People around Cambodia celebrated Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist festival to honour their ancestors. Pchum means, “meeting or gathering” and Ben means, “a ball of something”, usually for rice or meat. For two weeks until October 5, 2013, Cambodians visit the pagoda, usually before sunrise to make food and drink offerings for the monks and to feed hungry ghosts who could be their late ancestors, relatives or friends.
I spent five days of the festival with three Khmer families because I only had a few more weeks left in Cambodia and I wanted to spend as much quality time with them as I could. At first I thought, “What did I sign up for? I committed to going 6.5 hours to Kampong Cham for two days, then coming back north to Siem Reap for one night, and then taking a 2-hour taxi to Banteay Meanchey to stay for two days then returning back to Siem Reap.” I wasn’t sure if I had the physical and emotional energy to do this packed trip.
But it turned out this seemingly tiring itinerary ended being just the relaxation my body and mind needed. I’ve spent five days filling the slow hours by talking with my friends, laughing with the families, feeling the peaceful energy at the pagoda, appreciating the generosity of new friends and sleeping a lot. Anytime someone invited me to their home, I’ve accepted.
Two days in a village in the Kampong Cham province (central Cambodia)
My first trip was with my friends Phai and San, a wonderful young married couple who run a small restaurant in Siem Reap City. We were going to visit San’s family in Kampong Cham.
When I first arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t expect to be using as much French as I did and I had no idea France had such an influence on Cambodia. San learned French in Phnom Penh so I mainly communicated in French with her while I spoke English with Phai.
I was a bit worried at first because they told me that there was flooding the month before and the water was almost at their waist. They asked me if that was ok and we would just take a boat to get to their house. Hearing this, I imagined us staying at a flooded house and wondered where we would sleep. But this wasn’t the case at all.
To get to San’s village, we took a 4.5-hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham, a 5-minute motto ride to get to the ferry, a 1 hour ride on a big boat and finally a 20-minute boat taxi, which is a very small row boat that would take us to her home.
When we were waiting at the ferry, San was talking to a group of people. I asked Phai if she knew them and he said, “No they are just waiting at the ferry.” This is one of many examples of how opposite Cambodia’s social culture is from some Western countries. I love how people easily talk to each other so openly no matter what part of Cambodia you’re in. I’d be lucky to find someone who would have more than a superficial conversation with me at a ferry terminal in Vancouver, Canada.
The first boat sailed along the beautiful Mekong River. The weather was great for most of the ride with the wind blowing and cracks of sun that lit up the clouds. When were about to transfer to the small boat taxi, the rain started pouring.
While we were waiting for the first boat transfer, other people on the boat asked San in Khmer, “Why is a foreigner coming all the way here? It’s so hard to get to.” The first thing that came to mind was, “Why not? I love boat rides too.” I love it when I’m the only foreign person in parts of Cambodia and I love venturing to places that would never be on a tourists’ radar.
The first group of people who got to the boat taxi had to walk in knee-high water. I feel horrible for thousands of people around Cambodia who have had their houses destroyed from the floods and many people in the community who got sick.
We took our little boat taxi through the forest trees to get directly to San’s house. It was a peaceful ride passing all the houses on stilts and just listening to the light raindrops hitting the water.
I offered San some money for my part of the transport costs but she wouldn’t take it. She said it’s ok and I am always touched when that happens with my Khmer friends, especially because many of their salaries are not high. And often whatever leftover money they have they give to their families. Nevertheless, they treat me as their guest and don’t worry about the cost. Though I always offer something in return whether it is food for the family or anything else they would like.
When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by San’s parents, her one-year-old sister, and the neighbour’s daughter. The area was part of a group of eight villages of about 1,000 people.
We arrived early afternoon and spent most of the time resting before dinner. My interactions with Khmer parents takes a similar pattern when I attempt to say something with my limited Khmer, they laugh and try to say more Khmer words to me, and finally I end the conversation with “Sorry I don’t understand. Speak little Khmer.”
San asked me, “You want to go with me and my parents to pagoda? It’s up to you. I go with my mother and father to Buddha for good luck. But for you if you don’t want to, it’s ok.” Of course I said I would like to participate as much as I can if it was ok with them. What I really appreciate with my Khmer (Cambodian) friends is they know I’m not Buddhist but they keep assuring that it’s up to me whether or not I want to participate or just observe. Nothing is imposed, which would be ideal with every faith.
Before I took a shower, I asked if they had shampoo and they didn’t. So the mom immediately gave Lisa, the neighbour’s daughter, money to get some for me. Again this surprised me but I kept insisting to Lisa to take my money instead to buy the shampoo.
San’s father is quiet and didn’t talk that much but he was very kind to make sure I had a fan on me when I was just reading or sitting in the house. And San kept asking to make sure I was comfortable in her Khmer house and I told her several times that I’ve been to Khmer homes and villages around Cambodia. But of course I was grateful for her concern, in typical Khmer hospitality.
The next morning, the family got up at 5 a.m. to start preparing food to make offerings at the pagoda, which they often do before sunrise. The offering included bobo (rice soup), drinks, fruits and some desserts.
Before going to the pagoda, San, Phai and I made an offering to the father. We all had to touch the plate of money and food that was offered to him before he did a blessing. It was nice to participate in this rather than just observed.
I asked my friend if it was ok to film and take pictures during the ceremony and he said it was fine. The kids at the pagoda loved looking at my camera and they laughed when I tried to speak Khmer. Kids in Cambodia laugh so easily and they are so friendly.
At the pagoda, I imitated what the others did. I definitely felt like an outside observer sometimes, especially when I was taking pictures and filming because it was a completely different ritual that I am not familiar with and not an essential part of my life. I thought it was funny to see a monk taking pictures with his iPhone during the ceremony. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one taking pictures. But no one paid much attention to me and I was driven by my compulsion to share my experience, without disrupting the ceremony of course.
Being the obvious foreigner newbie to the pagoda, my friends didn’t tell me I had to wear a white shirt for the ceremony. I was wearing a bright red top because it was more decent than my other casual clothes. But no one else seemed to mind but at least I know for next time. “Barang lop lop,” crazy foreigner. When we were all eating lunch together, one of the elders kept gesturing that I join them for a meal, they were really sweet to make sure I was included.
Lita and Lisa are sisters and they come to San’s family’s house all the time to stay over and play. Lisa is 13 years old and she reminds me a lot of my adopted Khmer sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”). She is quiet, smiles a lot, very well mannered and helps in the kitchen. She knows how to cut the small fish and helps set up before dinner.
San was so caring, I walked to the bathroom with the flashlight in the dark and San would look out the window to make sure I was okay. She was constantly asking to make sure I was comfortable.
San’s cousin came to visit and he translated some conversations I had with San’s mom. One uncomfortable and funny thing he had to translate was, “If you are back in Cambodia, she said me and you can work together,” meaning he could be my boyfriend. Of course I’m so “old” by Khmer standards because I’m 28 and unmarried, three years past the ideal marrying age.
I was so sad to find out after we got back to Siem Reap that parents of the young girls we met actually separated five years ago and just left the girls. So San’s family took one of them in to raise her and a family nearby took the other. I said, “Wow that is so generous of your family.” I felt horrible because they are such good girls who are so helpful around the house. My Khmer friend said, “This kind of story is very common around Cambodia. The parents don’t do family planning and they don’t want the kids so they just leave them.”
During our last meal with the family, one of the highlights was making the family laugh with the little Khmer I knew. I felt even more like a Westerner with my camera, blue waterproof bag and backpack. San’s mom asked about my waterproof bag and I said, “This is from Canada,” in Khmer. You know you’re a Westerner in Cambodia when . . .
After two days, we headed back to Siem Reap and the weather was as beautiful and peaceful going back as the days we came.
Trip #2: Back to Siem Reap
I spent most of the night with my adopted Khmer family. It always melts my heart when they’re excited to see me after being away for a few days on a trip. It was really sweet when my friend Konnitha told me that her younger sister Kaka (pronounced “Gaga”) asked if I was going with them to the pagoda. I said I’ll be away in another province and she looked disappointed. I felt guilty because even though I spent a lot of time with them, they really appreciate if I can participate in family events with them. I promised if I am back during Khmer New Year in April, I will go to the pagoda with them first before anyone else.
Trip #3: Banteay Meanchey province
This was my second time going to my friend Sopheak’s hometown, which is 120 km from Siem Reap city and this time I stayed overnight. Her family is full of wonderful and also very strong women. The way they spoke was very assertive more than most girls and women I have met in Cambodia, who often speak softly and are more submissive.
I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and because I thought we were going to the pagoda, I brought a white shirt this time. But my friend had already gone early in the morning with her family.
Sopheak made me feel so good she said her sisters and mom say I am very nice and beautiful. And when I smile, my face lights up. One thing I will definitely miss about Cambodia is being called beautiful by people you know and don’t know. She also said her friend Sereyroth wanted to meet me because I am nice.
I was really touched because Sopheak’s sister just had a baby on September 24 and the family was also busy getting ready for Pchum Ben. But when they found out I was coming to visit again, her mom said she was going to make make fish amok for me, which is one of my favourite Cambodian dishes. I really appreciated that because that dish takes a long time to cook and her dish was one of the best amok I’ve had in Cambodia. She was simmering the food for hours.
Sopheak was very considerate and asked if what they were eating was ok because I wasn’t used to Khmer food. But as always, I will eat whatever the family eats when I’m a guest and rarely, if ever, make a special request for food.
I met two of Sopheak’s wonderful friends Sereyroth and Sorphea. Sereyroth has one of the must unique jobs of anyone I’ve met in Cambodia. When you ask many girls what they are studying or want to me, many of them say accounting or finance. But her friend Sereyroth has done a variety of jobs, including research on fish, interviewing people for field research and doing training for people for NGOs and other types of organizations. She was a human encyclopedia, she knew a lot about many things and it was fascinating listening to her.
Sereyroth and Sopheak were so kind, I don’t expect anyone to pay for any of my costs whether they are Khmer or not but they kept insisting on paying for my breakfast and snacks. When I asked why Sereyroth paid for our breakfast, she said, “You are a special guest.” Of course I at least wanted to treat them for coffee, which I did and fought Sopheak for the bill.
It was a nice break being spending two days with them away from Siem Reap city. Everything we did was nicely paced and not rushed. We took mottos to several rivers, the market, got coffee and the beautiful Lover’s Garden.
Lover’s Garden is this beautiful and hilarious place with hammocks, food, a fountain and random Disney and cartoon character statues around the garden. Some of those statues look so out of place, but that’s what makes the place fun.
One difference between Cambodian and Western culture is in Cambodia, people often sit at the same table as people they don’t know as long as there is room. When there were tables that were free for just the four of us, I pointed us to sit there but one of the friends said, “It’s ok we can sit here,” which was at a table where a mother and her young daughter were sitting. We spoke a bit with them and made the daughter laugh. I wonder if these kinds of interactions would happen more if people sat together more in Western culture.
When we left, Sopheak told me that the owner said she was looking at me for a long time because I’m so beautiful and she thought I was Khmer. I’ll admit, I really am going to miss Cambodia for the sincere compliments I got from random people, particularly women. This would rarely happen in Vancouver unless it was a dude trying to hit on you.
It was amazing to watch and talk with Sopheak’s adorable six-year-old niece. She spoke quite a few English words and sentences, more than most kids I have met in Cambodian villages. She is at the top of her class and her teacher said she is an outstanding student.
The day that I left, Sereyroth told me “Even though we meet for only short time, I’m happy to meet you. It’s important in my life to talk with you and learn from you.” That was very sweet and responded to her by saying, “I’m pretty sure this weekend I learned a lot more from you than you did from me. You know so much!”
This was another unforgettable week with three wonderful and generous families and I will never for get them. I was really glad Sopheak and Sereyroth were able to join me for a dinner I organized the next day and be my guests this time.