Most tourists come to Cambodia to see the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. That’s exactly what my son and I did ten years ago. We flew directly into Siem Reap and spent about a week tramping across the ancient stones—along with hoards of other tourists. It’s an amazing sight even if you aren’t fond of hoards. Siem Reap has prospered from the attention. It is a charming old town with a slow river running through it, shaded by ancient trees and a peculiar mash-up of colonial-modern architecture. It’s quite cosmopolitan; you are as likely to hear French or Mandarin spoken on the street as Khmer, and all the tuk-tuk drivers know a little English. Siem Reap has boutique hotels, international cuisine, and well-planned tours for visitors wishing to see the floating villages and bird sanctuaries. If you come to Cambodia, you really must go. But that is not my Khmer.
After a year in Cambodia I’ve come to know the lay of the land, at least from my limited travel experience. On the south coast, sleepy Kep and the breezy river town of Kampot are my sweet retreats. So far, I’ve avoided Sihanoukville with its backpacker nightlife. Mysterious Mondulkiri and rugged Ratnanakiri in the wild east are on my yet-to-explore list. (I hear the Elephant Valley Project is worth a visit.) The Peace Corps office and surrounding neighborhood is about all I know of the capital city, Phnom Penh. Many travelers dig the nightlife in what was once the Pearl of Asia. But that’s not my Khmer, either.
My Khmer is found in the countryside along the dirt roads of farming communities and rice fields. When you ride a bike along the narrow dirt roads you have to go slow. There are dips and turns and ruts to consider. There are potholes to avoid and rocks to dodge. Inevitable chickens crossing and cows occupying the road must be negotiated. It’s only polite to go slow and say good morning, good afternoon. My appearance causes the farmers to do a double take and the kids to go crazy yelling hellohellohello! But mostly it’s a quiet ride. The land is flat with fringes of palms and banana framing wooden farmhouses on stilts or cement block homes painted like birthday cakes. Rectangular plots of rice, some tall, some mere sprouts, map the land. In the rainy season after the rice has been planted, soft tufts stretch as far as you can see, the bright green set in a mirror reflecting the sky.
In the middle of a nodding green field I often see a solitary farmer, ankle-to-knee deep in the water, weeding, hoeing, tending his crop. My host father is a rice farmer. Even when the fields are fallow, he prepares for planting. Throughout the dry season he collected cow dung and compost in a corral under a canopy behind our house. The pile grew, despite the chickens pecking away at it. Lately he has been carting the composted manure off to spread on the fields. The monsoons interrupt the bright afternoon sun. The rice grows in Cambodia as it has since before the time of King Surayavarman, who in the early 12th century conceived the grandeur of Angkor Wat. This continuum of working the land and its grand simplicity is how I will remember Cambodia. This is my Khmer.