Chi Phat, Cambodia. It ain’t New York or Miami.
Of course we would see Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. Of course. But that list reminded me of “I’ve seen America. I went to New York and Miami.” Ssssure, those are part of the country, but hardly a representative sample. So where could we see something more….everyday Cambodian? Quotidian Khmer.
That’s when well-traveled friends come in handy. My Malaysian friend, born and raised in England, wrote “I spent a few days trekking at Chi Phat, through a community-based tourism project where we stayed with a family in the village. It’s a bit of an effort to get to, but worth it – trekking through farmland and jungle, staying in the forest and getting a waterfall all to yourself.” That sounded mighty fine.
And then the community’s website added “Trek, cycle, kayak or boat in the Cardamon Mountains to discover the real, peaceful Cambodia, far from the crowds. Guides, once poachers, lead you on jungle treks to waterfalls, grasslands and mountains that they know well, but few others have seen. ” We bought our bus tickets immediately.
In a world where traditional tourism seems so corrosive to its destinations, community tourism is a beacon of something better. We clicked the “Let the community decide where we homestay” option, loving the implication that our money would go to a deserving, Cambodian recipient, not Best Western Incorporated.
Carrying as few preconceptions as possible, we arrived in Chi Phat after a two hour boat ride where everyone waved back (I love Cambodians!) and followed our host to her home. It was a traditional Khmer house, a single large space roughly 4×6 meters, partitioned into three rooms by interior walls, and an exterior storage closet, all raised two meters on stilts. The elevation provides protection from floods, a shady space for livestock or living, and natural ventilation that keeps the house cool in this hot country. (We ate dinner with the family down there, rice, vegetables, and fried eggs from the ducks at our feet.) Ventilation is further assisted by a handsbreadth gap all the way around between the walls and the roof, and the thick spaces between floorboards.
The young couple and their two year old son shared the other bedroom, while grandmother slept in the main room with the Buddha shrine and TV. I’m not sure if we stole grandmother’s bed, or if the grains of dry rice liberally scattered across the mattress meant it was normally storage.
After the urban hubbub of Phnom Penh, we were looking forward to our peaceful nights in the country. The first night’s soundtrack was the periodic wailing of a two year old, though he quieted quickly each time the father spoke to him. That, combined with the surprising cold and hard bed meant we didn’t sleep much, and judging by the utter absence of conversation and haggard eyes around the pre-trek tourist breakfast table the next morning, we weren’t the only ones.
We spent the day trekking to a waterfall, learning scattered Khmer phrases (my favorite was bamboo, which sounded like “Russai tnga” with a nice nasal “a” after the velar nasal “ng”). Our guide was an older gentleman, whose kind eyes and easy laugh were communication enough. I couldn’t ask if he had been a poacher, but he certainly isn’t one now. His wife waved to us from the porch in the middle of a banana plantation.
That night the door to the storage closet came open, and a succession of jungle beasts came exploring. This incensed the dogs, who could hear, smell, maybe see, but not reach the intruders. I’m not sure what breed these demonic canines were, but their unexpected small-dog yapping had an undercurrent of tortured metal that scraped the ear drums and shredded sanity. The father was normally responsible for quieting them, but he had gone out of town that night, so I found myself asking the question “Would it be culturally insensitive if I killed your dogs?”
Despite the sleepless nights, and the 8 hour walk that harvested the nails from both of Lydia’s big toes, we absolutely loved our time in Chi Phat. One of the things we’d looked forward to were mealtimes with the family. We had a slew of questions for them. “How do you feel about tourism in your community? How has it changed things?” And maybe “May we ask you about the Khmer Rouge?”
But the family didn’t speak much English, so conversation was limited to pointing at the food, smiling, and rubbing our stomachs appreciatively. (“Delicious” is something like “Chnaing nah”, which was our ace conversation piece, quickly exhausted.) At first we were a little disappointed by this lack of communication, but then I thought about it a different way.
Of course they didn’t speak English! (And I, unfortunately, do not speak Khmer.) That’s because these were not professional hosts with degrees in Tourism, where they’d learned how to accommodate foreigners. Nor did they live in a fully globalized world of Friends reruns. These were normal, “real” people, going about their normal, “real” Cambodian lives.
And that’s exactly what we had been looking for.