Halima Ali eschews the tourist traps to cycle into the heart of rural Cambodia
“You need to taste real Cambodian flavour,” says Sokha, my guide for the day, as he dangles a big black beetle in front of me. “Just try it,” he insists. I politely refuse and pray he stops asking.
We’ve left behind the tourists of Siem Reap and ventured into the countryside, beginning in Prasat Bakong District, once declared the capital of Cambodia by rulers of the Khmer Empire.
As we pull off the main road and begin down a dirt track, we pass the Hindu Bakong temple, which is even older than the famous ruins of Angkor Wat.
An hour away from the city, we climb out of the minivan and mount bicycles. Riding along the red dirt track, there’s silence, save for the creak of our bikes. As we approach a small bridge with a stream running underneath, three little boys with fishing rods far bigger then they are stare, and one pretends to catch me with his fishing line. I wonder if they actually catch anything in the stream.
We continue pedalling. On either side lie green, verdant fields. A young girl overtakes me on her bike smiling and waving before she turns off the main track to cut through to one of the homes in the distance.
“Can you hear that sound?” asks my guide. “It’s music, from a wedding party. There must be a celebration going on in one of those houses.”
Soon we reach Roluos market, where the locals come to buy their groceries. Women wearing sun hats and long-sleeved shirts perch on wooden stalls, or crouch on the floor gossiping. There are fresh vegetables on sale and an abundance of all types of fish. “People go fishing every day here, so it’s cheap,” says Sokha. Perhaps those boys did catch something after all.
We drive further into the countryside, passing rice fields — the country’s main crop — and a field where people are training to clear the landmines laid in the 1980s during the ousting of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
“You see those houses are built on stilts,” says Sokha, pointing to homes we pass. “That’s because people believe they’re closer to heaven.” The space underneath the houses is also used to store rice and other crops. At our next destination, Kampong Khleang, the houses are also on stilts, raised high off the ground, but for an altogether different purpose: “In the dry season there’s no water here at all. But, in the wet season, you can’t drive here; the only way to visit is by boat.”
Joining the late afternoon water commute of school kids and people returning to their homes, either on land or to their houseboats moored in the water, we board a boat to our host’s home where lunch is prepared for us.
An elderly lady with white hair rubs both my cheeks and pinches my nose as she greets us. Her wooden home, which is filled with black and white family photos, has been standing for 30 years. She points to a watermark on a door, explaining that in 2011 the water reached an exceptionally high level, forcing the family to build a temporary floor on the roof to sleep on.
On the deck overlooking the lake, there’s a gentle breeze and quietness that I haven’t experienced before in Cambodia. We eat lunch here — a home cooked meal of rice and vegetables — and I retire to the indoor hammock to take a post-meal nap.