Cambodia: Kampong Phluk & Sihanoukville
After a morning of temple hopping, I toured Kampong Phluk, the floating village outside Siem Reap. It's home to about 700 families, and the average family is about 4-5 people. So roughly 3,000 people live in this village on 15-foot stilts. Since it was dry season, you could walk on the land between some homes, but from May-November during rainy season, the water rises at least 5 feet, and boats are the only means of transport.
All the thoughts I'd had on the plane raced back fervently. This village is quite remote. What if someone gets sick? Do they own band aids? How far do they travel for school? How do they power their homes? DO they power their homes? How would I fare, without access to a grocery store, a dentist, a bank? How many boats does each family have? Is there a teenage freedom associated with being able to man a boat alone, the same way a driver's license gives freedom to teens in the States?
Wait - but how do you even build these things? How do they stay warm at night? Do kids wish they had their own rooms? The roofs are made of metal siding - does the rainy season bring leaks to their homes? Are their clothes perpetually damp? Do they have trouble falling asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the metal roof at night?
And why - even in this village on stilts - is the temple the nicest damn building in the town? While beautiful architecturally, I'm sure any higher being would want you to use that roofing, that siding, on your home to protect your kids and family from things like weather instead.
I saw endless groups of little kids running around. Felt like more than 2 kids per family. Where do women give birth? Wait, were these babies planned? Is contraception even a thing here? And in a town of 700 families, how do you meet enough people to find one to fall in love with? We have Tinder and Hinge and Match because we don't think we can find compatible companions organically in Manhattan. MANHATTAN. A city with 2,666x more people than Kampong Phluk.
Suddenly, I felt humbled. I considered my daily life back home. Some of the things I struggle with felt trivial, but mostly, I felt an overwhelming gratitude for not having to worry every day about charging up my battery to power my home, or about collecting wood and coal for a fire. (I'd found out they DO power their homes, with batteries - how often do those need recharging? I saw a small girl boating back with a battery in her boat. She couldn't have been more than 6 years old.) I felt grateful to have a fridge, a shower, electricity, a gas stove, insulated walls, blankets, warm clothing, pillows, a bed... The list goes on.
At home, I've recently become more outspoken about gender equality and women's rights. Things like access to contraception and affordable child care are important to me. I thought about how far it felt these women were from me. How different their gender concerns probably are. When they have to worry about where their drinking water comes from, gender equality in the workforce isn't a thing. And if it is, it's an uphill battle, because in this little village - women maintain homes and families, and men fish & work. That's just it.
What if a mom in Kampong Phluk, comes home one day after selling handicrafts, and doesn't have enough food for dinner for her family? Yeah, that's just not a thing here. For some reason, I thought about Easy Mac. How, ever since college, I always keep at least one in my pantry, in case forgetfulness or late nights at work get the best of me. Seems so trivial.
I didn't get all the answers to my questions on my tour. That's ok. Kampong Phluk gave me more than I could have imagined. I left feeling grounded, humbled, emotional, clear-headed, aching. My heart wanted to reach out and embrace every single one of those children. I don't know how to help yet, but as I watched the children bathing in the dirty bathwater of the river, I knew this would not be the last of Kampong Phluk for me.
I spent the following day traveling to Sihanoukville, a gorgeous town on the Cambodian coast. Plenty of party-seeking backpackers swarm to the center of town. After a long day of traveling, and plenty of thoughts racing through my head, I opted for Otres 2 Beach, a sleepy stretch of sand and hotels a few kilometers south. A perfect place for me to relax, think, read, and write.
While on the beach, local women and children approach foreigners, selling everything from fresh Aloe (which I got a hefty dose of after the unreal burn I got) to massages, pedicures to little bracelets.
A 10-year old girl named Yubin approached me early one day trying to sell me small string bracelets she made. I didn't buy any right away, but she stayed with me. She accepted my "No, thank you," but made me pinky promise if I bought anything, it'd be from her. I found this more endearing than alarming (though the "promise" thing is a classic way vendors reel you in). We played a few rounds of Tic Tac Toe in the sand, and after she hustled me (she's good), I thought she'd negotiate a sale in exchange. Still, no pressure. She asked me my favorite colors. Then she made me a bracelet on the spot with some colors I liked. Her little cousin walked up, too, and in classic little 9-year-old boy fashion, wanted to prove to me he could make a bracelet faster.
Yubin knew I didn't have cash on me, but she gave the bracelet to me anyway. Later on that afternoon, I found her on the beach again. I gave her $2 for the bracelets, and the sneakers and flip flops Reef sent with me on this trip. She was ecstatic.
I tried to continue partaking in the 141Initiative (the pledge to donate items similar to those I received from brands for this trip) while in Sihanoukville. Unfortunately, The Goodwill Center was closed the day I went to give the donation. I donated the rest of the clothing in the hotel donation box for them. The Goodwill Center didn't respond to my email - I left a note with the donations. Wish I could have met some of the kids, but I know they'll go to people who really need them.
After a week of falling head over heels for this amazing country and its warm people, it was time to move on. I'd read my next destination would be at once exciting, overwhelming, delicious, and rich in cultural heritage and tradition. Good morning, Vietnam.