Out in the Cambodian SticksJuly 3, 2007
I flagged down the first passing motodop and told him to take me there. After he initially tried a couple of bog-standard tourist scams on me we both soon ascertained that we were good fellows and got on very well. He took me around for the next three days and we visited his mama and had her cook rice for me.
It was the first opportunity I’d had to get out into countryside on my own. Previous jaunts with likes of the Minister of Education allowed me a limited degree of observation but not genuine participation. All my male Khmer friends are relatively wealthy, (female friends tend to be from poorer backgrounds had offered but I’d desisted, fearing a trap), so when a guy asked me to see his mama and I had no pressing engagements, it seemed a perfect opportunity.
The motodop’s English is not much better than my Khmer, so there were some communication problems. I thought he said she lived 5 km out of Siem Reap – more like 500. 2 hours (each way) on a ancient bike on an unmade road was physically gruelling, but proceeding at the pace of a pony was quite a delight (well, going was; the return leg in the cold and dark wasn’t so much). We wafted through a world of rice harvesting, schoolgirls in their uniforms up to their chests in muddy water fishing, pony-traps and ox-carts, and so many pigs and chickens on motorbikes that I forgot to mention them until the final draft.
Mama lives in a small compound of three leaky straw huts and one wooden house, far from electricity, toilets or running water. Cooking was by candle-light; the first time I learned he had a 25-year old unmarried, virtuous sister was when we passed her bathing in the river – a scene straight out of the karaoke videos.
Various males gathered around and we sat on a straw mat drinking rice wine as the women set about preparing the meal. I was particularly taken by the four-year-old lass with the six-foot pestle pounding rice, but my attention was distracted by other children arriving with freshly-harvested rice on carts pulled by cows.
Once big sister had sorted out the very badly behaved pig she took control of the cows with great skill. With all the hints being dropped, I found myself considering that for all my admiration, it wasn’t a talent that could be put to much use in Phnom Penh. But the cows really impressed me; they were so quiet and docile that it occurred to me that in future, whenever I refer to a woman as a cow, I’ll mean it in the best possible way – the ultimate compliment.
Those hints – they were all quite predictable really, but it got a bit tricky. I can understand – all the guys were telling me how they’d married at 21 and were divorced or had abandoned their wives (I didn’t press them) by age 25. As darkness fell at 6 o’clock I could see silhouettes in the gloom and hear female voices saying things I partially understood.
Slowly the shapes loomed nearer and nearer, like cows (In future, whenever I refer to a woman as a cow, I’ll mean it as the best possible aspiration – be like a cow, with those long eye lashes and sweet docile manner, be full of stuff that’s extremely useful, that sort of thing). The only figure visible, standing by the candle, was the sister, and as the rice-wine goggles sharpened their focus and the hints got stronger, I knew I’d have to beat a retreat. At one point, having been silent for a week, my phone started buzzing; the girl I’d spurned after she texted me a marriage proposal three weeks before had waited long enough and was back on the case.
At first it was embarrassing as the guys were ribbing me, then it was good as it seemed to be an escape route, but then it was bad again as the ratchet was turned up lest the opportunity be missed. In short, I was requested to stay the night. Naturally, the deal was that in the cold night, sister would keep me warm. That’s how it goes you see, given the alternative, they calculate that if by sleeping with me there’s a 1% chance I’ll fall in love and marry her, it’s worth the sacrifice of her honour.
Never mind that before darkness fell and the rice wine kicked in I distinctly remember thinking that she wasn’t all that attractive, there was no way I’d get suckered into that position with anyone or leave anyone in that position. After the late-night revelry had ceased at 8 (p.m. – they’re harvesting rice and have to be up at 4) my friend agreed to take me home.
I sorted mama out a little, so I suppose the excursion was more expensive than my motodop’s initial suggestion of ‘massa boom-boom’, but I guess everyone was the happier for it. Maybe mama will do something about the gaping holes in the floor and sister can feel more comfortable about getting dressed (the house is on stilts and life goes on in hammocks beneath it in the shade).
Asking me to fork out for a toilet, however, was a bit of a liberty given that another house in the compound (the wooden one) already has one. Some day an NGO looking for another cause will probably start some ridiculous campaign to put a toilet in every house or something – whoever heard of such a thing?