Away from the swimming pools and spas of Siem Reap, visitors can get a taste of provincial life and an immersive rural experience with Beyond Unique Escapes
By Dene Mullen Photography by Sam Jam
The little boy is crying. We have just trundled past his village home in our grey buffalo cart, and the youngster is giving chase. The cart, which bears faint traces of intricate carvings from its former life, a time before it was weathered into submission, judders to a halt. The driver jumps off and picks up the boy. Instantly his pinched and reddened face relaxes, morphing into a smile. “It’s his dad,” says our guide, Lim. “He spotted him driving past and, here, family is everything.”
Kompheim village is located in Siem Reap province, a 16km drive from the provincial capital that is Cambodia’s most touristed town. The journey winds past small cornfields, vast rice paddies of brilliant green and flabby-necked cows that lazily eye passersby.
With the men out at work during the day, most of them employed in construction, Kompheim is populated mainly by small children who yell “Hello!” at every given opportunity and smiling but shy women who sit outside small homes largely made from sugar palm leaves.
Our group of four is here to lend a hand in the village as part of the Day in a Life Tour organised by Beyond Unique Escapes, a Siem Reap-based responsible tourism operator. It pays the families for hosting tourists and makes a larger contribution to a village fund that is used for special projects such as water filters and wells.
A short walk through the village, with its soaring palms and brightly coloured dragonflies, brings us to the home of Srey Pik, a 27-year-old mother of three boys. She welcomes her visitors with a smile but wastes no time in putting us to work.
Pik is planning to buy chickens in order to start a small business, and she needs help constructing a coop. The wall panels will be weaved from sugar palm leaves, in the same way as many of the local houses, though today the weavers will be considerably less skilled than usual.
Long, thin leaves must be folded around a bamboo pole and then threaded using a further, sharpened shoelace of palm leaf. “Try to stay close to the bamboo stick so it’s not loose. It needs to be strong,” says Lim. But it is not long until Pik has to intervene in all of our panels. They are, indeed, loose, and they are certainly not strong.
ust halfway through making one panel and my fingers are aching, as are my pampered city legs from sitting on the floor. Pik is putting us to shame, threading three leaves at once and twice as fast as us; she has completed three panels in less time than it takes any of our group to make one. After a while, though, the technique takes hold and piles of banana-leaf panels are stacked on the ground. The sense of achievement is unexpected.
Sitting in the shade of a large tree known locally as a snaay, which yields leaves that are boiled to make tea, our quiet concentration is broken suddenly by Pik, who emerges from the kitchen banging an old metal pot. An unmistakable squeal follows and a tiny, grey piglet with ginger hair appears, shuffling excitedly around an old wok that lies in the dirt. Pik spoons in a grey mixture, made from rice, water, morning glory and another aquatic plant known as floating heart, and the little fellow wastes no time chowing down. It is a pleasant end to a fulfilling morning but, before our group leaves, every visitor must plant a mango tree on Pik’s land – one final bit of support for this charming young family.
Lunch comes in the form of fishcakes and Cambodian chicken curry, cooked by Som, a 57-year-old local baker with chubby cheeks and a kind face. She beckons us onto a wooden platform outside her home, where lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime is waiting to be chopped. She rustles those ingredients up along with numerous others to create a typically mild yet flavoursome Cambodian curry that sets our group up perfectly for the afternoon.
And it will be an afternoon full of that most Cambodian of jobs: harvesting rice. Shoes and socks are cast off on the roadside, before we teeter along the muddy walkways that cut a path across the emerald fields. The biting presence of red ants provides an excellent incentive to plunge without hesitation into the muddy, ankle-deep water of the rice paddy.
Metal sickles are handed out and a teenaged villager named Veasna is on hand to demonstrate the art of rice harvesting. His technique is smooth and flawless. He grabs a clump of rice, places the sickle on the other side and pulls, rather than saws, it through. His bunches of rice are neat, verging on perfect.
We set about the seemingly endless expanse of rice, attempting to mirror the demonstration. It is enjoyable to do for a short time, and the pursuit of good technique is challenging and fun, but this is not easy work. Soon, backs start aching, the sun takes its toll and one of our group, Jessica, a 31-year-old from Florida, lets out a yelp.
Lim investigates. “That’s a big one,” he says, poking at a bloated leech that had not long before been dining on Jessica’s ankle. The mishaps don’t end there. Minutes later, another tour member, Buddy, a 28-year-old Texan, gets his sickle-wielding technique wrong and cuts two fingers. Both are minor injuries but they serve as a major reminder of the cosseted lives we ordinarily lead.
Veasna seems pleased with our haul and waves goodbye as he collects the piles of rice. The minivan drives away from charming little Kompheim carrying four Westerners who are sunburnt but satisfied, injured yet inspired. “I really liked learning about the village, how people live and how the community works. I found it very interesting,” says Buddy.
It has been a long day, one with no air-conditioning, no swimming pool and no mollycoddling. But for most Cambodians that is reality. A few hours of hard toil is, of course, nowhere near enough to gain a true insight into the joys and hardships of rural Cambodian life. But it is enough to gain more insight than most people will ever have.