Altogether Now: Ra! Na! Ra! Na!
Yes I am giving huge props to Don (an American gent, ex military intelligence!!) and Kim(his Cambodian wife), their two children Ra and Na, and all the peeps about 10kms out of Kampong Cham where I just spent a brilliant two days @ a homestay called - u guessed it - Rana!
I had heard a lot about Rana whilst I was doing a bit of background study prior to coming here. Google searches related to blogs and homestays would bring them up with alarming regularity, with reviews almost embarrassingly glowing about the experience that people had shared during their time at Rana. Whilst i was in Siem Reap, I gave them a call, imagining that - even tho it is low season - they may very well be booked out. Well as it turns out, things are pretty quiet for them at the moment, so I had the privilege of being the sole guest during my two day stay.
Kim arranged for a tuk tuk driver to be waiting for me when I arrived on the bus from Siem Reap and he proceeded to drive me out over the bridge spanning the Mighty Mekong (ah! Nice to see u again my friend!) into the countryside. A lovely ride preceeded my arrival at a lovely place. Don says he has had one person complain about the noise from the highway as they are not especially far from a main route. For me however we were far enough away to make me feel as if I inhabited another world. All lush green foliage, pineapple and mango trees - amidst which was the cabin which would become my home away from home for the next couple of days. There to greet me on arrival were the entire family, all with hands outstretched in welcome. I was asked to make myself comfortable and then make my way down to the main house.
The cabin was perfect, all thatched roof and windows on each side to allow a natural flow of air. Whilst I was there during the day I was able to leave the door open and when I retired in the early evening (there being no electricity here, though a veritable smorgasbord of torches/candles and those pretty little headlights that people like to wear and which Kim used to maneouvre her way around the kitchen and make some pretty awe inspiring meals) the room was very comfortably temperature controlled! Damned comfy bed too!
The main house which I made my way down to, was actually just a hop skip and jump from my little hut, around what would be a pond in the wet season but which for now was a dusty playground for some very inventive kids who knew how to make their own fun the way I imagine we used to when we were kids. Immediately I was made welcome with a lovely chat with Don and a beautiful meal made by Kim. Apparently everybody says that this is a highlight of the stay there (and I admit I did read it many times myself) and Don assures me that Kim has had offers of jobs in two countries. I have no doubt myself. For my lunch she prepared an amazing eggplant concoction, with loads of good stuff including vinegar (Kim explained every meal in detail but I have a s***e memory for these details, as we all know...) Over the proceeding time she made me awesome breakfasts with Cambodian waffles, these deep fried little donut things with brown bean paste inside, these little white balls made of rice flour with coconut and palm sugar (which were incrediby sweet and incredibly delicious - bit of a favourite), another palm sugar concoction, sticky rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf, all topped off with a mango or two! Phew, take a breather because then there was lunch and dinner which included lots of tofu and veg and on the final night Kim's famous fish amok. Amok is pretty much the national dish of Cambodia, a fish curry of a type. I had had it prior to coming to Rana but had thought very little of it. I dont think I will be able to find one to come close having had Kims which was something else, infused with amazing flavours. All that time in the darkened kitchen with that bloody headlight contraption was certainly worthwhile. How the hell does she do it?
After my first lunch Kim me and the kids went for a bit of walking tour through the countryside, meeting the locals who were harvesting the rice, wandering through rice paddies, next to buffalo, past cashew nut trees (I had NO IDEA cashews were attached to a bit of fruit which they call an apple...am i that dim?), farmers growing squash and chillies and vietnamese potatoes (bit of a failure that crop - everyone planted and now no-one wants, all apparently because the previous year one person in the village had a bit of fortune with the crop, so everyone else followed and failed miserably. Ouch!) - there was such an amazing diversity of crops and Kim was forever pulling of leaves of this and that for me to try and telling me how they would rely on these things during times of starvation during the Pol Pot regime.
On the second day, we dropped the kids off at a relo's and went off for a bike road around the area. Whilst she was dropping the kids off, I waited with a family who were trying to converse with me to little avail. When Kim returned we were able to ascertain it was the usual niceties related to marriage and family and age. This soon changed when Kim mentioned to them that I was a nurse. This woman had a two year old child she had adopted after the childs mother had been killed by standing on a landmine but the child was constantly sick. ANd I was soon to discovver that Cambodia is not a country where u will receive any answers if u or your family member are ill. People are expected to bow down before doctors who really only pay any interest in your case if you have money. Oh, and I later learned that it was quite possible - and KIm knew of someone who had done this - to buy your medical degree. How bloody scary is that? Anyway, this poor woman was beside herself with worry because she didnt know what to do and would never get any answers in the Cambodian Health System! And I am hardly a one man travelling health clinic. But before u knew it I felt like I had become one as they all started to arrive from all corners such as the girl with the small pox which they coveredwith wood they had scraped from a chopping board!! Kim said that dirt was another popular option in wound dressings! Nice....I also saw a poor child who had had a bit of diarrhoea who was being carried by his brother with a bit of a home made IV pole to which was attached some Lactated Ringers Solution> Kim told me that when that was finished the local nurse would come and put up another bottle. Good old district nurses!
Anyway got back on our bikes and traversed the countryside riding to a local wat (temple) where we were able to fix up my bike with the help of a rusty nail, and chat to the old ladies who saw to the needs of the monks (that sounds saucy but it is certainly not intended that way...) and also to an ex School Principal who now spent his retirement doing works for the monks. Nice excursion for me that day, riding through the villages etc etc
Rana Homestay has a principal of educating as well as being a bit of time out, so on the first night, Kims mum came over to talk about the time of Pol Pot etc., Well I was under the mistaken asumption that she would talk a little bit and I would then ask questions, but no, it was all firmly up to me! So, after a moments nervous hesitation, I launched in (remembering Don's advice that I could ask any question I wanted, no self censorship neccessary) and was quite pleased as Kim translated that Don said to me"Very good question." Phew....I leaned loads which I wont go into here, but in this part of the country they had actually been living under the auspices of the natural predecessors to the Khmer Rouge for many years before the Khmer Rouge "liberated" Phnom Penh, so initially things such as re-education and murder were not so prevalent in the area, as these were the real people, the common farmer, the uneducated, that Pol Pot apparently revered as being free of the ravages of foreign influence. I had so many questions that eventually Don had to stop me as we wre beginning to go seriously over time and Mum had to be up at 4am and because it was late and dark she would sleep in the bushes and make her way back home in the morning!! I was very pleased with myself though as Don had said often people had little to ask and would then proceed to tell Mum about life back in Australia etc., The next night Kims sister turned up. She is a primary school teacher and I didnt find her terribly fascinating, I must admit, but her talking to the guests is a new addition to the itinerary and so might be looked at perhaps?? I was also brain dead because just prior to her coming I had spent half an hour trying to get 6 local kids (who Kim taught Englishto) to converse with me in English. But they all sat there shyly grinning and avoiding eye contact, so it was a bit of a bummer. Like drawing blood from a stone as they say.
Idled away the rest of my time just enjoying the solitude, reading, drinking Asahi Beers with Don and smoking far too many ciggies as Don had kindly gone out and bought me a carton for approx two bucks fifty! Also played with the awesome bilingual kids, the dogs and just had a bloody lovely and peaceful time.
Am now in Kratie and having to watch my budget as there are no ATMs in this part of the world. Worst comes to worst I will have to spend much of a day travelling back to Kampong CHam and return as they do have ANZ ATMs there. In the meantime am gonna finally do some exercise (not too hot here) and follow some of the bike trails they have delineated in a guide book here and try and catch sight of the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolpin.Shall see how successful we are there.
Cannot believe I only have two weeks to go. And no, will not be going into Laos. Have decided instead to overstay my Cambodian visa and pay the fine (will be about thirty bucks cheaper that way and about twenty five bucks cheaper than getting an extension)