Since I spent a decent chunk of time in Siem Reap last summer, I feel comfortable here and not like I’m in foreign country… well, at least until Monday rolled around. Monday smacked us with a level IX culture-shock tsunami. Hout only gets one day off per month from his ATV job, and he used it to show us around on Monday. He picked us up at 8:30 AM from Jasmine Lodge and took us to a sprawling market several kilometers away from tourist-ridden downtown Siem Reap, named Psar Leu. First we scurried single-file through a meat section that PETA must never find out about. Horse Flies nibbled on floor-to-ceiling carcasses, live ducks waddled with “for sale” tags stapled to them, and fish literally flopped out of bins and flailed on the market’s dirt floor. While things may not be sanitary, at least freshness is guaranteed.
Hout bargained with a stall owner and we purchased sugar, salt, fish oil, soy sauce, and chili sauce – in America it would’ve rang up to over $150, but here it was $20. Then we stopped to buy about 200 pencils, pens, and notebooks at another stall. Next was every girl’s dream: buying baby clothes and shoes!!! We swooned over $1 matching Mickey Mouse shirt-and-pants sets and Winnie the Pooh miniature Crocs. Oh you think Super Target, Fashion Island, and those Safeway’s with Starbucks inside them have it all? Think again, the real king of diversification is Psar Leu market. Their jewelry section, its gold nearly blinding me, rivaled LA’s whole jewelry district. They had clothes ranging from Adidas sweat suits to Gucci purses to Cambodian wedding dresses. Hanging from rafters were deep-sea fish with some gnarly vampire teeth. Welcome mats and plastic baby strollers were squeezed next to kumquats and bloody cow meat. Talk about a one-stop shop.
Our tuk tuk followed Hout’s motorbike to Hannah’s Hope, the orphanage he (and I) used to work at so I could say hello to the kids. After they sat in a stunned/confused silence for a full minute upon seeing me, it was back to playing “Ninja” AKA “tackle Annie” like the good ‘ol years. Silken says she will never, ever forget the moment she walked inside and the children morphed into monkeys, swinging from banisters and leaping down the stairs to attack her (I mean warmly embrace her). It was amazing to see the children again, but the organization has stopped taking volunteers meaning their English has sadly drastically declined.
Our tuk tuk driver’s belly was growling, so we stopped for bowls of noodle soup at a cell phone store-slash-restaurant (more on this phenomenon later). We successfully pretended to be vegetarian, and carried onwards to Hout’s home in the rural rice fields. His piece of land is home to a beautiful wife, newborn baby girl, four-year old son, a dozen pigs and puppies, plus lots of ducklings and chicks. The land overlooks a sunken rice paddy, which is the gateway to more homes. We trekked past Hout’s house carrying bags of food and school supplies above our heads- unfortunately the dirt road was flooded. Our on-hand snake expert, Dr. Silken Weinberg, alerted the troops that this was cobra paradise – red alert on the realz. Silken and I both have bad cases of ophiophobia, meaning we started silently freaking out when Hout told us to remove our sandals and wade through the calf-deep, muddy, opaque stagnant body of water. Thank the Lord we didn’t see any cobras, but I was equally disgusted by three-inch-long eels swimming in between my toes and blades of grass.
After this “near death” experience that is a daily, breezy walk for these villagers, we arrived at the first household that Hout had identified as especially needy. The house was just one room with three bamboo walls and a thatched roof; inside were some blankets, pots, and threadbare mats. In Cambodia the prevailing religion is Buddhism, and every home has a small golden temple in front. Even though this family lived low below the poverty line, they’d managed to construct their own mini temple too, jerry-rigged from cardboard and coffee containers. Although they didn’t have much, the widow and her daughter were able to witness spectacular sunrises and sunsets over rice paddies every day of their lives. The daughter happily nommed on the baguette we handed her, but started sobbing when her mom tried stuffing her feet into fluorescent-pink Crocs. What the beautiful baby lacked in material possessions she made up in fashion sense- a woman beyond her years, considering I didn’t toss my hot pink Crocs until college.
We waved goodbye to the mini fashionista and trudged through the rice fields dotted with palm trees, lonely huts on stilts, and the occasional lost cow or child. The next family consisted of one infant girl, a wrinkly father, and a nine-year-old girl who assumed the head of household position. Even though giving them shoes was crucial for disease prevention, once again they were more excited about pencils & notebooks than a pair of Minnie Mouse Crocs. We waded through another pond teeming with evil prokaryotes to stop by a house on stilts eight feet tall – this time the boys were delighted to receive a soccer ball. After making our way back through the wetlands and passing out pencils along the way, Hout instructed our tuk tuk to drive to another village 50 km away. We zoomed east through Siem Reap on a highway that took us beneath Angkor Wat’s ancient elephant-shaped stone archways and dense mossy branches. The ruins eventually turned into rice paddies again, which then turned into thick jungle. We stopped at a jungle church where Hout had helped implement ways for locals to become self-sufficient. These included three pigpens and a mushroom garden fashioned out of recycled water bottles- they were strung together to make a vertical garden inside a shack, and the mushrooms have a multitude of uses and can be sold for a decent profit. Hout hopes to bring these mushroom garden initiatives to more villages through his Smiles of Cambodia Foundation.
After this pit-stop we arrived in a jungle village, greeted by children chasing after our tuk tuk. Nearly 40 children gathered around our tuk tuk for pencils, pens, and notebooks. The village leader brought us to a group of elderly, frail but beautiful woman so we could give them bags of food. He translated Silken’s message to them “… it is an honor to be here, we are all women together, we are all beautiful, we are all the same,” to which one responded, “same!” with a huge grin. Turns out, the woman’s name is Same.