Saturday, December 11, 2010

Visit to a Cambodian Mountain Village

"For a long time, living in Cambodia was like being a frog in a well," my Cambodian friend told me.
"When I was young, and the Khmer Rouge controlled everything, I was like the frog. All I knew were the walls around me, and the small circle of sky above. I knew nothing about the rest of the world." He paused, thoughtful. "But then the Blue Caps came, and everything changed." Blue Caps? "The U.N. peace forces," he explained.

We were riding to a mountain temple, a two hour trip from Siem Riap. When I was first in Thailand in 1988, I could not go to Cambodia. In 1993, however, Cambodia gained its freedom from the cruel grip of the Khmer Rouge and its genocidal killing fields (see the "Killing Fields Museum," This time around, I have been fortunate to visit Cambodia twice. The first visit was to fulfill a long-time dream to see Angkor Wat, the spectacular 12th century temple, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. My second trip recently was to explore a little visited temple ruin far from Angkor, and also to see a massive reclining Buddha carved into a mountaintop. What I did not expect was to find a secluded Khmer village accessible off the main road only by foot.

Typical village house. The small add-on is the kitchen.

"These people," my friend explained, "are still in the well, but they may climb out. It depends on the government." He went on to explain that many villagers still do not have the basic necessities of modern life, such as running water and electricity. Indeed, the village we wandered into had neither.

Mother and child in front of house.

Along a dusty trail that meandered first through the forest, then into a clearing, the small village of ten simple houses materialized. Each was built off the ground and consisted of a one room platform with walls and roof made of thatch, either rice straw or remarkably, woven leaves that had been picked up from the ground and fixed into place using small pieces of wood. When I asked how long the walls and roof would last, they told me "We'll have to replace them in two years."

House and potato field (Photo by M. Sabb)

The huts were surrounded by small plots of crops that sustained the village: potatoes (different than those grown in the U.S.), rice, black beans (to mix with sticky rice), bananas, papaya, and tobacco. One pen of nine young pigs provided a meat source, which was supplemented by captured mice and squirrel.

There was no well, as it was mountainous; the water was carried in 6 liter plastic jugs strung on a pole, carried over the shoulder. I don't know how far they had to go to get it. Extra rice and bananas were sold at the roadside to supplement their basic lifestyle. Despite what a westerner would consider an unacceptably low standard of living, there did not seem to be a cloud of despair over this little village. Instead, the people seemed quite happy. Children ran shoeless, caked with dirt, but their laughter rang throughout the village as they played. Adults smiled and chatted, waving us to their houses for a look.

Black beans and tobacco drying in the sun as woman and daughter rest in shade

Tending the pigs

Roof detail showing small sticks used to secure leaves

Grilled mice for dinner (Photo by M. Sabb)

Squirrel tails to be made into key chains and sold (Photo by M. Sabb)

Woman in house window

Maybe, just maybe, the frog in the well can be as happy--or happier--than the one that has climbed out. And yet, one wonders what they would choose if given the opportunity to scale the walls and peek over the rim. Perhaps we will soon find out.