a special occasion.
Once we had finished lunch and washed it down with another beer, it was time to head to our next destination: Sambo’s cousins house. Here we got to see how they fed their chickens termites, freshly dug from the ground, and got to meet more of his nieces and nephews as they returned from school to help out around the farm. We also collected some fishing nets for our afternoon activity: catching dinner.
We drove out to the rice paddies where field after field was covered with waist high water. Living in these muddy waters are small freshwater fish, eaten by the farmers and their families. Indeed when we arrived there were already a number of locals at work catching them, alongside those working the fields growing rice. Unfortunately, we were told the water would make us ill if we swam in it, so Eric and I were relegated to grabbing the fish and placing them in a bucket, as Sambo and a friend waded through the water with a small net, throwing them to shore. Even this proved a challenge at times as we jumped about trying to keep hold of flapping fish with surprisingly sharp fins. It’s safe to say we felt rather inadequate at this point.
After an hour of fishing we had enough to make dinner. But, there was no kitchen involved this time. While Sambo started a fire next to the dirt track, his friend created BBQ clamps by slicing sticks along their centre, sliding the still flapping fish in between and tying the top. Once each stick was filled, the ends were driven into the ground next to the fire and the fish began to sizzle. Eventually they stopped flapping too.
Our dinner table was the bonnet of Sambo’s jeep, where a chilli concoction was presented and a few edible leaves from the fields to combine with the fish. Add to this a bottle of eye wateringly strong rice wine and we were ready to feast.
Once again, I struggled a little. I’m not really a fan of fish, so eating whole catfish, bar a few fins which you need to pull off by hand was never going to be the best experience of my life, even with copious amounts of chilli to hand. But, just as with lunch, it allowed me to push myself out of my comfort zone, something travelling has taught me to value highly. After all, it is literally impossible to get food any fresher. Keeping this in mind, I managed a few of the smaller ones.
As the sun set over the rice paddies, assisted by the copious shots of rice wine, the mood was jolly. I began reflecting on what had been not only an enjoyable day, but one that had opened my eyes to a way of life that until experiencing it first hand, I could never have imagined. These people had none of the things we take for granted; running water, electricity, sewage, protection from the elements or access to limitless food and drink. And that’s not to mention institutional services we enjoy (and complain about) like free healthcare, welfare and security. Yet at the same time, they appeared free, happy and openly generous.
So instead of thinking about what can be done to help them live more like us - there are plenty of people more qualified than me already doing this - I ended my day thinking about what I can learn from their lives. What is it about the first world, with all it’s luxury, comfort and security that leads many of us to feel trapped and unfulfilled, while people who survive day to day in a country that struggles to function at the most basic level appear not have these concerns at all? Is it as simple as comfort breeds discontent? And why is it so hard to truly appreciate how lucky we are and avoid taking things for granted?
Of course a single day is not enough to really understand the intricacies of Sambo and his family’s life, nor make any real judgements of how free and fulfilled your average Cambodian is. Perhaps this is why I can’t answer any of these questions yet. But one thing is for sure; it has given me a real sense that the answers are out there waiting to be discovered.
People with little to nothing can be more generous, warm hearted and free spirited than those with wealth, security and comfort.
See it for your self
For more info on doing spending a day with Sambo in his village just outside Siem Reap take a look at his website here: Cool Cambodia: A Day In The Life Of A Countryside Village