Fireflies, smiles and an act of kindness

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The waters of the Kampot River lapped at the sides of our long-tailed boat as we made our way north in search of one of nature’s tiny nocturnal wonders.

The Kampot is full of fresh water in the river this time of year (in an interesting quirk of nature, the river running from Kep to Kampot and to the north is fresh water for six months, and salt water for the rest of the year), which means the phytoplankton aren’t in the water to offer passersby a
waterborne light show.

Not to worry. The fireflies are in charge of the night’s entertainment.

They light on certain types of trees – literally thousands of them – blinking their mating dance in simultaneous magic. To the east, the moon offers a phosphorescent hint behind low clouds. Lightning blazes across the hot skies, adding to nature’s show.

The boat skims the surface, and our driver kills the engine and we greet the stillness.

We drift towards shore, beneath the trees and the fireflies that adorn them. For the next hour, Gabi and I and three other guests of Les Mangueiuirs Lodge in Kampot were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime show whose simple beauty left us all speechless.

At one point we exit the boat, sinking to our ankles in thick, silty mud, and muck our way ashore to stand beneath a firefly-festooned tree. They literally envelope us as we stand gazing up, cupping an errant insect here and there to witness their bright lights close to our faces.

It was like standing inside a Christmas tree.

Khmer music played softly from a riverside restaurant somewhere up river, but only the fireflies’ light, the faint moonglow and the occasional bolt of lightning from afar interrupted the blackness where river met sky. As the moon rose, a faint grey glow illuminated the trees along the river, allowing one to distinguish the horizon from the river.

This experience topped a weekend full of wonders, as we took an extra day to savor the people, sights, sounds and food of Kep and Kampot. Just a four-hour bus ride south from Phnom Penh, this treasure trove of Cambodia offers easy access to sides of the country we’d not seen before.

Here are the remainder of our top 10 list (the fireflies won, hands down) of the weekend’s experiences:

2) Dinner at Kimly Family Restaurant. As our  new friend Dom recommended, the Kampot Pepper crab (succulent local crab with spicy pepper cream sauce) were good, but so were the pan fried shrimp with spices. A couple of beers and the even-present rice created a seaside feast with the ocean’s waves literally lapping at our feet. All this for under $20.

3) We rented a motorbike from the Kep Lodge on Sunday and set out in an unsuccessful bid to find the “swimming caves” somewhere about 30 km outside of Kep. After bouncing along past rice paddies, neighborhood markets selling sides of beef hanging in the searing sun and countless people who stared and smiled when we made eye contact, we stopped by the side of the road to give our backsides a break from the road’s assault.

While studying a makeshift map to chart a course back to Kep, three little girls appeared behind a chainlink fence, giggling and staring at us. We greeted them in Khmer, smiled, and they ran away.  A few minutes later, one of them reappeared with a fresh coconut in hand, accompanied by two straws and an enormous grin.

She offered it to us with a shy smile.

“Thlay poan maan?” (how much?) I asked, figuring she was the proprietor of the Cambodian
equivalent of a lemonade stand. She shook her head, handed over the coconut and quickly retreated to the safety of the gated yard, leaving us to ponder the generosity of three strangers under 10 years of age.

Gabi produced a package of chewing gum, and I offered it to the three of them through the fence. They nervously accepted it, each popping a piece into their mouths, and once again disappeared giggling and jabbering excitedly.

As we remounted our motorbike to be on our way, the girls ran to the front of the yard to wave goodbye, and we left, cooled by the sweet coconut juice and warmed by a completely random act of kindness by a little girl in the Cambodian countryside.

4) Sunday lunch at Breezes in Kep, where we sat at at oceanside table, looking through the mangroves at Rabbit Island and chewing on local fish and veggie wrap, chili/rum basted shrimp and pan fried calamari. And yes, the breezes did their thing, bringing cool relief from the middday sun. Dom had also suggested Breezes as the perfect lunch place, and once again he was spot on.

5) The local market at Kep, where on Sunday women haul huge crab traps from the ocean to sell in the market. Fresh Kampot peppercorns (I bought half a kilo, which should last us until 2017), native fish, squid, shrimp and more crabs than I’ve seen in once place since we were in Annapolis. The excitable jabbering of merchants and customers haggling over price makes for great entertainment.

6) There’s a huge white statute of a siren on the road that runs along the ocean in Kep, and while crusing the area on a motorbike Saturday we stopped to have a look and take a picture or two. There were a handful of other people there when we stopped, but within minutes a series of flatbed trailers trowed by motorbikes pulled up, jammed with people of all ages.

They were laughing and having a great time, and when I waved one of the young guys gestured that I should join them. I didn’t, as there was literally no way I could have fit on the flatbed, but they were stopping anyway so the offer became a moot point. They piled off and were instantly surrounded by street vendors selling plastic bracelets and toys, nd they stared at us as they walked by to access the promenade leading to the statue.

To return to their “taxis” they had to walk past us again, and we greeting them, smiled, and I produced the proven ice-breaker for situations like this – a camera. Most of them eagerly gathered in groups so I could snap a picture, then they would gather around to see the image and laugh, point and generally take delight in the seeing themselves in digital images.

This went on for some time, and when they’d all been photographed they piled ack onto the flatbeds to resume their trip.

It was without question one of the happiest moments I’ve experienced since being here, surrounded by complete strangers, laughing, trying to communicate, and sharing a few minutes of simple human contact.

7) Les Mangueirs Resort in Kampot, where riverfront bungalows lie nestled eneath palm trees. It’s secluded yet only a 15-minute tuk tuk ride from Kampot town; rustic yet lush; a great place for families or a romantic getaway.

Amazing. And for $22 a night, you get a private bungalow surrounded by rice paddies. Have breakfast in a cabana overhanging the river. The view alone is worth the $3 breakfast charge.

8) Motorbike ride. There’s a certain freedom that comes with renting a motorbike, and having now spent a few days seeing the countrysides in Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville on a steed of steel I can understand the allure that called Dom to spend three years on a Honda driving around the world. Paved roads, rutted trails and even footpaths are all accessible, and you can go at your own pace while choosing a direction.

People stare at two barang on a moto, and they smile when we wave. Children yell “hello” from the roadside, and mothers encourage their children to wave and speak to the strangers on a motorbike speeding by.

9) At first the waiter at the Kep Lodge seemed half asleep, as he tripped over his rudimentary English taking our breakfast order. After we had finished breakfast, though, he stopped by and made his presence felt as many Cambodians do – by hovering, waiting tableside for a chance to speak.

As we talked with him, we learned that he had recently been thrown out of his father’s house in Phnom Pehn and had retreated to his home in Kep. Having recently left the order as a Buddhist monk, he was unskilled, jobless and homeless. He moved home with his mother, a poor garment factory worker, and miraculously landed a job at the Kep Lodge, learning to wait on table, clean and provide customer service.

Hence his hesitations and awkwardness in taking our order. Soft spoken and halting almost to the point of being inaudible, he told his sad story ith typical candor and acceptance that makes these people so very compelling.

Lesson learned: Assume nothing about the people we encounter, for here was a kind soul who was a bit lost and desperately in need of a stranger’s kindness.

It was an easy gift to give.

10) And speaking of sad stories, we encountered our second Som On tuk tuk driver (the first being our driver and friend in Phnom Penh) who scooped us up at the bus station in Kampot, and who drove us around in Kampot and to the Kep Lodge on Saturday.

Turns out we were the only customers he’s had for the entire month of September, as this rainy season has proven abysmally slow for the tuk tuk business. Backpackers don’t fork over the $2 for a tuk tuk ride, he told us, so the $15 we paid him for a three-hour round-trip ride to the temple caves on Kampot’s outskirts would be the month’s top fare for him.

Soft-spoken, gentle, and incredibly accommodating (of the “whenever you need me, whatever the time”) variety, it was our pleasure to help end his month on a relatively lucrative note.

These are but some of the countless encounters with people and places that both warm and break our hearts and fill us with compassion while reminding us how incredibly fortunate we are.

They provide us with a sense of place, filling in the gaps of familiarity as we come to know our new home.

      2 comments

      • fbk

        You guys are truly seeing the country, as few Westerners ever will. A continuing treat for us back at home, actually a lush and romantic treat! The countryside always seems to bring you peace and serenity (despite the awful roads), and the people continue to delight you. As I’ve said before, I HOPE you’re keeping these posts as chapters of a book-yet-to-come …. a true on-the-ground account of living in another culture than one’s own ….fbk

      • Leo Fetiza

        Hi Frank and Gabi,I was with you on the bus going to Ho Chi Minh. Fortunately (for me), I was not with you on your way back to Phnom Penh when you were stranded.I can also relate with the excitement that both of you had during that firefly encounter at the Kampot River. It was really awesome and a moment to remember. It would have been perfect if my wife and kids were around. The ambiance was really unique that I consider it as the best place that I visited while working in Cambodia.It was a pleasure to meet you, knowing that after being accomplished both in career and family; you volunteered to work here in Southeast Asia instead of enjoying all of the pleasures that life has to offer. May you have more blessings in the years to come since you have been instruments in helping others.Good Luck and Godspeed!Leo, Liza, Gelo and Paulo Fetiza

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