The Meanderthals

On Ang’s slice of rural Cambodian paradise

Poverty is familiar turf for the On family, but Ang presides over his family with an air of wealth that would be the envy of many a western billionaire. He cultivates his family as he does his fields, feeding them with his love and attention as he does with the sustenance from his cows, chickens, ducks and fields of rice, oranges, limes and vegetables.

Ang’s is a life of one of sustainability, as married to the whims of nature as he is to his doting wife, who sees to the care and feeding of the extended family with attention typical of a Cambodian woman. Normally it’s Cambodian women who hold court in the household, and Som On’s mother is no slouch in that regard.

But it’s Ang who rules this particular roost, gently and firmly but clearly. He chides one of the countless children who come and go for failing to clean her feet before entering the first-floor living space of their raised-platform home in Prey Veng province, about 125 kilometers east of Phnom Penh. Clucking his tongue critically, he gently wipes the child’s feet clean with a cloth, and then dispatches her to have a seat and join in the feast that has been prepared in our honor.

You get the feeling that this man derives as much energy and lifeblood from his family as he does from thefood he works so hard to produce. And he is desperately, unshakingly proud of his wife, four daughters, two sons and countless relatives who buzz about constantly like busy bees around his welcoming hive.

As we appeared before his home today, our rented Toyota Camry awash with thick red clay from the muddy road which leads to their home off National Road #1, Ang emerged from his home to welcome us. Shirtless and shoeless, clad in a traditional krama wrapped around his narrow waist, his dark brown eyes twinkled as he greeted us, taking both of my hands and kissing them in a deep sign of respect. After greeting Gabi the same way, he invited us inside.

He said something to us in Khmer which stretched the limits of our ability to understand.
“Oh,” said Som On, interpreting for us. “My father want to know if you want to take shower.” Such is the condition of Cambodian hospitality. Every comfort is attended to; every chance seized to demonstrate welcome and deference.

We passed on the offer, instead walking through the house to ask about the countless portrait photos tacked onto the joists throughout. A gallery of family, each mottled with mold but proudly displayed in testimony to what matters most in this household.

We are guided around the property, harvesting oranges for lunch and shown ponds full of fish, fields full of rice, land waiting for the end of rainy season so vegetables may be planted.

There’s a gentleness about this, a welcoming introduction into a lifestyle that Ang and his family know is far from our mindset and from whence we come. Kindness is woven throughout, and we reveled in a wonderful lunch that, while challenged by language barrier, was warm, comfortable and enormous fun.

A tiny girl of five arrived on the scene, and it turned out to be Nimul, one of Ang’s countless grandchildren whom we had met before during a dinner party at our home.

She approached us, demonstrating a traditional Cambodian sampeh of respect with her tiny hands clasped before her face.“Chum reap suah baraing,” she said, at once belying the fact that her grandparents had forewarnedour presence by telling her, apparently that the “baraing,” or foreigners, were coming for lunch. It was meant to be a description that was not to be passed along for fear of offending us, but none was taken.

The ensuing laughter that her innocent snub caused was immediate, heartfelt and lasting, and the eruption of hysterics sent the poor child into a fit of embarrassment and tears that required a healthy dose of grandmother’s cuddling to put an end to it.

To be in the presence of such welcome hospitality, familial closeness and love was deeply humbling. Once again I was reminded that, as an educated, relatively well-off westerner, I have much to learn from these simple, kindly people.

There was constant idle chat, punctuated from time to time by someone’s recanting of Nimul’s “chum reap suah, baraing” welcome, followed by raucous laughter.

There was chicken from Ang’s farm in a delicious brothy soup, and spicy/salty fish which fleetingly amused my tastebuds but didn’t find a home on Gabi’s. An enormous snakehead fish – a staple of Cambodian fare – lay splayed on a platter, to be eaten with delicious mango salsa which Som On’s wife had set to making the moment we had arrived on the scene.

And rice. Tons of it, all of it from Ang’s current crop. Fresh rice is unlike anything I’ve tasted elsewhere. It’s good, really good…a bit nutty and with a distinct taste.

Som On’s wife’s parents showed up on the scene, rounding out the roster of an all-out familial bash. “Chum reap suah,” her mom said to me, followed by “oh, neak tom tom chran.” (Oh, you are so big.)

My shoulders being half again as wide as anyone else’s in the room and outweighing them all considerably, I took the remark as a statement of fact rather than a critical comment. It’s meant as would have been a remark that my shirt was blue, which it simply was. No harm, no foul.

She asked why I sat with my right leg extended, rather than sitting cross legged like everyone else. I tried, in my limited Khmer, to explain that my reconstructed right hip simply doesn’t tolerate the lotus position for more than a minute or two. She shrugged, seemingly validating her suspicion that baraing often do very strange things.

Ang and Som On stayed close to me throughout the day, ever vigilant but never imposing, making sure I was comfortable.

When we left, Ang gave us a bag of rice and one of fresh oranges. Gifts from the givers.  They walked us to the car, waved until we were out of sight, and returned to a life of peaceful togetherness in the remote fields of rural Cambodia.

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