by Sissy Mallard
When you sign up for a 6-hour tour, your expectations are high because you have obviously put some thought into where you want to go and have considered which tour will be right for you and your family. As with all Vespa Adventures tours, being picked up from your hotel is one of the best parts. I am not a fan of waking up early on the weekend but this morning I am downstairs ahead of schedule because I am excited about going on this all day adventure into a mysterious world that is far away from the busy city that is Phnom Penh.
I meet my tour guide and fellow guests at the Royal Railway Station which is an elegantly shabby old building that has been reopened to better serve the local people, air-conditioned trains leave Phnom Pehn and the most popular destination appears to be to the beaches of Sihanoukville and Kampot. As in all of Cambodia, portraits of the king and his parents hang high on the wall -I heard that the king is single and I contemplate where one might meet a king because I doubt he hangs out at many local restaurants and bars. Next, we are back on the Vespas to travel out of the city to hop on a ferry, we ride past much construction and through small villages and it is evident that we are not on any ordinary tour.
We enter an area known as the Buddhist Sanctuary and I’m immediately struck by how relaxed and peaceful it feels with the many small, ornate temples, burial sites, death shrines and living quarters that make up this complex, gold paint adorns statues and a reverence is present honoring the Chinese, Hindu and Cambodian traditions of the past. I see no monks, only a couple of nuns that live in small huts and survive purely on donations from villagers and visitors. I am reminded that everyone needs a little help sometimes, it would be a kinder world if everyone strives to be like the people that reside here. We then exit through a dirt path through fields and over a few creeks.
Goats are a necessary food source in Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eaten goat on several occasions and was not disappointed with the taste as long as it was fried and there was plenty of sauce for dipping. This farm has many raised, covered huts with entry planks for the goats to come and go, they barely even notice our small group. Huge vats sit in open huts where the sugar palm is boiled and as with everything in most parts of this country, nothing goes to waste-the palm fronds are woven together for roofs and baskets and the tree branches and trunks are used for making houses and boats and firewood. The wind through the lush, green palm trees is a welcome reminder of my hometown in coastal South Carolina, USA.
Open air fish and vegetable markets are always colorful and exciting, filled with different and mysterious foods to cook, both animal and vegetable, everything you need and some things you don’t, there are clothes to be sold and some necessary services offered. We watch as our tour guide skillfully uses his scarf/headwrap as a cushion to balance a large tray on his head. He recalls doing this as a child and a woman begins laughing because she recognizes him from his boyhood, they exchange some casual conversation and a few other women at the market remember him as well. Scenes like these are unforgettable. He speaks Khmer to them and tells us of growing up on a neighboring island and that his family has been coming to this market most of his life. We see local men playing chess at the barber shop which is quite a universal image but most stalls are beginning to close down because it is almost lunchtime and most of the vendors arrived before dawn.
After another short ride through farmland and tranquil, but muddy backroads, we arrive at a beautiful spot on the river where we take a break from our adventure to enjoy some cold drinks. There are big, wooden lounging chairs, tables and of course, the obligatory hammocks that are seen all over this country, it’s a park where locals and visitors can bring a picnic lunch, there is even a covered dock by the side of the river if you want to come there by boat. It is difficult to leave this lovely spot but we have another ferry to catch on this exhilarating journey, we are headed over to another picturesque island on the banks of the Mekong River to explore more of the countryside that is Kandal Province.
We arrive at another Buddhist complex where we are greeted by many stray animals and children while the monks are silently eating lunch. The pagodas and temples are small but spectacular, my favorite thing was the huge Relaxing Buddha that rests on top of one of the buildings. Again, these structures have been here for hundreds of years and the history of each family member (and their deaths) from the area has been inscribed and recorded on it’s walls which really puts things in perspective. Next we visit a family with a silk material making business located right below their house, there are four different looms, a thread spinner, and every machine is weaving something different. There is a mother and her four daughters, starting from the very beginning of the process with the tiny worms eating the mulberry leaves to the silk cocoons, spinning the threads, both cotton and silk, weaving the fabric and then sewing everything from scarves, tablecloths, unique wedding dresses, sarongs, ties and traditional Khmer fashions. It is mesmerizing to watch these women work so quickly and efficiently but they take a break to let us try our hand at the looms before serving us a delicious lunch of fried rice, chicken, vegetables, lemongrass and soup. After lunch we relax and head back to a different ferry to return to the city, the river on one side and farmland on the other, having to slow for the occasional cow in our pathway. The recent rain has made our trail somewhat muddy but our drivers expertly navigate the occasional dips and bumps as we go. Our day has been filled with meeting many interesting people, hearing incredible stories of local life and my heart and head are full with wonderful memories that will last me a lifetime.