June 14th, 2009
I wanted to go trekking in the hills of the north-east. In part because I was beginning to hanker after mountains and in part because this area sees few tourists, especially in the rainy season. It was far enough off the beaten path to suit me. And so began the interminable bus journeys.
Squashed in like sardines in buses or simply the back of a truck was the norm. Warm weather necessarily meant breathing in the mingled aromas from assorted unwashed bodies, the occasional goat and basket of chickens that were among the co-passengers.
I reached Kratie, a town due north of Phnom Penh and from there set off for Sen. Monorom. The dirt track that passed for a road was partly washed away in the rains with deep ditches and trenches. In a heavy downpour the bus slipped ands slithered along. Heavy machinery lay along the way – soon this would be a sealed ribbon of asphalt. But for now only trucks with goods piled high, motorbikes so loaded that it was impossible to see the rider, and flat-bed trucks with people hanging off them made their way mile after jolting mile.
Sen Monorom is a tiny town – more a village really and since there were no other tourists, I was an easy target for the leech-like touts and tour-operators. But I met a genuinely nice young man – another in the series of kind, sensitive people that have peppered my trip. He took me to a nearby village and arranged for me to meet a family.
They are an indigenous people, one of the minority in Cambodia belonging to the Pnong tribe. I was to live with the family for a couple of days.
As it happened, they were going from their village, trek to their plot of land that they have cleared in the middle of the forest and prepare it to grow rice. So off I went with the family – grandmother, parents, their five children ranging in age from 9 to 11 months, their three mongrels and a live chicken held by its feet.
The trek wasn’t long but the path had not the remotest resemblance with what we know as a trail. Steep downhill paths down to the river that were slick and slippery with the recent rains. Across the river, either fording it or crossing on a bamboo bridge and up again on the other side. These people were like monkeys – walking barefoot they scrambled, climbed, pulled themselves up with their hands and feet and it was all I could do to keep up! I have sneaking suspicion that they have prehensile toes that are apparently invisible to us.
We reached the cleared plot of land in a little over a couple of hours. There was a small open-sided shack built to house the family in the planting season. Built on short stilts, some three feet off the ground it comprises of a platform made of strips of bamboo. The roof was made of thatch, with ragged sheets of plastic sheeting in some places.
Under the platform is the storage area for hoes, knives, kindling and long wooden poles that are used to dig holes in the soil where the rice grains are planted. The family were to all sleep on the platform laid out next to each other. I chose to hang my hammock between a couple of the supporting poles.
I stayed with the family for a couple of days. Each one of them has specific tasks to do but in between and while at their tasks they seem to run free. Playing, laughing, bathing in the stream stark naked, digging up small crabs from the riverbed and roasting it in the fire – all of this taking place all the time.
The oldest daughter who is nine looks after the two youngest children – a two year-old and the 11 month old toddler. Grandma sat at the fire, cooking rice, smoking her hand-rolled cigarette made of tobacco wrapped in a specific kind of leaf that they get from the forest.
Huong and his wife Mlam went off in the forest to get leaves and early one moring Huong went off to get a knapsack full of bamboo shoots freshly cut from the forest. These were cooked into the soup that we were to have with rice.Cooking seems to comprise merely of boiling water, throwing the rest of the materials in it, add some salt and prnouce it done when they are soft enough to eat.
I had bought them some pork – as a gift because I was told that they could get enough vegetables and meat from the forest but meat was hard to come by in this season. This they relished and there was much lip-smacking at dinner time.
I ate with them, bathed in the river with them and went hunting in the forest for the vegetables and bamboo shoots.The next day, what seemed like a horde of people came by. It was the entire extended family of some forty adults and kids of all ages. They had come to take part in a ceremony to pray for a good harvest and to plant rice.
The ceremony involved a chicken sacrifice with the blood from the chicken being carefully collected. It was later used to decorate a strip of bamboo carved with specific symbols. Stripes were painted on with the chicken blood onto the bamboo by Huong with a great degree of solemnity. The ceremony conducted in the middle of the field involved chanting and praying and intermittent drinking of (potent) rice wine.
It was Huong who did most of the rites but he was assisted by Mlam and the two grandmothers as well as a couple of other elders. Children ran around laughing and teasing and playing. The self-conscious teens hung in groups and giggled and posed for photographs. I was considered one of the family and automatically included. Huong’s family had more or less become used to me but I was something of a curiosity to the others.
Enough of an oddity that I had a more or less permanent gaggle that followed me wherever I went. It was with a great deal of effort that I had to convince them to leave me alone when I went to the toilet!
After the ceremony, everyone – men, women, children except the toddlers planted rice as did I. I was marginally better at that than fishing, but I dare say my efforts provided them with more laughs than they have had in a while!