These villages are hidden among the thousands of islands scattered throughout the vast waters of the Mekong. The Mekong River runs through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, providing life and sustenance to millions of people. The Mekong’s waters can range from a pale blue to a light mud brown to a deep reddish-brown depending on several factors. These versatile waters remind me of the continual changes in both my life and my perspective. Our experiences change like the seasons. This results in a constant transformation of views, beliefs and perspective. For this I am forever thankful as stagnancy is for the boring, the ones who pretend to be content, the ones who fight change even until their final breath.
After a grueling day-long bus ride, a night in a questionable guest house and the essential iced coffee with sweetened-condensed milk it is time to embark. The trip must be completed by boat. This boat is probably not the sleek and safe boat upon which many of us have willingly embarked. Rather, it is a long and narrow weathered wooden contraption filled with ants, splinters, and holes. The motor is in the stern where the captain can be seen balancing, navigating, and most often smoking. Throughout the ride we take turns grabbing anything we see to scoop out the water that quickly fills the floor of the boat. There are no life jackets, no emergency whistle, no Coast Guard to call if things go wrong. I cannot help but recall an article I read a few years ago. The Mekong is home to the world’s largest freshwater fish – the giant catfish which grows up to 660 pounds.
Upon arrival at the island of choice the captain soon becomes a navigator of another sort. After quickly but carefully tying up his main source of income and pride he grabs an ax, a machete and another cigarette from his shirt pocket and we set out through the jungle. The atmosphere changes in a heartbeat. Suddenly we are completely surrounding by luscious foliage. The air is dense but pure. The sounds are soothing; the vegetation containing. It is incredibly loud and I wish I could record every chirp, every croak to remember its harmony forever.
We reach our destination smiling and drenched - the village on Koh Preah, or Island of God. The ruddy red roads are in striking contrast to the otherwise lush, green surroundings. The village is located along the river. I do not know if the purpose of our jungle excursion was to make our welcome unforgettable or merely to avoid a certain area of the river which made it impossible to dock the boat near the village during this unpredictable flood-prone season.
At first glance the village does not disappoint. The bus ride, that could be better described as the roller coaster ride from hell, and everything else it took to get to this island from another time, was totally worth it. The pigs are rooting in the dirt while roosters are pecking at the ground belting out half-hearted crows that seem to stop midway. Are they simply too tired to complete the sentence? The children are much shyer than the city children. They are unaccustomed to unfamiliar, and especially white, faces. Their faces are grimy, their round brown eyes bright, their hellos animated and paired with smiles, their clothing consists of dirty and frayed partial school uniform and partial hand me down from anyone nearby.
The shacks built on stilts are spread out. I am not sure how many there are but all within walking distance. The buildings are sagging, the tin roofs rusted and often a board or tree is thrown on top to keep it in place. Each family has a table beneath their home and hammocks hanging down. Many of the families have a variety of animals outside, mostly chickens. The occasional “wealthy” village member has a pig or some oxen for plowing. Foliage is invading everything, but it is a welcome invasion. It provides a bit of relief from the extreme heat and harsh rain.
Every person offers a smile, cautious yes, but genuine. Life abounds here. Everywhere I turn I see large spiders, chicks pecking, massive banana flowers, sugar palms, coconut trees, delicious food, oxen plowing small rice fields, monks, and children in white shirts and blue pants or skirts. It is startling to see these kids so far from anywhere, dressing and scampering just like the rest of the country’s children. Though they may be without basic sanitation, reliable income, food, transportation and many other necessities, they are innocent and they are free. Their smiles do not bely poverty or any deficiency at all. They in fact seem more carefree than many children that have much more.
I meet Lim Sovannary, one of the village leaders. She is beautiful, in her tailored pants and high heels, a red and white striped beanie on her head. We share warm smiles. She sees visible areas on my neck and arms that have deep red bruises leftover from my recent “culture embracing experience.” Coining, similar to cupping, is a common remedy used throughout East Asia to cure many different aches and pains. It is painful, but it was worth the experience. Nary is speechless for a moment and then her face fills with joy. A barang (foreigner) who chooses to participate in local customs or even just speak a bit of the language is soon an insider here. She then cups my face in her callused brown hands and tells me I am beautiful (in Khmer, she speaks no English). Her smile alone is contagious. The rest of my time here I know I am one of the family. In a collectivist culture there is no hand-shaking and required small talk to build a relationship. You can make eye contact with and talk with anyone in this country without getting strange looks. But when you become a part of the family, there is nothing that family will not do for you.
Sleeping on the only bed in the wooden shack on poles (or below the shack on the hammock where it’s cooler), I consider where I am and who I am. These incredible people with no possessions, no savings, no “Western” hope for the future have more to give than I. They offer all that they have, the only bed, the only blanket. They prepare the finest food with the care of a brand new mother. They aim to please and do not fail.
Here I find humility, strength and courage. I find once again, that anytime you go somewhere or do something to “help” someone else it is usually you that ends up becoming stronger. It is usually you who receives the help.
Once again we board the dilapidated boat with our trusty navigator. On this return journey the magnitude of the river is difficult to ignore. The sky is incredibly deep, moody even. The clouds are potent. The colors are intense. Here the endless water and colorful sky meet. There is a vastness that takes my breath away and reminds me of my smallness. At some points I could look out without seeing the opposite shore. Sometimes we all must drawn in a sharp breath and remember our humanity. We must be reminded that it is better to give than to receive. We must somehow relearn that a smile is more valuable than gold; that friendship and genuineness outlast any material things. Yes, even your precious iPhone 5.