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Published: November 2nd 2011
A wonderful face!An estimation: I would guess that we said “hello” at least 300 times this day.
Elderly woman wears a colourful krama and looks into the camera.
Upon our return home it was my throat that was worse for wear, stealing the thunder from my burning thighs that had just pushed my little, pink bike through the 40km round trip.
Our bike gang departed in the late morning on Saturday, the sun was already scorching. From our house close to the Russian Market we cycled through the kamikaze, Phnom Penh traffic like pro’s that we have become; along Monivong Boulevard and towards the Japanese Friendship Bridge (with regards to which there is nothing noticeably friendly at all, particularly to your everyday, unsuspecting cyclist who is ill-prepared for the gradual yet extensive incline).
We stopped halfway, took in the view (nothing special) of Phnom Penh’s riverside and swilled some water down our necks before hopping back on the bikes and enjoying the respite from pedal pushing as we rolled down the other side, picking up speed and taking pleasure from the breeze.
This part of town, opposite to the popular Riverside location, is home to Cambodia’s “Cham” people, of Muslim Religion and apparently long ago displaced from their homeland
in Vietnam and Thailand (so I am told by my students).
The road was very poor; dusty and uneven. The further we travelled the less traffic we encountered and the scenery transformed from city to countryside. It soon became clear that we had failed to appreciate just how far we had to journey to reach our destination, Koh Dach (or “Silk Island”, so called due to its export of handmade Khmer silk). We made a pit stop at a bucolic little restaurant for a sugar fix, and much to my surprise (and equal delight) our drinks were ice cold.
Now we had been cycling for quite a length of time, well over an hour in intense heat, effectively grilling the bare skin across our backs and shoulders. We realised the poor quality of our directions and sought advice from the local man who had demonstrated his English ability upon our arrival by asking us (vegetarians) would we like to share his beef. Not much further to go, “over a bridge and you’ll see a sign”, and that we did.
So now we found ourselves in a small commune along the side of the river, hidden from the
main road somehow. The local people were obviously surprised to see us, at least those whoses attention was not occupied by what sounded like a very intense Khmer boxing match being shown at the small, wooden bar. As I peeped my head around a fence in search for the ferry, finding some kind of boat yard, we were invited inside to chat (with great language complications) to the family we found sitting under the shade. They were impressed with our very basic Khmer: “Johm reap sooah”, nice to meet you (kind of). “Knyom Chmooah Amy”, my name is Amy. “Anglais”, England. (Demonstration completed). Some awkward charade-style communication followed and we realised that this was not the place for the ferry as we watched the small vessel cross the river slightly downstream from us.
The ferry cost 1,000 Reil. That is 25 cents or about 18 pence. It was a fairly quick ride spent chatting with a cheeky, 30-odd year old lady who had lived her whole life on the island. In typical Khmer fashion she wanted to know, “where is your boyfriend?” “He’s that one there with the hairy face,” I pointed to Chris and she nodded her appreciation
Blending in with the local corwd.
for him brazenly. When I asked her about her own relationship she told me that she had been married but she no longer has a husband. I apologised (awkward!) but she immediately followed with, “Now I have a boyfriend, and that is better!” With a twinkle in her eyes she turned to enquire into the lives and loves of the other two girl, Sarah and Natalie. She had known them all of two minutes yet was sat there resting her hand on Natalie’s leg. It’s a strange quality to us “barang” sometimes, this physical display of affection, especially when involving men as it is just not what we are used to. But, that said, I like it. I appreciate its value in forging new relationships, or even maintaining a bond in already existing associations.
We wheeled our bikes from the ferry and were greeted warmly. Iwas introduced to three women, all who have taken Western names for the benefit of those foreigners who venture over to the island and might want to by silk from them. There was Ally (the 15 year old daughter of the woman on the ferry), Annie and Jenny (her sisters). They invited us to
their house to have a look at how they make the silk, and obviously they hoped that once we were there that we might buy from them.
It’s always an awkward one this; being invited to the homes of strangers. When we were living in South Korea we were frequently invited to the home of an old man who used to walk around the park. He was a war veteran, lonely probably, and recovering from a stroke by taking gentle exercise around the park. Each time he would sit with us, retell the same old story, and then invite us back to his house with the promise of his poor wife preparing a meal fit for kings! Each time we politely refused, for the sake of his unsuspecting wife, let alone the fact that we barely knew him, but we would feel guilty and acutely aware of our cross=cultural bad manners in passing up the invitation... And this time, on the island, we were further aware that once we were at the home they would want to make a sale, and we were not in the market for silk scarves.
So we cycled leisurely, telling the women that
maybe we would see them later. The island was beautiful; green and incredibly clean considering that most rural villages have problems with litter. There were a few pretty pagodas around; the entrances to which were lovingly adorned with bright flags and archways made from dried palm leaves.
We passed many homes. Sometimes the children would be playing outside and would bombard us, “Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!”. We passed houses that were still and quiet then would hear from the dark bowls within, “hellooooooooo!” We were chased by a gang of infants carrying gold plates. They resembled a miniature gang of thieves and bandits looting those unfortunate enough to cross their path. Once the hellos started, they did not stop. We even passed a wedding in full flow and were greeted in a similar fashion by many of the celebrating adults. It was comical to say the least.
Eventually we arrived at the family home of our new friends and found that we were unable to put up much resistance. We sat under the house which was elevated on wooden stilts, watching one of the younger women as she sat at the loom, creating an intricate pattern in coloured
silk and making it look easy. Both Chris and I purchased a “krama” (traditional Khmer scarf with checked pattern) from one of the sisters, Jenny, as we would only have bought one eventually from the market and this way it would be more authentic and a better deal for Jenny. I asked her to demonstrate how to wear the karma and she happily wrapped it around Chris’ head in a turban fashion. Now he fitted right in. The karma is a symbol of Cambodia, everyone has one, especially in the rural provinces and their uses vary from skirt to towel, headwear to baby hammock. Before leaving Sarah purchased a beautiful silk scarf for “cheap-cheap” price! As I mounted my bike (carefully, as my derrière was bruised by this point) Jenny came over to me to say that next time we come to the island that we must come back to her house to eat dinner. She predicted that by that time I would have two children, a boy and a girl. Unconvinced, I nodded and thanked her.
The ride home was punishing, especially as we encountered rush hour traffic upon arrival in the city. As a reward Chris and
Jenny and Chris
Taken as she shows us how to wear the krama
I, along with our good friend Bat, stopped off for ice cream. It was well deserved, let me tell you!
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