As I’m sure you’ve realized, I’m about two weeks delayed in telling the world what’s happening here in Cambodia. I wish I could just jump into telling you all about my harrowing experience in a tent during the most intense storm I’ve ever experienced while being infested by red ants, but I’d rather lead up to that by telling you about the more mundane days.
This post won’t be about one of the more mudane days. Actually, none of them are mundane. Unless you count sitting all day at a guest house on the beach watching the surf come in as mundane. We’ll get there too!
I want to recount a quick story about the night I went to dinner with Mith. But before I do that I’m going to blather on about the earlier part of that day. If you’re not interested, just skip the next four paragraphs.
My second full day in Siem Reap was spent doing nothing. Because I’d made the decision to make the trip to Cambodia rather than Guatemala on such short notice, I’d planned nothing. I chose to land in Siem Reap because I thought seeing the temples in Angkor would make a nice start to the trip, but there wasn’t any other reason. I chose to fly out of Phnom Penh because I’d chosen to fly into Siem Reap and why not mix it up? That’s about all I planned.
When I go on these trips I usually make the decision pretty close to my actual departure date. I’m not sure I’ve ever given myself more than a month of preparation so I’m okay with not having a ton planned out, but I’ve never left without planning ANYTHING. I normally book a hotel for the first two or three nights in my arrival city and then take the rest as it comes. In this case, I didn’t even have a hotel booked in Siem Reap until I was in the security line at the airport. It felt a little un-planned, even for me.
So, on my second day in Siem Reap I spent my morning trying to get a vague idea of what I wanted to do for the next month. It helped me feel more grounded and was really helpful – even if I didn’t make any actual plans until I wandered into the Battambang Boat booking place hours later.
I ate lunch next door (I didn’t stray far this day) and ended up in a conversation with a Canadian who called himself North American and warned me that in Laos the people look funny. In an effort to look distracted, I tried turning on the giant fan sitting beside me and when it went on, I’m pretty sure the refrigerator behind me went off. I’m lucky they didn’t charge me for all the sodas in the case. I purposely never went back.
The day got exponentially better when I went to dinner with Mith. After seeing temples and sweating my apsaras off, Mith asked if I wanted to see typical Cambodian dancing the next night. After taking you one place, Tuk-tuk and moto-drivers will often come up with places to take you to continue earning money. Some are pushy, but Mith was not. In fact, when we arranged the trip to Angkar he threw out a price right away and we negotiated. When he mentioned the dancing and I asked how much he told me “whatever you feel.” In the past when given this answer, I’ve found that it meansthe driver is comfortable with me and not so much a customer any more.
I had no interest in seeing Cambodian dancing. None. Zippo. I knew it would be some sort of touristy dinner theater type deal (Siem Reap is full of this type of thing since so many people flock to the city for Angkar Wat) and was completely okay with telling the world that I’d missed it. But, I liked Mith and figured I wasn’t doing anything else and I went with it.
He picked me up and he took me to a huge open air building where busloads of Chinese tourists were streaming in for their free buffet Tom Yam dinner. I dreaded going in until I was able to convince Mith to go in with me. At first the conversation was a bit strange – me essentially forcing him to go inside when typically he’d just wait in the back with the other moto-drivers. I had a similarly awkward conversation in Mombasa with Chombo until he also agreed to go into a restaurant with me.
NOTE: While I have now done this twice and never regretted it, you should probably stay in touch with your gut doing things like this. If you don’t feel as though you know the person well, it might be a bit risky. Not because they’ll kill you, but it could give the wrong idea. Always best to do something like this after you’ve already had a conversation about how married you are and how much you love your kids so that it’s clear that you’re not looking to take on a husband.
But, Mith seemed excited to go in and we were seated. I knew he spoke some English – enough to make the day at the temples a good day, but I was pretty sure his English wasn’t strong enough to fill three hours while small Cambodian women danced on stage. So, when he came back from the buffet with heaps and heaps of food I was glad that maybe he’d just end up chewing for three hours.
Turns out Mith was a fast chewer, which was great because we spent the time talking about his background including his family and what it was like to live in Cambodia from 1975-79 when the Khmer Rouge were in power.
He had a lot to say about Pol Pot and about his time in the army, but from what I could understand his family farmed and lived in a rural area outside of Siem Reap. That meant the Khmer Rouge would have considered them to be unblemished by capitalism deeming them “base people” which afforded them some privileges compared to the city people driven into the rural areas. But, many of his father’s friends were killed during this time and Mith considers himself very lucky to have come out of the war with his family intact.
He went on to tell me, in whispers, about the current Cambodian government. Prime Minister of the Cambodia People’s Party is Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985. That’s 30 years. Mith said that he won’t talk about the current CPP with anyone but his friends, since anyone can report him. I wondered if I was misunderstanding him, but this sentiment was echoed by a guide in Battambang who waited until we were up on a mountain and STILL looked all around him before talking about the current political situation.
I’ve distilled this conversation into just two paragraphs, but it took up almost the entire dance show. However! I did get to see enough of the show to see how far backwards the hands of the women dancers can bend. I wondered if they were going to break off, but nobody yelled so I guess they’re just trained to do that sort of thing.
When I wasn’t watching fingers almost breaking, we talked all about his family and we counted his 30 nieces and nephews and laughed about how ridiculous that is.
After dinner, we got back on his bike and he took me back into the city where I met up with Mike and Katie for the last time before they headed off to Thailand. When we said goodbye, I gave him a big hug and that was that.
Things like this are why I travel. And, also, while I enjoy traveling alone. I would have seen five dance shows with Chinese tourists if it meant I could have that same conversation with five other Cambodian people. It’s easy to walk around a museum and it’s easy to read a plaque that talks about the government, but the real story about a place only comes out when you’re talking to people who live the place every day.
Travel. Eat a buffet dinner with Chinese tourists. Watch small Cambodian women bend their fingers to the breaking point. Meet Miths.
(Someone should slap that on a picture of a beach and put it on Instagram)