Battambang Homestay: City Girl, Country Life

March 30, 2007

It’s a misconception that roosters crow at dawn. Actually, they get cock-a-doodle-dooing much earlier, at 2:37 a.m. to be precise. I know this because last night at this time, the damn chickens living in the backyard woke me up. Not that it was hard to do. The humidity of a Cambodian March night had me tossing and turning; the generator powering the grotty fan in our room had given up hours ago.

We had forsaken our guesthouse, opting instead to spend our last nights in Cambodia staying in a village 15 km north of Battambang. Gone were the luxuries of running water, electricity, a ceiling fan, 80-channel cable television. How did I, a certified city princess, end up here?

We stepped off the bus in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. Motorbike taxi drivers waited to ferry us to our hotel. Normally, I would have rejected their services, but the midday heat along with their offer to drive us for free hooked me. My driver’s name was Sambath, or Bath, and he spoke immaculate English. He asked me the usual questions: how long have you been in Cambodia, how long will you stay in Battambang, where are you from? I told him, as I tell everyone, “I’m an American, but I live in Japan.” He smiled and said an American living in Japan had just stayed with him, in the homestay he ran. My ears perked up.

I asked him to tell me more about his homestay and he said that his family lives 15 km outside of the city, in a village called Tapon. The homestay would last for two days and two nights. There would be no running water or electricity, although his home did have a Western-style toilet, the only one, he added, in the entire village. The cost for room and board, and his guide and transportation services for two days? A very reasonable $35 per person.

It only took a bit of deliberation. Ninety percent of me was curious about experiencing life with a real Cambodian family, eating what they ate, peeking into the routine of their daily lives. The other ten percent recoiled at the idea of no running water! No electricity!! Living amongst bugs and the oppressive heat!!! But I told my inner princess to stop being a wuss and we signed up for Bath’s homestay the next night.

A little bit about our host: Bath is 37 years old and the father of three kids. He has an incandescent smile and mischievous eyes, the personality of a joker, and indeed, throughout our stay, he must have told us hundreds of jokes. He speaks flawless English, which he learned at school and perfected by driving tourists around for seven years. He is passionate about his job at a motorbike driver-cum-guide and has big dreams to open up his own resort and expand his homestay business.

We agreed to meet Bath at 1 p.m. outside of our hotel to make the 30-minute drive through the sweltering midday heat, past bakingdsc02405.jpg countryside, to Tapon. Driving past the village marketplace, we received surprised laughter and countless double takes. We arrived at our homestay house and shortly after, a bevy of children and neighbors came around, not wanting to talk to us, but rather to glimpse at the two barang, or foreigners, in their midst. We received the grand tour of the village – the temple, the pool tables set up outside the temples, the market, the rice mill, the crocodile farm, the leafy backstreets.

Our host family consisted of Bath’s aunt and uncle, a gruff, muscular man and a woman with shorn hair who wore an old-fashioned brasserie as a top. Both were in their seventies. On the property, in another house, were Bath’s cousin and his family – a policeman, his wife who had just given birth a week ago, and their kids. Another cousin and his family lived in another house. Bath actually lived in Battambang city, but his wife made the trip into the village both nights to prepare us an authentic Khmer dinner before returning to take care of their three children. There were a few other faces who kept showing up, but whose relationship to Bath I never could figure out. There were neighbors, too, people like family, who popped over several times a day to chit-chat.

A bonafide city girl, I thought country life moved at a slower pace than in the city. But, our host family was always busy preparing meals, cleaning up, carrying water from the river in heavy buckets, chopping firewood, and performing countless other chores. They were up at 5 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m. Bath told us that at this time of year, when there was no rice to plant or harvest, they were relatively relaxed. In the rice season, they were up at 3 a.m. and in the fields by 6 a.m.

I thought the countryside would be quieter than it was. There were always children around, crying or yelling or playing in the fruit orchard. Chickens and chicks peeping around our feet. The chanting of monks from the local temple and the competing call to prayer from the mosque at the other side of town. Karaoke at night, wedding receptions at 6 a.m. Crickets and cicadas.

dsc02460.jpgDespite the noise, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. We “showered” in the open-air by scooping water over ourselves. The toilet was in a separate outhouse. The only electric-powered appliances in the house were one fluorescent light and the fan in our room, both run on a small electric battery. The women of the house did the dishes by candlelight. We ate fruit picked from the garden that morning. At night, dozens of fireflies blinked around the backyard. There was no escape from the soupy heat; all of the time, morning and night, sweat streamed off my face and neck.

Everyone was curious, but no one really spoke to us. With our nonexistent Khmer skills and their nonexistent English skills, we relied on Bath to field communication. When he wasn’t around, we just grinned awkwardly at each other. I began to feel frustrated. I wanted to ask them questions, get to know more about our hosts. All I could say was “My name is Jessica. I’m from America. This is delicious. Thank you.” Although I could sense the questions in their heads, too, and caught a few interested stares, I began to wonder whether our host family had become blasé about foreigners living with them, as will inevitably happen with any experienced host family.

But, on our second and last night there, they threw us a party. A cooler filled with a cocktail of ginseng wine and coconut juice, and spicy duck as a side dish. We gathered around the table, clinking glasses every few minutes, with us trying to eke out a few Khmer words and them cracking up at our awful pronunciation. Thankfully, Bath acted as translator and mediator for all. And even when he was busy, we could still understand the gist of what was being said. Oh, she’s American but she lives in Japan. His eyes look Chinese, but his skin is so dark, he could be Khmer. Gestures and tone of voice communicate so much.

This being the countryside, the party was over by 8:30 p.m., an hour after it had started; there were chores in the morning for which no hangover would wait. We said good-bye and good luck to our friends and headed off to bed ourselves, exhausted by the heat. The half-moon’s light through the window was as bright as a Times Square billboard, but I was sleeping within minutes. Until the chickens woke me up.

The next morning, we packed hurriedly. Back in Battambang, we had a taxi to pick us up and take us to the border, where we would leave behind Cambodia for Thailand. I felt nostalgic. I had arrived three weeks earlier in this country, stunned and frightened by the dirt and poverty. The dry, scorched landscape had made everything seem bleak. But, after Vietnam, we had enjoyed Cambodia the most – with it’s relaxed vibe, friendly people, interesting history, and still undeveloped tourist attractions like Kampot, Kep, and Battambang.

dsc02456.jpgIn town, we bade Bath goodbye and thanked him and his family for being such generous hosts. He smiled one of his 100-watt smiles and said he hoped to see us back in Cambodia again in the future. I said I hoped so, too, and meant it.

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One Response to “Battambang Homestay: City Girl, Country Life”

  1. Janik said

    Hi Jess

    I just happened to come across your blog about Battambang homestay in Cambodia. Could you get in touch with me please, as there is something I would like to ask you about this place?
    Thanks a lot. J

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