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Farewell Cambodia

by Tara

This morning, as we leave to embark on our final ride in Cambodia, a fierce wind is gusting in from the east. Exchanging grimaces, we fight to build momentum on the colonial-house-lined coastal road leading to the border. Thanks to the strongest headwind we've seen in ages, the flat route feels equivalent to hill-climbing.

Seaside Villa Destroyed by Khmer Rouge

Going slowly is our modus operandi, and the wall of wind before us is forcing us to obey this creed whether we like it or not. We're not too worried though, we know how to handle a headwind: push our disappointment out of the way, resign ourselves to a slow day, and switch to some easy gears.

As we plod along at a walking pace, we cringe, thinking of our friends who will be leaving on their second ever cycle tour today (back to Kampot). Their rickety rented bikes don't have gears, and they have yet to experience any of the downsides of traveling by bicycle. We can only hope they're blessed with tailwind.

We're a bit sad to be leaving Cambodia, so we linger for iced coffee, stopping in each little town we pass, feeling reluctant to part ways with the country. On my last stroll through a Cambodian market, I wander through the narrow shaded maze of muddy stalls, looking for fried bananas.

Following my nose, I find the object of my desire: a seller dropping slices of battered fruit into hot oil. The boiling liquid roils and sizzles as plumes of smoke curl up through the darkness, illuminated by the shafts of light piercing in through tattered cloth awning overhead. I hold up four fingers, ordering two hot, crunchy banana treats for me, and two for Tyler.

The woman smiles and nods, grabbing a few and wrapping them in newspaper for me. Gray spots of grease appear and spread rapidly as she places the bundle in a plastic bag, exchanging it with me for a few wrinkled riel notes. As I turn away, about to close the bag with half a knot, she motions for me to keep it open, lest the steam trapped inside render the contents soft and soggy. I thank her, and she smiles sweetly, sending me on my way.

Many Cambodian women wear faded but decorative cloths wrapped around their waists, called sampots. They are multi-functional articles of clothing, worn as skirts and used as privacy shields while squatting to pee or bathing outdoors.

I've been yearning for one of these since I first laid eyes on them, and while I've seen plenty of tourist-friendly dolphin-decorated sarongs for sale, nobody seems to have the simple ones that I see Cambodian women wearing every day.

Tara & Our Bikes in Little Cambodian Village

Today is my last chance to find one. After inquiring with many shop owners, I am directed to a small, cluttered market stall. There, I mime wrapping a cloth around my waist, and the woman understands. She offers several, and I pick a pink one, then ask her to show me how to tie it. It's simple really, the same way I would wrap a towel around my waist on the way to the beach.

And then, something happens I'm not expecting. The stall-owner's mother, or at least an elderly lady hanging out with the sampot woman, greets me in French. Suddenly, worlds open up, and I have the chance, right here, right now, to clearly communicate in this tiny Cambodian village.

This woman survived the Khmer Rouge.

I know on some level that all elderly Cambodians are survivors of Pol Pot's genocide, but for some reason, this French-speaking lady strikes a chord with me. The fact that educated woman is alive, and speaking to me in a tongue only learned by students during the age of French Colonialism, is a miracle, really. I am thankful to be here, grateful for the life in front of me.

Leaving the covered market, re-entering the brutal white sun-drenched afternoon, I join Tyler where he's waiting, sipping on what will be our final gah feh dik dta go dta gaw in Cambodia. We linger, rattling our precious ice around (it has been scraped and chipped from a huge block that is delivered every morning), listening to the caged pigeon warble nearby.

Pigeon in a Cage

Finally, Tyler breaks the peaceful silence saying, "we should probably get a move on, huh?" I sigh and agree, reluctantly sipping the last few drops of sweetened condensed milk from the bottom of my glass.

We wave goodbye to the cute little girl who hangs around her mother, the cafe owner, and pedal off, ever closer to Vietnam. The headwind has thankfully died down, and there's nothing to slow us down now, save for our own hesitation to leave this friendly place.

Little Car, Lots of Ramen, Big Thumb's Up Cambodian Home
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That car load is crazy! :O
Posted by Navi on January 18th, 2011 at 5:32 PM
So glad you finally found a Sampot. You'll have to sport it at your next meeting. Its amazing that you got to communicate with the Cambodian women. What an incredible experience!
Posted by Natasha on January 20th, 2011 at 3:43 PM
Navi- Seriously!

Natasha - Thank you! I wish I could, but I sent it home in that box we tried to mail out in Ho Chi Minh City.
Posted by Tara on January 22nd, 2011 at 11:59 AM