Moments in a Cambodian Village

I have not been taking many photos of the town we’re in because I’m seeing it from the seat of a bicycle or a moped, and I’m just not that coordinated. In the absence of eloquent images, here are some less-than-eloquent words.

The town of Kampot has been described as sleepy, quiet, and relaxed. Those words wouldn’t make me envision a town like this, though I understand their use to set foreigner expectations. Imagine a small town, the perimeter of which you could bike in about 30 minutes. They have a few streets dedicated to tourist haunts: cafes, restaurants, massage parlors, and tourist booking centers. The food in that part of town skews too Western for my taste and is on the expensive side, but the quality is consistent, and the staff speak English. Tourist guesthouses/hotels are scattered throughout town and on the outskirts. Then, there are the local areas, like the many small streets and the Kampot market – which doesn’t seem much smaller than the Central Market in Phnom Penh. Even here, many know enough English to help tourists, and the food and prices are more for locals.

This is the sort of town of which Westerners speak rapturously. If you Google for anything Kampot-related, you will find dozens of English-speaking bloggers professing their love for this town’s charms. As one Canadian who now lives here full time said, ‘People come for two days and stay their whole lives.’


We found a guy that did guided climbing tours of an old cave with a temple inside. We started by scaling some rocks alongside, from which we had an excellent view of the countryside. It was a clear day, so we could see Vietnam on one side and on the other, the giant buddha statue on Bokor Hill – though it was only a white speck at that distance. But the most interesting thing wasn’t that far at all.

Our guide pointed out some basins in the land right below us. They were in the middle of the small plots of land we had ridden our mopeds past to get to the cave. They looked more like giant, dirty puddles than anything else. From where we sat atop the rocks, we saw grazing cows, vegetable patches, and small houses dotting the land around them. These weren’t natural land formations, our guide said: they were craters created by the explosion of mines placed by the Khmer Rouge. But here’s the amazing part: now, the calderas gather rain water which is used to irrigate the local crops. Neither the river nor the sea are close enough to help the farmers, but the water in these craters is enough to support one harvest a year.

And that is the spirit of the Cambodian people: they turn an attempted destruction of their culture and people into a means of survival.


On our way back from the cave, we walked through these fields. In the middle of one of them was a scarecrow, keeping the birds away. The body was made of sticks covered in clothes, just like at home. But the head wasn’t a pumpkin: it was a big, dried coconut!


My jeans from home have been slowly developing a hole in the crotch from repeated wear. One day, we biked over to the local market, to see if we could locate some new denim for me. The market is a giant quasi-indoor mish-mash of stands selling packaged food, clothes, electronics, toiletries, produce, shoes, jewelry, purses, accessories, and any other thing that exists in the universe. The first few clothing stands we wandered past had jeans with rhinestones on the butt in sizes that fit eight-year old Americans. (I don’t actually think they’re targeted to kids here.) Then, there were a few pairs with elastic waistbands, and some capris that likely wouldn’t fit over my calves. I was starting to lose hope.

Then, we happened upon a stand with three tall piles of jeans.The jeans actually looked like they came in plain styles, so I said hello and asked the twenty-year old shopgirl if she could help. I motioned to my hips, indicating that the jeans needed to fit me. After all, the average girl here would swim in a US size zero. It turned out that the girl spoke no English, but she pulled out a pair of jeans for me anyway. Cambodian JeansI held them up against me, and they looked like a feasible fit, but I’m such a strange size, I always have to try clothes on.We tried asking for a fitting room using both hand gestures and Google Translate, but the shopgirl didn’t understand; a few other girls came over, but they were no clearer on what we wanted. So, we asked how much the jeans were, and they said $2. I can afford a $2 mistake, I thought, and bought the jeans.

When we arrived home, I tried them on – and what do you know, but they fit perfectly. I mean, like they were sewn for me. Even the perfect height, which is ridiculous, given that even petite sizes in the US are too tall for me. As my mother said, ‘Our size people… and prices.’


One day, I went biking in the countryside, hoping to find snacks to bring back to the guesthouse. When I turned left out of the guesthouse drive, I found myself going up a hill, pedaling against the wind. Since I was just starting, this wasn’t a problem, but there was a girl already on the road, who had clearly been biking for a while (town was a 15-minute bike ride in the other direction). She looked to be seven years old, and the bike was a bit too big for her, likely a hand-me-down. Despite the hill, the breeze, and the bike size, this girl was really putting herself into it. The hill wasn’t steep, so she could have gone slowly without risking rolling down, but she was determined. (I suppose it’s possible that she was late for something, but that wasn’t the impression I got.) To encourage her, I purposely didn’t pass her at first. However, as we continued on, I started to tire, and then it wasn’t an act of kindness: I simply couldn’t have passed her. Maybe this explains those small clothing sizes.


We found exploring the countryside really pleasant. Part of the reason why is that almost everyone we passed would wave and yell, ‘Hello!’ in English. Children were especially enthusiastic, often calling out, ‘Hello!’ many times in a row. It didn’t matter if we were on a bicycle or motorbike, or which of us was riding first. Without fail, we couldn’t pass more than a few groups of people before hearing the greetings called toward us. It made us feel very welcome.


When we first started stand-up paddle boarding with our guide, B and I stayed on either side of her, sticking to the middle of the river. We had been paddling for a bit and admiring the shores: I was looking left, while they were looking right. All of a sudden, I saw a giant animal emerging from the water, looking right at me! It was the largest, angriest alligator I had ever seen – except it also had horns? I froze. I was speechless. I was standing on a thin board about fifteen feet from this monstrous beast, and the animal was emerging at a ridiculous speed.

Then, our guide looked over and said, ‘Oh, it’s a water buffalo!’ It became clearer the farther out of the water this thing came that: (a) it was definitely not an alligator, and (b) it was the size of a small house. Luckily for me, it had no interest in my existence, perhaps because I was playing dead? But really, this thing was huge.

I have a very healthy respect for the children I later saw corralling a few of them. You’re ten years old, and you’re directing something that looks like it wants to gore and devour you – and it could fit twenty of you inside it? Cambodian children are hardcore.


A lot of Europeans move to Kampot and open restaurants here. I think they imagine the quiet life, getting in early on a growing tourism industry, and the excitement of visitors from their home countries when they discover something familiar in such a distant place. (Plus, a few of them have met and married local women.) From what we’ve heard, foreigners cannot buy property here, so these entrepreneurs ask a local to purchase the land for them. They sometimes forget that much of Cambodian life isn’t written down, but rather operates on the buddy system.

One day, we were eating lunch at a French man’s restaurant in town. There were no other customers, but two of the staff members were getting an English lesson in the dining room from another local with good English skills. I was most amused by the instructor’s repeated reminders that when they said, ‘Yes, I would love to meet up,’ they had to raise their pitch, to show enthusiasm. It seemed very American.

Two local men came in to talk to the owner about the taxes he owed. The amount was higher than he expected and higher than last year’s fees, the owner said. I know that he was still getting his place off the ground, so his funds were limited. The English instructor came over to help translate the men’s explanation, which was that they had waived some fees last year because he had been paying such expensive initiation fees. It had been a discount, they said. ‘It doesn’t really make sense to me either,’ the instructor said after translating. She was a girl in her 20s and sounded slightly apologetic, while the men collecting were in their 50s and not in the least apologetic.

While I speak no Khmer, it came across as price gouging at best and extortion at worst. I couldn’t figure out if this was because the local helpfulness doesn’t apply to foreigners, or because they assumed he had the money, or because they do this to all business owners. We left the cafe before the situation was resolved, but it did not look good for the French man.


On one of our days in the countryside, we brought a map with us. Countryside Near KampotIt showed a Buddhist temple out in the middle of the nowhere we had already motoed to. The scale wasn’t clear and landmarks nowhere to be found, so B thought we had already passed it, while I thought we had to continue on. We had just passed a house on the side of the road, the first we had seen for a few miles. I encouraged B to circle back on his moto (which he is better at) and ask the ladies we had seen out front for directions. He returned, reporting that they spoke no English and didn’t respond to ‘vaht,’ (a Germanic pronunciation) of the Cambodian word for ‘temple.’ I said I’d give it a try too, so I motoed over, stopping near a grandmother and her early 20s-looking granddaughter.

I tried saying temple with a ‘w’ instead of a ‘v,’ but this was no more successful. I tried pantomiming a rectangle, denoting a building, but to her, this could have been anything. Then, I pulled out my map and pointed to a tiny pagoda-like icon denoting where the temple was supposed to be. And this older woman put all my pantomiming to shame in an instant: not only did she understand right away, but she pantomimed bowing with her hands together, a very clear sign for praying. ‘Jaaaa!’ (yes), I cried, overjoyed that she had understood me.

She said a few words to her motorbike-riding granddaughter, indicating that she should take us. And she did: the temple was about a five minute ride away, to the left of the road we had been on. Now, the grandmother could have just motioned for us to continue in that direction: the crops in the fields were not so tall as to obscure the temple from the road. However, she had her granddaughter lead us directly there. Mind you, we could help her in no way whatsoever: she was selling nothing, we’d never see her again, and we didn’t even have the decency to know more than ‘hello,’ ‘yes,’ and ‘thank you’ in her language. She helped us just because that’s who she is.

On the way back, we slowed down as we passed her house. Hearing our bikes, she came out and looked at me questioningly. I nodded emphatically and said ‘thank you’ again. She smiled, pleased.

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4 thoughts on “Moments in a Cambodian Village

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