I felt a little guilty after my last piece. It’s easy to sit back and pick holes in things for cheap laughs and it’s not too difficult, living among the privations of village life, to find foibles left, right and centre. So, to counter that and rebalance my kharmic merit, here are four awesome things about living in a Khmer village that you should definitely try if you get the chance.
As anyone who has spent time in Cambodia will tell you, rice occupies for Khmers that defining space in the national consciousness that the British have for tea, Americans have for fast food and the Swiss have for wire-rimmed spectacles and being neutral.
During harvest season the offers come thick and fast. “Will you help harvest the rice today?” No, not today, thanks. I avoided the task. It sounded too much like hard work. Until the day I relented and slopped, apprehensively through the paddies towards a patch of land owned by a family I’m friends with.
The work was sensual. The only sound was the whip and thrash of sickles slashing. Protected from the blistering sun by long-peaked caps and voluminous shirts we moved methodically, gleaning the field until only stubs were left poking from the water that glistened in the late afternoon sun.
Sure, I got back-ache but I also connected to something post-modern man pines for while tapping at a lonely keyboard. That thing psychoanalyst James Hillman called, “[the] human nostalgia for freedom in a primitive Eden.” By running my own hands over the plants that would make my dinner my connection to the Earth was momentarily much more real than the abstract realm of words, bank balances and pre-packaged goods I usually inhabit.
If there’s one thing Cambodians love (apart from their rice fields), it’s their religion. Few things will render you as many approving nods as bowing to the Buddha and taking part in a ceremony or two. Living as I do in temple it wasn’t long before I noticed the regular gathering of elderly people in the monk’s house where they chanted together before making their way to the main hall to join the devoted congregation for more chanting.
It was precept day. Precepts are the Buddhist version of the Ten Commandments. There are five precepts for laypeople and three more for the clergy, and once a week the community gathers to promise to abide by the rules.
Having been practicing Buddhism as taught in the West for a number of years I was already practicing the five precepts (no stealing, killing, lying, intoxicants or harmful sexual behaviour) and reaping benefits such as no hangovers, fewer dramas and a more balanced existence.
So, on precept day, I decided to chant along with the old people and clergy and take on the greater challenge of the eight precepts. The eight precepts include the usual five but have an extra three: no sensual entertainment (e.g. TV and music), no comfy chairs and no eating after 12pm.
The idea behind all this is to clear space for focused meditation, even though Khmers don’t practice meditation and prefer to think of their precept practice as gaining merit for a good rebirth. As a good Western agnostic this does little to motivate my approach, but Buddhism is nothing if not flexible.
With no dinner, TV or reading to distract me there was plenty of time for meditation. Long, difficult hours spent watching my breath and developing equanimity and peace with the bits of my psyche that usually send me running to the hills of TV, food and sex.
But the biggest benefit was the kudos my practice got me from the villagers. News of my devotion spread quickly and I received more than the usual nods of approval and pats on the back the next day.
Being human, the Khmers naturally love the blood of the bean. If you haven’t yet tried the oil-thick Khmer brew served at roadside coffee shacks then get yourself out of Brown’s and onto a miniscule plastic stool ASAP.
The coffee shop in my village is not only a place to dose up on caffeine until you can see through time but a gathering centre for bored farmers, local gamblers and nursing mothers.
Spend an afternoon staring at the flickering TV as the “Master Suki Soup” advert comes on for the 43rd time; and laugh at the antics of the toddlers as they roll empty saucepans around the floor and do pretend writing in their older siblings’ school books.
Above all it’s time to bond with the locals. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to pay only to find my coffee’s been covered by a smiling farmer. Sure the language barrier is difficult but you only really need to know enough Khmer to cover three main topics:
- Explaining why on Earth you’re not married
- Explaining the finer details of your financial transactions
- Discussing the trials and tribulations of the rice crops that year
The Pothole Slalom
Driving in the city can be a headache. The sweat soaks the fabric on the inside of your helmet and trickles down your forehead. The pollution burns your eyes and rivers of molten motos get stuck at an inestimable number of traffic lights. Movement is not easy in the city.
In the village, with its dirt roads and emerald paddies stretching on either side into the blue distance, things are more fun. The potholes are not so much invitations to an early grave but dimples in the road that make your drive more interesting. Swerve and flick your bike deftly around each one gaining imaginary points for each one successfully avoided.
It regularly occurs to me how similar driving in Cambodia is to old Playstation 2 games like Crazy Taxi, and how much playing those games prepared me for the unexpected hazards and absurd tribulations that occur on provincial roads.
Having avoided the worst potholes, ahead was an old man hobbling along with his walking stick and, rising from the rice paddies on the other side was a chariot dragged by snorting water buffalo. The space was narrow but it was too late to slow and I knew I had to make it. And I did. What a rush. Almost hearing the ringing of points, the air rushed past making my eyes stream*.
*Disclaimer: Please don’t drive dangerously. Unless you want to have fun. Then it’s fine.