PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Trip Into The Heart Of Cambodia

We took a tuk tuk to Takeo.

Takeo, a province south of Phnom Penh, is not only the location of a spot Jen was scouting as a possible end of the year retreat for the YAGM volunteers, it was also the home province of our friend and tuk tuk driver, Me-an’s wife’s family. So when Jen arranged with him to take us out there to see if the area was suitable, he extended to us an invitation to visit his home and meet the members of his family.

Tuk tuk drivers, like so many of the other workers in the city, as a rule come from the provinces because they cannot make a sustainable income there. They purchase a motorcycle and carriage in the hopes of being able to live in the city and send home funds to provide for the family members they are obligated to support. (Parents and in-laws are supported by their family in their old age, and obviously children need support, as well as family members who cannot work.) Depending on the distance and time they have available, some get home a couple times of year and others on a monthly or biweekly basis.

Me-an rarely got to his familial home in the distant province, but he lives with his in-laws and tries to get there every other week to see his twin daughters, who are in Grade 12, as well as his mother, father, brother-in-law and nephew, who is the son of another brother. Living in extended family units is not uncommon due to the nature of culture, economics and family life. Post Khmer Rouge, where so many family trees were broken, it is possibly even more convoluted due to necessity of caring for those who survived.

Me-an’s wife also does not live full time in Takeo Province. She works at a sweat shop in Ta-khmal, 40 kilometers north of the village. Sweat shops pick up women before 7 a.m. to work, load them in open trucks where they are squished in, as thousands of them are transported to the factories. After working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they are once again loaded into these trucks and hauled like cattle to the drop-off location. For their efforts, the receive $153 a month, $5 of which is a government subsidy, so essentially $6 a day. … All so that we can have bargain clothing and the retail industry management can have huge markups.

Me-an and his wife see each other occasionally — when neither of them are working. But they work so that their daughters can become educated. In Cambodia, school is free, unlike many other countries, as long as you have the uniform. However, public school teachers are so poorly paid that most don’t fully engage in the process, hoping to earn extra money to have a sustainable income by tutoring students after school with the information students need in order to pass exams and get into the university. It is a broken system, but it would be too easy to fault the teachers, who need to earn enough to live. Life doesn’t always fall into easy patterns where there are good guys and bad guys in every scenario.

We set off for the adventure on Me-an’s tuk tuk, which took us the 36 miles to his home over a variety of roads — the chaos of the city driving and then down the highway, as we passed shop after shop filled with everything from baskets and tires for sale, to raw meat hung out in the hot (close to 100 degrees) sun and finally to country roads. Some of those were brand-new and smooth and others were awful, as we wandered down ones that became wet with the rains and dried in a manner that left our bottoms a bit sore.

As we got close to the turn off to his village, Me-an pulled over to point out what was essentially half a mountainous hill, where it was clear that mining was being done. He picked up the rocks from the road and pointed to the mountain.

The newer infrastructure being provided for the ease of transportation was at the expense of the hills that surrounded the region. The mountains were literally being removed from the face of the earth.

Jen asked Me-an if he thought this was good, and he said in Khmer, “Not good, I don’t like it.” The systemic excavation of hills for the sake of growth and the deforestation that results as a consequence of it are among the significant environmental issues that face Cambodia, along with the effects of global warming.

We continued our journey and finally arrived at Me-an’s home. He kept saying he was poor to assure us of its simplicity but it was a lovely home, in the style of rural Cambodia. It was essentially a house on stilts, largely to keep it above water in the rainy season and to create a shared, open-air place of shade beneath the home where families can spend time together.

The main dwelling was an upstairs, where most everyone slept. The bottom level was an open-air patio-like area, with a space in back where the elders slept, next to a paddock for the four cows.

Behind the house was a hut for cooking and a bath house. There was a system of water delivery that seemed quite impressive, but nothing that even approached modern plumbing. A couple of light bulbs and electric outlets were powered by solar cells.

The flowers in front had a hedging made from pop bottles, and several poultry — many of which were pecked free of feathers — and dogs wandered around.

When we arrived, we met his mother-in-law, who immediately went back to cook for us. Cambodian women are often painfully shy and rarely interact with Westerners. In Cambodian culture, men and women as a rule don’t interact outside of marriage, but since I was with Jen and we were Westerners, we were able to visit and the men could talk to us.

After being given coconuts to drink minutes after they were chopped off the tree and prepared with a machete, we sat down for the meal. Numerous beers were set out, a huge pan full of rice, and three dishes. One was duck, one was fish, and the last was the most amazing ginger, onion and pepper dish I have ever tasted. I will have dreams about it.

I ate the duck I was served to the extent I could — it was neck, I believe, and the meat was sparse, and the fish was excellent. Jen warned me not to finish my plate or they would refill it with rice, but I ate too much and had it refilled. The meal was interrupted every few bites as we clinked our beer cans and coconuts together to say “cheers.”

While we ate, Me-an’s daughters, who are truly beautiful, returned from school and greeted us shyly and left. They returned in a bit with pillows and mat, where Jen and I were encouraged to take a post-repast nap. With the heat and the fullness of our stomachs, we both drifted off as they placed fans around us to strategically cool us off.

When we awoke, we got ready to leave, having been honored to experience the fullness of Cambodian hospitality in this village, except for one of chickens who kept pecking at me. As we left, Me-an shouted greetings to everyone, proud to show us his role in the community.

We took a different route back, that led us to a mountain that Me-an had told Jen about. When we arrived, he encouraged us to go in for a “10-minute walk” to the Buddhist shrine and pagoda at the top.

Ten minutes my foot. We began the ascent together, but as it became apparent that I was slowing Jen down a bit, I sent her ahead. She needed to reach the top to determine if it was a good location for the YAGM volunteers to visit. My goal was simpler — to leave this mountain alive.

I am a persistent, determined and stubborn woman, however, and despite the heat and humidity, I reached the 412th step (with several steps in between each of the steps) still breathing, albeit heavily.

I was greeted by about as classic an image as one could imagine — a shirtless Buddhist monk sitting cross legged at top of a mountain. He offered me a chair and then fanned me as I recovered, then offered me a chance to light some incense, making homage to the shrine, and offer my own prayers. I am a huge believer in the universality of prayer and delighted in the chance to bear witness in my own prayers to my God, who is a big and inclusive God. After praying, he tied my wrist with a red string and offered me a blessing of good fortune.

It was now time to descend, which should have been easier, but the monsoon rain that showered on us forced us to pull over at a little “shrine along the way,” much to the bemusement of the monk we encountered there.

Back in the tuk tuk, we passed rice fields and lotus flowers As we traveled, Me-an stopped by a stretch of women all selling the same thing — which turned out to be stuffed frog that for some reason had a reddish hue. It was on a stick, and I am thinking that perhaps those women might have a market at the Minnesota State Fair.

We continued on until we arrived at a beautiful lake retreat spot, Tonle Bati, which was one of Jen’s places she needed to see. We walked out on precarious slats of wood, with a flimsy bamboo hand rail for balance only, to an hut on stilts above the water with a hammock and a mat inside. Some women came out with baskets of palm fruit and cakes, which we purchased, and the proprietor came with a menu. We ordered some food and settled in for another break.

My favorite part of this excursion were the boat venders that kept coming by with delicacies like beetles, grass hoppers, crickets and small speckled eggs that might have once belonged to a quail. And ramen. Because, you know  …Cambodia.

After this break and another quick tour of a 12th-century temple that Jen also was checking out (complete with locals trying to sell us flowers and all manner of other items), we finally made our way home.

This last leg was also the dustiest — at one point Jen and I put her krama (a Cambodian scarf) over our heads, completely covering our faces, to protect us from the element. We took a selfie — Jen said it was her favorite picture of the two of us!

By the time we arrived back at Jen and Matt’s apartment, we had completed about an 80-mile journey that had us on the road for nearly six hours. My backside was sore, but my heart was full with an excursion that took me on a tuk tuk to Takeo, but even more so, into the heart of Cambodia.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Trip Into The Heart Of Cambodia”

  • Therese Tiedeman May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

    What a adventurer you are! Thanks for sharing these wonderful experiences.


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