Our last weekend in Cambodia has passed. We have spent the last few days reflecting on our experiences while gaining new ones, preparing ourselves mentally for the departure. After the staff party on Friday evening, we were excited to spend part of our last few days in the country with our executive director and his family.
The GROW team, LIzzie, Mr. Chanthan, and his wife and daughter piled into his five person car for an hour and a half ride to Takeo province, where Mr. Chanthan’s sister lives. First, however, we went to a mountain that was only a few kilometers from her house. The name of the mountain translated to “Elephant Falls,” but unfortunately, there are no elephants there anymore. We arrived to the country side and I felt at home. I have really GROWn (see what I did there?) to love Phnom Penh, but fresh air and trees and water really help revive me. When we arrived at the foot of the mountain, we were greeted by a large golden Buddha and several smaller replicas. Then it was time to climb.
Saturday was hot. It was a dry, still heat, with no wind to help cool us off. We loaded up with snacks and drinks and climbed up concrete steps. I didn’t count how many there were, but I daresay there were hundreds. We took a few breaks on the way up. I was sweating so much, it looked like I had gone swimming. Not so cute. But we managed to finish the steps in good time and we arrived at a small temple, made of some sticks and a tin roof. We weren’t yet at our desired location, but now we had to climb without concrete steps.
Thankfully, once we finished the concrete steps, we were more than halfway up. The climb up the dirt path was littered with rocks, but not so bad. At last, we arrived at our desired summit. There was a larger pagoda there, open-air but with a tile floor and a large golden, well-kept Buddha. This is one thing I personally love about Cambodia. We were hiking through forests where we didn’t see many people, but there were a number of small pagodas.
We settled on a level patch of grass and snacked. The Meas family thought of us Westerners and bought bread! We had bread with jam and cheese and meat, ate watermelon, and drank water and winter melon juice. The GROW team, Lizzie, and Mr. Chanthan were joined by Mr. Chanthan’s nephew, Sovann, and his friend and our co-worker, Rut! We were so happy to be able to spend more time with them.
After our snack, most of us climbed up the mountain a bit further. We were so fortunate to be able to see the view, which was difficult in most places because of the amount of trees and greenery. We were able to see all the fields, other mountains in the distance, the lake, and even the house we would be visiting soon! We couldn’t climb too high, because the the path started to get extremely narrow, the smell changed, and we started seeing more evidence of wild boars. We didn’t want to get caught by a wild animal, so we turned around and headed back to camp.
After some more snacks, we decided it was time to go down the ten thousand (or so) steps and go on to Mr. Chanthan’s sister’s home. It was a good idea, because about half-way down the steps, it started raining! The change in weather was a welcome relief from the heat and we managed to get to the car before it started pouring.
It was only a short ride to the house. We climbed out and sat down for a few minutes, relaxing from our mountain treck. The girls soon fell asleep on a bed after laying for a bit, but I didn’t want to, so I just sat next to them, watch the rain pour down. I had seen Rut and Sovann running around the house and I wondered what they were up to. Soon, Rut came into the doorway and asked if I wanted to go swimming. There was a lake right across the street from the house, but it was raining! Surely he was joking, my mind said. But after confirmation that Rut and Sovann were indeed going to the lake to fish and swim, I took off my flowing and baggy Cambodian pants and ran out into the rain with them in yoga pants, tank top, and sports bra.
We went to the lakeside and Sovann showed us how to cast the net properly. He caught a small fish on his first try! I just stood on the bank for a little bit, but eventually went into the water as we moved around the lake, searching for a better place to catch fish. Unfortunately, the water was low and there was not much to catch.
That afternoon will be one of my most cherished memories of Cambodia. I cannot do the view justice by trying to explain, but I will say that I was in a warm lake, learning to fish with two Khmer 20-something year olds. In front of us there were fields grass an incredible shade of green, with cows and water buffolos grazing. Behind the fields were mountains, one of which I had just climbed. I was on the last week of an experience that taught me so much and was continuing to teach me so many useful things about practical NGO work and about the world and people around me. I tried to soak the experience in.
We swam and walked around the fields, and soon, Mr. Chanthan joined us. He didn’t have much luck either, which was confirmation that it wasn’t just us young fishermen that were the reason for a lack of catch. We took out the neighbor’s boat, which looked like an asian soup spoon, and took that around a bit too. We ate boiled corn from a seller that was passing by. We laughed, a lot. I learned a few Khmer words, practiced casting the net, and wiggled my toes in the very squishy lake bottom. Vorth even joined us, having gotten better from his fever the night before!
After a little bit, we decided to wake the sleeping girls up, so that they could get in on the fun. It hadn’t rained for long, so it wasn’t as intimidating to walk out. We took more rides on the boat, then walked back to clean up before dinner. We each took a rain barrel shower, pouring the rain water that was stored in large clay pots over our soaped up limbs. We were all outside together, so it wasn’t a modern shower, but it got the job done well enough. What a funny experience, to get a pitcher of cool rain water dumped on your head by your executive director!
After showering, changing, getting introduced to our room and the one bed the five of us would be sharing, and snacking on more bread, we grabbed a watermelon and knife and the GROW team, Lizzie, Mr. Chanthan, and his daughter Srey Put went for a walk. We walked down the road to the dam and sat, staring at the beautiful view, eating watermelon, and wondering how in the heck we are lucky enough to experience such a place, with so many great people, at such a time.
After our meditation on the dam, we decided to keep walking. We walked to the market and around the town, able to witness the sunset, s mix of pinks and golds and purples and blues that overwhelmed me, walking down a dirt path through some fields. I felt the evening that night. I was part of it, not just a spectator. It was a remarkable feeling.
After our walk, we headed back home. After some more corn and hanging out, we had another delicious dinner and were soon off to bed. It was my first night ever sleeping under a mosquito net. It was a long, hot night. In the morning, we ogled at a new perspective of the mountains and the lake, had noodles and soup for breakfast, and drove home to Phnom Penh.
On Sunday, after showering, the GROW team had lunch at the riverside and later met up with the CSSD staff for one last night out before our departure. It was wonderful to spend so much time with the staff! I am so grateful for their friendship. We went to dinner with them and talk turned to us leaving. It was sad, and I didn’t want to talk about it. On our way to Sophea’s sister’s retaurant, we encountered large crowds of people shouting “CHANGE” in Khmer, rallying for their political party for the election at the end of the month. A motorbike hit the motorbike Jackie was on, but it fortunately was a low-speed crash and Jackie was able to quickly jump off. No one was hurt, just the basket on the other bike was dented, but it was a good wake-up call for all of us. It is also interesting to see the political drama unfold. People drive on large pick up trucks, waving flags and shouting, or gather in the park, rallying for support for their party. I am interested to see what happens as the election gets closer.
It was a long weekend, but one filled with celebration, exploration, fun, and love. I am so, so grateful for my experience in Cambodia, and will be incredibly sad to go.
With much GlobeMed love,