A world away in the province

The rusty ferry moaned,  thick smoke bellowing from its smokestack into the air over the Tonle Sap River as it shuddered away from the river bank. My fellow passengers gawked at me – a baraing in lycra, leaning against his mountain bike in stark contrast to the Toyota Camrys, motorbikes and tuk tuks on the ancient vessel. 
 
I was the only non-Camboadian on board – a grain of rice among raisins – and I stood out like the bulky mass of foreigner that I am.

It’s a 15-minute ride from Phnom Penh to the piece of Kandal Province that stands between the Tonle Sap and its northwestern voyage and the mighty Mekong, which heads off to the northeast. And once you step off the ferry onto the tiny spit of land, you could as easily be hours from the city. It’s a world away from the bustling streets of the city, a place where life remains simple and quiet.

This is a 12.5-cent ride to the middle of nowhere; a place where you can get lost without losing your way. I’ve made the trip a couple of times to get out of the city, away from the traffic and into the country. Till Sunday, though, I’d not experienced the truly rural side of the island, which is even further from the crush of people separated by the currents of the Tonle Sap.
 
Rather than taking my customary left at the fork in the road just off the ferry landing, on Sunday I went to the right. In minutes, the sandy road had shrunk to a motorbike path – bumpy singletrack strewn with rocks, potholes and occasional steaming piles of cow dung. I rode past tiny shops, where people sold gasoline in liter-Pepsi bottles and half-naked children ran to the road, waving to the big baraing on a bicycle, their tiny greetings of “hello” echoing as I breezed along.
 
What passed as a village abruptly ended, and I found myself on a cattle path about a foot wide, and in the middle of papaya groves and rice paddies. To my right, the Tonle Sap lapped the shores, and an enterprising rice farmer had run a four-inch PVC pipe inland to irrigate his fields. I eased over the pipe, which was half-buried in the sand, and wound my way along the rutted path, past two cattle led by a grinning Cambodian man. A horse appeared from the brush, running wild onto the path in front of me. It spied me, took a look, kicked up its heels and sped away.
 
I stopped to drink in the scene and surround myself in its silence,. Suddeny, I was surrounded by hundreds of dragonflies that buzzed and darted about. In the distance, I could near monks chanting,
their monotonous drone piercing the silence. A motorbike approached me from behind, and I pulled to the side of the path to allow two women to glide by.

I smiled, greeting them with a “Susadaye” hello. The woman on the back of the moto smiled, revealing a row of glistening gold teeth, and clutched an enormous rice sack full of vegetables as they bumped along the path.
 
Looking up, I noticed the grey clouds had turned ominous, and as happens here rain quickly followed a human’s realization that a storm was drawing near. The dirt path instantly turned to mud as the deluge quickly worked up to full speed, and I needed to focus to remain upright as I slipped and slid my way along. I was soaked within seconds, and sand and mud caked my legs and flew into my face from the front wheel as I wound through the fields and scrub brush.
 
(Note to self: invest in fenders, and soon.)
 
I must have been quite the sight: a big grinning baraing, red-clay-covered and dripping wet, sliding along a muddy path alongside locals making their way to and from the field, the markets, their homes. 
 
I came up on a rice field, where four elderly women crouched beneath rattan hats, as oblivious to the rain as was I – singular in our respective pursuits on a Sunday afternoon: me, for some fun, relaxation and exercise; they, to tend their crucial source of food and income. The contrast struck me as I left them
behind.
 
The rain stopped as quickly as it started, and the sun beat a quick return to bake the wet ground. The heat quickly replaced the rainwater on my back with a fresh coat of sweat.  I reached the island’s end – pointing south, noting the Mekong to the left, and the Tonle Sap to my right.

Decision time: should I retrace my steps, or find a new way back? No question about which to choose, and as I continued along I tried to recall what time the ferry service ended. Quaint as the island is, it’s no place to spend a Sunday night.

On a tiny piece of land as small as this, all roads eventually lead to somewhere meaningful, and within 20 minutes I found myself at the ferry station. Filthy, hot and sweaty, I stood in line with the motorbikes, cars and people, most of whom gave me more than a passing glance. Once again I was the only non-Cambodian in the mix, towering above most, wider than any, and dressed in clothes most of them wouldn’t wear in the dark. Pajamas are OK; lycra is a mystery.
 
A ride like Sunday’s reminds me how simple and rural Cambodia remains. Pristine and quiet, peaceful and safe, Cambodia’s provinces offer its inhabitants what many of us long for: community, safety, support, friendliness. Phnom Penh loomed ominously as the ferry made its way back across the river,
carrying people with their loads of vegetables, silks and wares, all on the way from the peaceful tranquility to the city’s streets.
 
There is a living to be made, hours to be spent selling, cooking and serving, before they would work their way back to the ferry, pay their 12.5-cent passage fee and once again cross the river to a rugged homelife that from an outsider’s perspective seems simply perfect.