Returning from a trip to the men’s room, my gaze fell across the crowded floor at the launch of Velvet Nights, a tony new night club on Phnom Penh’s Riverside. It was an event hosted by Cambodia’s top models from Sapors modeling agency, and tall, leggy, dark-haired beauties were a dime a dozen. It was impossible not to rotate your head and scan the room full of gorgeous women.
What caught my eye, though, was an exceptional woman with blonde-tipped hair, a warm smile framing deep brown eyes and a form-fitting black evening dress creating an understated yet powerful presence that’s always had a profound effect on me.
Sometimes in this world we are given the gift of fresh vision, a new look at a familiar face, place or situation. If we take the time, we see the inherent beauty and magic in someone or something we know so well and may have grown accustomed to.
And like a soft coating of new snow, a fresh look adds softness, beauty and luster to the hardtack of that which may have become familiar. It’s easy to take something precious for granted; it’s far more gratifying to renew a vow to someone or something you hold dear. To take stock, assess. Appreciate.
So as I stood across the bar from Gabi, watching her interact with the wife of a colleague, smiling, chatting, to my eyes and heart she was the most beautiful and compelling person in the room. And I realized, once again, how fortunate I am to have such a woman by my side – and in a place that so mesmerizes, intrigues, stimulates and at times confounds me.
Two days ago, shrugging off the latest of stomach ailments that seem part of the turf here, I took advantage of a day off from work and rented a mountain bike to head off in the early-morning heat to once again probe the remote villages of Kandal Province. It’s a 20 minute ride over the Japanese bridge but it’s a world away from the city separated from rural Cambodia by the Tonle Sap river.
I rode for two hours along dusty roads and through tiny villages where children rushed to greet the baraing (foreigner) passing by, sweating and grinning, their tiny voices chasing after me with their relentless ” hellos.” There, an old woman sat in a doorway, her torso and shaved head framed by the portal in the morning light, her soulful eyes boring into mine as I rode by slowly. Here, a young woman squatted before a bowl of water, washing vegetables for the mid-day meal. She raised her head when she heard the approaching bicycle, made direct and deep eye contact, and gave me one of those incomprehensibly beautiful Cambodian smiles that is welcoming, compelling and makes one’s heart soar.
Ahead, a group of men labored by the side of the road, digging in the sun-baked earth for reasons that I will never know. It was too close to the road to plant anything; too far from a home for it to be an expansion project. But it was an earnest and collaborative effort of some significance, judging from the looks of consternation on their faces.
I heard a vehicle approaching from behind me and edged to the side of the road to allow it to pass. A grinning Cambodian man on a motorbike eased by, pulling a ramoque (sort of a flatbed trailer) piled high with bloody cow bones. He pulled to the left and off the road, into a small gated corral where a six-foot pile of bones awaited his contribution.
The stultifying heat of 9 a.m. combined with the persistent dust can wear a cyclist down, so I sought the shaded refuge of a waterside track that I know. Here, cows often block paths and chickens, ducks and children scurry about, making one proceed with caution along the tight corners and bumpy trails. I came across three children collecting fruit from a tree and they turn, startled, then waved and grinned as I sped by.
Many of the villagers are Vietnamese families living off the fish from the Tonle Sap and vegetables from the rich land along its banks. I rode through vast fields of cilantro, the pungent scent permeating the air as I rolled by.Rice paddies, mango and papaya plantations and corn and melon patches lie shoulder to shoulder with mounds of trash and garbage, and plastic bags are strewn everywhere. This is a country with a serious plastic addiction, and evidence of the habit is everywhere.
Crossing through a Muslim village I passed women shrouded with burqas hurrying their children out of the path of the approaching foreigner on a bicycle. I made visual contact with one, and as our gazes met I saw the smile in her eyes through the slit in her facial covering. I rode north to the new flyover bridge linking the east side of the river with the west, climbing over the bridge’s crest to freewheel onto National Road 6a, turning south into Phnom Penh.
I was instantly enveloped by noisy trucks and motorbikes, swirling dust from passing buses, street sounds from markets and sweet sounds of suburban Cambodian life. It’s muffler less trucks to the left bellowing exhaust and giggling children to the right, playing kick the sandal in the dusty side streets. More contrasts, side by side. The density of houses – and their construction – changes dramatically once you cross the bridge, and you get a sense that the modern Cambodia lacks much of the charm, grace and dignity that the rural poor enjoy.
The constant, though, is the attitude of the people. Engaging, warm, open, welcoming. Smiling faces, everywhere.
The ride back into Phnom Penh is about 45 minutes along heavily trafficked roads, and I elicited stares, smiles and more than a few waves as I pounded my way along. I coughed, my lungs feeling the effects of the road’s dust, and doused my head with water to stave off the heat as the sun rose higher in the sky.
I smile. I look around.
Like viewing my wonderful, beautiful wife anew from across the floor of an upscale Phnom Penh nightclub, I see Cambodia with fresh eyes.
And as I contemplate her beauty, charm and very special people, places, customs and qualities, I once again fall in love with my new home.