Going Home to KandalMay 22, 2006
That day was her only one off that month, and she wanted to go to Kandal to see her family.
It wasn’t often that she got to see them. She was born in a village and grew up farming and fishing, but she moved to Takhmao as a teenager, stitching shoes at a garment factory, and later to Phnom Penh.
She’d never been on a bike trip before, but she’d learned to drive a 250cc in the capital, and her athletic frame and outgoing personality made her a suitable candidate for a ride to the countryside.
Before we could leave, she had to pick up a few things from the house she shared with her cousin. It was a single room, a cubicle, in a long row of identical rooms behind a padlocked gate on the outskirts of town.
Both of them slept on a single mattress on the floor. Their clothes were folded in a pile in the corner. A few photos were scattered on a small nightstand. Photos of her cousin with a smiling foreigner. Photos of both of them by a swimming pool. Photos of her by a hotel room window.
After taking a shower, she put a change of clothes and some toiletries into a plastic bag and stuffed it into my backpack. The plan was to make a quick dash to Kandal, then backtrack on our way to Kompong Chhnang, and then spend a night there and do some sightseeing in the morning.
One thing that stood out about her was the easy pace of her actions. Her shower dragged on for half an hour, and it took the same again for her to sort out what she wanted to wear, and by that time she was already worrying about breakfast.
She decided to eat at a tiny place just down from her house. It was one of those Khmer restaurants where they cook six pots of food in the morning and then leave them on a table until lunchtime. Anyone who wants a meal gets a scoop from one or two of the pots on a plate of rice.
She munched on a fried fish and slurped bitter gourd soup before deciding she had to go to the market to buy some fruit for her family. Just as we got out of town, she realised that she’d forgotten something important and needed to go back. It was well after noon before we finally got out of the city.
At Takhmao, we took the small road along the Tonle Bassac. With the river to our right, brown and sluggish with the first rains of the monsoon season, we crossed many narrow metal bridges over coursing streams with lush green banks.
Halfway to the village, we stopped at a collection of wooden shelters perched on the edge of the Tonle Bassac. Tables and chairs were set up overlooking the river, and an old woman offered us sugarcane juice and fried noodles. It was not a necessary stop on so short a journey, but it was a pleasant one.
Our next stop was a few kilometres north of the girl’s village in a proper little town. Her aunt owned a house there by the market. She used to sell cosmetics out of a glass case set up at the entrance to the house, but now she just spent her days watching TV. Her daughter’s husband, sending money from the States, paid for the house.
I was given a Coke and told to make myself at home. Another cousin, a young man, was summoned to chat with me. He went to university in Phnom Penh and was spending his term break back home. Without much to talk about, my eyes began to roam around the room.
There were photos on the wall. It’s always interesting to see photos of girls before they come to the capital to work and try to imagine what they were like back then, when they were still adolescents, spoke no English, and had no experience of foreigners. She looked shy, innocent, lovely.
She left her aunt with some fruit, and we continued south to her village. She directed me to a dirt trail splitting off the main road. It took us along the bank of a wide canal, where she said she swam as a child, and through thick trees to a cluster of pathetic wooden shacks.
Her father was squatting beside her grandparents’s house with a pile of bamboo and a long knife. He was carving long strips and throwing them in a pile for his wife to weave into fish traps. They made their living this way, catching fish in the canal, and from cultivating the fields nearby.
She dispensed fifty dollars, more than her monthly salary, in folds of 1000 riel notes. First, she gave money to her grandparents with two hands, then to her parents, and finally a few small notes to her young siblings and other children.
Across the street was a shack with several middle-aged men lolling about in the midday heat. They called her over. She introduced them as her uncles. They asked her where their money was – and so she dug out her own wallet to see what little she had left before handing over the last of her riel.
Finally, she showed me to the fields behind her house. They grew rice, banana trees, and cucumbers. She stopped in the cucumber patch and bent down to root through the stunted plants in the dry soil. Finding a few cucumbers, she squatted down, wiped them on her sleeve, and ate them raw.
Further back was a small pond marking the end of the property. The adjoining farm contained a field of corn, and she looked around to see no one was watching before dashing into her neighbour’s property, seizing three cobs of corn, and tossing them to me. When we wandered back to the village, she pointed to me and cried in Khmer, ‘Thief! Thief!’
Little kids followed us at a distance, gawking at me, as we entered the family home. It was a small wooden shack, a single room, raised on posts about four feet off the ground. The floor was made of long, thin strips of bamboo. There was enough space between each one to see the ground, and they bent uncertainly under my feet. What few possessions they had – cooking utensils, photographs, clothes – were piled in the corner. A mat was spread on the floor where the family slept.
We said our formal goodbyes to the parents and thanked them for welcoming me to their village. Then we continued south all the way to the Vietnamese border. We’d heard of the place from her cousin. A place called Chrey Thom.
It was a border crossing, but presumably only for locals, and at one time a teeming gambling and brothel town. Now, apparently, it had been ‘cleaned up.’ But there was still a host of tokalok stands by the side of the road, and each one was staffed by a suspiciously large number of pretty young girls in sexy clothes.
The town was no more than a hot, dusty market area with a few big, nondescript buildings that could have been hotels, casinos, or just part of the border crossing infrastructure. But she was nonetheless excited to be there. She’d grown up just a few kilometres away, lived that close by until she was a teenager, heard about the place countless times, and was only now coming to visit the town.
After no more than half an hour, we turned back toward Phnom Penh. Not only did she have no concept of time, but she also had no concept of distance. ‘We go Kompong Chhnang today?’ she asked. I’d kept telling her all day that there would be no time, and the day dragged on, but she’d insisted that we could always stay for another hour and still have time for the drive to Kompong Chhnang.
We returned to Phnom Penh in darkness, stopping in Takhmao to visit a friend she knew when she worked at a garment factory, and planned a trip to Udong for another day. The trip to Kandal had gone well.
Her one day off from work. That’s how we’d come together. But back in Phnom Penh, we ate Thai on the riverside, then had a few beers at Sharky, and then of course she wanted to go into work to see what she was missing.