I spent Monday in a village located about 20 minutes outside Siem Reap. It was important to me to get outside of the city to see how Cambodians truly live, as Siem Reap is very touristy.
As we drove away from the city, the paved roads became dirt roads, the homes made of palm leaves and bamboo. There were more animals roaming the streets, green fields and palm trees lined the roads. Lush and very picturesque.
My guide and I left our driver and were taken further into the village by a wooden cart pulled by two buffalo. It was the bumpiest ride that had me wishing for my sports bra. We sloshed through muddy roads and small pools of water. By the time we arrived at our final stop, the wooden wheels were covered in mud and manure. The smell was overpowering.
The villagers were so friendly; they waved with warm smiles on their faces as we walked to our first stop. We spent the morning helping a young family sew (I guess this is the best way to describe it) palm leaves together for the roof and walls of their home. One by one, the palm leaves are folded and sewn over a small rod of bamboo. When you get to the end of a rod, you’ve completed what becomes one shingle and there are hundreds of these on each house. The shingles placed on the wall will last longer than the ones on the roof, but it seems to be a continual process. Every home had a pile of palm leaves, ready to be sewn together. It took me a bit to get the hang of it, but just as I thought I was getting some speed, the mom joined us. I think she completed five to my one, but she still seemed appreciative when I finished a shingle. In all, I completed five. Not too bad.
The young parents of this family of five were orphans from the war. Everyone I met was affected by the genocide or the war. Some lost parents and siblings, others lost children or spouses. You know about the devastation that Cambodia has endured, but it’s not until you start talking to people and you hear their stories, that you realize the magnitude of what occurred. Everyone has a story. Everyone. It’s often shared as you would share biographical information.
The most remarkable thing, though, is that Cambodians are full of hope and joy. And love. They are the most lovely people, so full of life. There is something to be said about the Cambodian spirit. Maybe it’s the human spirit. I’m not sure, but it is ever present here.
We visited with several families in the village, my favorite being an extended family with an 80-year-old grandmother, the eldest village resident. I was sitting in the house with a couple members of the family, and soon I was greeted by an elderly woman with the warmest smile. (I later learned that she had lost her husband in the genocide.) She came directly to me and put her hands on my face. My guide translated that she said she liked my skin – she thought it was beautiful and soft. She patted my arms and ultimately left her hands rest on the legs. I felt we had such a connection – we kept smiling at each other and holding each other’s hands. Her face had so much life and her eyes had so much love. If we shared a language, I think I would have spent the rest of the day talking with her. I can’t imagine the stories she has from her 80 years of life. What an incredible woman. As it was, we said our goodbyes and parted. We met several more families, even had lunch with one, but none captivated my like this woman.