On Saturday morning, the GROW team woke up at 7 am to get ready for the staff trip to Kien Svay Province. The staff met us outside Bonitar hotel at 8 am, each with their own motorbike. Once everyone arrived at the hotel, the GROW team hopped on a motorbike and we all convoyed through Phnom Penh to find a good place to grab breakfast.
The staff directed us to a side-street eatery which serves classic Khmer breakfast – noodles and rice. We reserved 2 tables and all sat down together. Sophea ordered soup with Khmer noodles for me along with an iced coffee. No longer scared of contracting a dangerous illness from the mysterious ice in the coffee, I bravely drank from the the glass without hesitation. If this had happened at the start of the trip I most likely would not have drank the iced coffee from fear of getting sick, however that fear has simmered down after weeks of getting acquainted with the lifestyle in Cambodia. After finishing breakfast, we all set off on the hour-long journey to Kien Svay Province. Kien Svay is located east of the Monivong Bridge on the route to Ho Chi Minh City. Near the town there is a relaxing area made up of small shacks on stilts above a river. This is a popular weekend getaway for Phnom Penh residents.
Once we arrived in Kien Svay Province, we walked around the market to check out the market vendors who were selling local fish, meats, fruits, vegetables. It was very spacious with a wide variety of foods – all Khmer delicacies. The staff took it upon themselves to choose what to buy for lunch as Megan, Gabby, Nabgha and I walked around and explored the area with Gio and Seab. All of the staff enjoy joking around and letting lose when we go on trips – a characteristic that we have all grown to love and something I will really miss when we leave.
After wandering the town for 30 minutes, we joined the staff on the river, where they rented a small hut that stood on stilts above the water. The huts were lined with straw mats that were designated for customers to dine and relax on. Before settling down to eat lunch, we all decided to take a boat ride along the Mekong River. It was a small banana-shaped boat barely big enough to fit 10 bodies. Somehow, we were able to configure our bodies so that we could all sit in the boat together. The roof of the boat was low and barely touched the tops of our heads, but it made for a comfy dwelling area for all of us. As we sat in the boat and made our way down the river (we hired a boat man to maneuver the boat down the river with a bamboo stick), we sang Khmer songs and American songs while eating a variety of local fruits that I have never tried before. Sometimes we would all sing and clap to the beat together so loudly that the visitors on the mainland nearby would hear us and wave to acknowledge our singing. Chenda and I would jokingly attempt to tip the boat over as I leaned in one direction and she leaned in the other in tandem. We would only stop the intense rocking when Rutina would scream at the top of his lungs to signal us to stop the rocking in fear that the boat would flip over. At one point amidst the singing, laughter, clapping, screaming – one of the staff members (Sam) reached into the water and pulled out a long lilly pad flower, in which he ripped the stem apart to make a necklace for me. The flower hung at the bottom of the necklace and made for a beautiful piece of natural jewelry. Another staff member (Chenda) reached for another flower in the water and made a crown out of the thick vine of the lilly flower.Despite the wet, slimy algae and dirt that came along with the vines taken from the river water, we all we so delighted to accept the gracious gifts they had made for us. At that moment of bliss and laughter, we named Nabgha (as she wore the crown of lilly flower) “Naga Queen” (Naga in Khmer is a snake which is highly honored in Cambodia). We made sure to snag a few photos to capture the priceless moment on the boat.
After an hour of spending time on the boat with the staff, we made our way to the hut to eat lunch. The staff spread out an array of fish, spiced mangos, pork and rice. We all sat indian-style on the mat and ate the food with chop sticks while chatting and laughing away in Khmer/English conversations. Whenever the staff see that our plates are empty or close to empty, the reach for more food to put on our plate without us having to do it ourselves. They really take it upon themselves to care for us and make sure we are comfortable and happy at all times.
After eating, some of us relaxed in the hammocks, some played cards together, some of us sat and talked and some went on walks around the area. The hut was placed on the water in a perfect location so that wherever you were sitting under the hut, you had a fantastic view of the water and the scenery of the landscape. I learned that card games can get very loud, rowdy and even violent among the players – besides the actual game, playing cards can even include hitting and slapping arms and heads as well as jumping and screaming obnoxious sounds. It was a lot of fun to play and especially to watch! We continued relaxing, playing cards and bonding with the staff for the next 4 hours until it was time to pack up and head back to Phnom Penh.
On our way back into the city, Sam suggests getting dinner at V2O (Sophea’s sisters restaurant) and spending the rest of the day on the Diamond Island – we were all excited that we could spend more time with them! V2O is a modern, outdoor eatery setting with white chairs and tables under large white tents and is on one of the main roads in Phnom Penh. The restaurant is right near the Independent Monument and it is a welcoming place for Cambodians and foreigners. We all sat down for dinner and ate traditional Khmer food with local beer called ‘Angkor’ beer. Afterwards, instead of taking the motorbikes to Diamond Island, we all decided to walk a few blocks and cross the bridge to the island by foot. The walk was very enjoyable as we all joked around and laughed together, while also dodging traffic to get to our destination. Once on the island, the staff took us to a carnival area (wear we played carnival games such as balloon darts and each won little stuffed animals) and showed us around the parks there. Diamond Island is popular for the young crowd and those who want to take romantic walks around the beautiful gardens and stone architecture there. There is one area of the island that looks reminiscent of a Grecian square as it is lined in a circle with huge columns. During our walk it began to drizzle but the rain did not phase us at all – we actually quite enjoyed it because the rain in Cambodia is warm and refreshing, not cold like it is in the U.S. At the end of the night, we all made our way back over the bridge and back to the motorbikes so that the staff could take us to our hotel. After a long day, we all were able to get a great nights sleep!
On Sunday morning, we scheduled to meet with Vorth (Whut, Mr. Chanthan’s son) to construct the new CSSD website. Vorth met us in the hotel cafe downstairs at 8:30 AM and we all sat in one booth to eat breakfast and discuss the details of the website. After about 2 hours of working, we managed to develop the layout and content ideas for the site. The next few days we planned to fully fill-in the text and photos that would eventually be on the page. Vorth was very easy to work with because he is almost fully fluent in English (even English slang!) and he know a lot about constructing webpages. We all worked very well together being that there was no language barrier.
After concluding our meeting with Vorth, we all headed back up to the room to get ready and decide the rest of our plans for the day. The four of us all agreed to take a small day trip to a small island nearby called Koh Dach – which lays across the Mekong river from Phnom Penh. Lonely Planet recommends this destination for small day trips and if travelers want to see the ‘real’ Cambodia. Koh Dach is home of many weavers who weave traditional and modern designs for scarves, table clothes, fabric, etc. The weavers are very welcoming and also invite you inside their home to see how the fabric is made. Very interested to see this side of Cambodia, we set out to get a tuk tuk to bring us to the shipping dock. Once at the dock, we were reluctant to see that the passengers on the large ship were local Cambodians with their motorbike (and no foreigners) looking to traveling to the other side of the water for some other purpose besides touring. The other passengers were very friendly and would extend a wave or small smile when we looked in their direction. It only took 10 minutes to reach the other side of the river where we exited the ship onto an inclined dirt path which led to the main dirt road on the island. The four of us walked along the main dirt road and were greeted with smiles and “HELLO!!!” from the children and island residents who were surprised to see foreigners walking by. We were greeted by one woman who happily invited us into her small house (small hut-looking house with metal roofing and three sides bordered with wood with the forth side open to see the street view. After showing us her weaving loom and how to weave a pattern on a long pierce of red fabric, she offered to allow us to try the loom. We all took turns trying to weave the fabric and it took us some time until we got the hang of the repetitive motion. Afterwards, we purchased some of the scarves that her family made as souvenirs from the experience.
We continued our journey down the dirt road and spent some time at a pagoda (holy grounds that houses temples and shrines for visitors to pray and worship Buddha). We also ran into small children that were so excited to see us and say hello. Three little girls on one large bike followed us as we explored the pagoda. They were simple so happy and intrigued to be around us. After our walk through the pagoda, we came across a long path that led to a small dock that looked out onto the river and the scenery across the water. Deciding to relax our feet a bit, we made our way to the dock and sat down on the large stone, letting our feet hang off the edge of the cliff. the GROW team bonded a bit and reflected on all of our experiences and adventures in Cambodia. In no time, we were joined by 5 young teenage girls who were eager to spend time with us. They sat along side us on the dock as we got to know more about them. One of the girls knew some English so she was able to translate much of what were were saying for her friends. They were all so giggly and happy; their smiles were so contagious. We learned their names, their ages, where they live, what they like to do everyday and more about the island we were on. We were also joined by a few young boys who were a little older than the girls and who also knew some English. They were also very friendly and willing to answer any of our questions we had about the area. We asked them were we could find some food to eat for lunch but they said that the market and center of town which had restaurants was about 10 kilometers away from where we were. We all sat together and talked for almost an hour until we decided ti was time to head back to grab some snacks. As we departed from our newly-made friends, we thanked them for their time and bid them farewell. One of the boys got on his bike and escorted us back from where we came. We reached the dock and boarded the boat again to make our way across the river.
When we arrived at the Riverside of Phnom Penh, we all decided to get a late lunch at a restaurant called ‘Friends’, which is a local NGO which employs young men and women living in poor areas of the city and gives them vocational skills so that they may have a sufficient and safe working environment as they grow older. The waiters and waitresses wore t-shirts as uniforms which had their title on the back (either ‘Teacher’ or ‘Student’) to indicate their level of experience so far. The restaurant was colorfully decorated with large paintings and very clean. It is highly known in the area and among the NGO crowd for creating positive change in Phnom Penh. The food was also VERY delicious!!
After lunch we made our way to the large central park of Phnom Penh where many people go to exercise, play soccer, meditate and relax. We found our spot on the grass and sat down to watch a group of young men player soccer. In no time at all, they invited me to play soccer with them as I was so engrossed in watching them play and they could see I wanted to get in on the game too. They were so excited to have an American girl playing soccer with them (I guess it is not customary for girls to play ‘futbol’ in Cambodia) and they were surprised at my soccer skills! Sooner or later, we had a game of ‘Monkey’ going and they asked if I wanted to invite my friends to play so Megan came to join. Megan and I played soccer with the boys for about an hour until we had to say goodbye to them because it was getting dark and we had plans to catch a documentary screening at a nearby movie house. They wanted to take a picture with us so we gladly accepted. One of the guys also told us to play with them again whenever we came to the park and we laughed, accepting their flirtatious offer.
The nearby movie house is called ‘Meta House’ and it is popular among foreigners and Khmer people who are looking to watch a good documentary. It is a cool, indoor/outdoor venue on a roof with a large view overlooking the city street. The movie house is comprised of only 30 movie-style chairs with side tables and a bar in the back. They is also a small restaurant bar behind the seating area. The documentaries are projected on a white stone wall off and streamed off of a Macbook in the back. It is a trendy, low-key, hipster place that we love to go to when we have no other plans at night. That night, the documentary being screened was called “Cross Currents” directed by a Filipino filmmaker, Nick Deocampo, who was present in the venue that night, promoting his film and playing it for the first time in Phnom Penh. Nick Deocampo from the Philippines is the country’s leading documentary filmmaker, author, film teacher, film historian, and director. It was his first time visiting Cambodia and he was eager to get to know the people. He was visiting for only a few days and wanted to screen his newest film at the Meta House. His newest documentary titled “Cross Currents” takes its viewers across five Asian ecological sites and shows how local inhabitants, often without scientific help, have developed indigenous ways in taking care of their environments in the face of natural and man-made calamities. The director welcomed the viewers with a speech before the film started and spoke to us all after the movie as well. He talked of his experiences while making the film and his future plans as a director. He also opened the floor for any questions that the audience. It was a great experience to meet the director because it gave us a complete explanation of the documentary through the eyes of the filmmaker. In my opinion, it was a perfect ending to an very long day.
Until next time – Greetings from Phnom Penh!
With a ton of GROW love,