After the madness of Phnom Penh, I headed south via bus and tuktuk to the small ocean town of Kep. It seemed laid back enough that I decided to brave renting a motor bike. I rode down from my mountainside bungalow to the waiting white sand beach. What I forgot was, it was the weekend. Hundreds of Khmer families come to the beach on the weekends. All along the coast, not directly on the beach, but set back from the beach are platforms with hammocks hanging from the side walls. Families rent these covered platforms for the day, sitting in the shade by the ocean, eating fresh crab, drinking and relaxing. I felt like I’d walked in on someone else’s summer vacation.
Sometimes, when you’re traveling, you work hard to see how people do the work of their daily lives, and forget see how they enjoy their lives and each other.
From Kep, I travelled north and west to the ultimate Cambodian tourist destination, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. After a day of temples and lots of people, I wanted to get back into the countryside, so with the help of a local guide, I headed out of town. We visited a small village east of Siem Reap and home to two families who produce all of the fresh rice noodles for the entire province. Given the number of noodles consumed daily, you would assume this was a factory operation, but that is definitely not the case.
Under a tin roof hut with wood smoke filling the air, a family of six were working in a quiet rhythm. A young son pounded the rice mill. Another sat on a wooden press over a large kettle on an open fire, squeezing the rice flour and water mixture into noodles. A young woman used a reed basket to scoop and drain the noodles. An elderly gentleman cut banana leaves to line flat baskets, and two woman, a mother and daughter, scooped handfuls of the fresh noodles, twirling them into bundles and artfully laying them in the baskets. This well oiled family machine produces about 1000 pounds of noodles every day, completely by hand.
Today, I took a cooking class. Ben, as he calls himself, runs the school and picked me up a motorbike. After a visit to a local market outside of town, we headed to meet the woman who would help me learn to cook traditional Cambodian food, in a traditional way - over a wood-fired clay brazier, using a mortar and pestle, and cleaver as my only tools. We pulled up to the hut, and Ben and I worked on three dishes, under the watchful (and smiling eyes) of the “chef.” As we were talking, I asked Ben about his family. He said he was not married, but had 65 children. I said “65?” He said yes, all of the children who benefit from the proceeds of the cooking school and tours he runs, are his children, his family. He provides a home and kitchen for orphaned children and children from families in need, including those with HIV. As of today, that was 65 children and counting.
Whether east or west, developed or developing country, I think family (whoever you decide to include in that definition) is what gets us up each day, helps to get the work done and are the people you turn to after it is done.