On a muggy day in Siem Reap, we boarded the tuk-tuk of a now familiar driver — a kind, elderly man named Mr. Ny, who greeted us each morning with his signature broad smile beaming over hunched shoulders and a head bowed into his clasped hands. Mr. Ny, who had been driving us around the temples for half a week, was taking us on a different sort of adventure today. His rickety tuk-tuk bounced and wobbled, sputtered and coughed, splashed through knee-deep puddles, but it got us there. Along dirt roads outside Siem Reap’s southeastern reaches, we were approaching Tonle Sap when the air suddenly seemed to swell, distended as if to contain all that filled it. The view from the tuk-tuk
The squeals of children, delighted shrieks as they chased and were chased by playful dogs; the hollow clang of cowbells dangling from the necks of dusty off-white cattle, and the patter of listless herdboys leading cows from one pasture to the next; the roar of motorcycle engines kicking small puffs of dirt into the air; the rumble of cattle-drawn carts tumbling over hard red sand; a crackle, a smell, a brief sensation of heat from a twig fire; the chirping of baby chicks who scavenged around piles of discarded planks around homes; the near-deafening, monotone, shrill demented screeching of insects from deep within the wetlands… Here was agrarian life, raw and pure, hard and rural, all at once dusty and wet. It became wetter still as we approached the shores of the Tonle Sap. Here we boarded a motor boat that took us on an hour’s journey into the far reaches of the lake, carrying us onward to the floating village of Kampong Phluk. We passed a school, a police station, a community center — stilted buildings all, rising from the water eerie and still, like wooden flamingoes. Deeper into the heart of the village: dozens of stilted homes, some fashioned from bamboo and thatch, others from more sturdy materials, connected by alleyways that are waterways, Cambodia’s Venice. The motor boat docked and we climbed into a smaller, quieter, more nimble rowboat. We were taken through the aquatic roadways, just the two of us and the lady paddling our boat, watching life go by for fishermen and farmers, builders and children, mothers and teachers. Lulled into a fascinated sense of wonder, it felt as if we were once-removed from our surroudings, like we were there and not there, a vivid waking dream of a floating village in the middle of a vast lake. The sound of wood on wood: her oar knocks against the boat’s sides. That small splash as the oar enters the water, the low gulp as it makes its exit, the boat slithering through drifting mangroves, then wood on wood again. Surreal, there and not there. Hypnotic, mesmerising, the serenity pierced only by the incessant pleading of the oarslady: “Hello! Tip, tip driver! You tip! You tip, tip driver!” The double meaning of tip wasn’t lost on us, and the longer this churlish litany went on the more tempted we were to tip the entire boat over, which almost gave us the giggles, and despite assuring her repeatedly that yes, we would tip-tip her, the barked orders never ceased (and when we did finally tip her, she snatched the roll of bills, grunted disapprovingly, and paddled off to fetch her next fare). Before long we were back on the motor boat, chugging through the reeds on our way back to the shores of the vast lake where Mr. Ny was waiting, asleep in the hammock he’d strung diagonally across the back of his tuk-tuk. From Kampong Phluk we finished the day with a tour of a few more temples, those of the Ruluos Group, the very oldest of all the Khmer temple ruins. Mr. Ny is perhaps sixty years old. Decades at the helm of a motorcycle under the Cambodian sun have shriveled his face into a network of creaks and expressive cracks. His crow’s-feet reach almost to his ears. He wears no sunglasses; his eyes have habitually narrowed into thin slits from squinting into the sun. As we pulled up to the final temple we would visit, Bakong, Mr. Ny removed his helmet, looked up at the beguiling spires in the distance and said, “This one old”. As he said it, a peculiar look crossed his face. It was a look I thought I’d recognized the day before (when we had pulled up to Angkor Wat and he’d said “this one big”), but wasn’t certain. Now I was sure. A faint narrowing of his lower eyelids, a slight tilt of his head, a far-off look in his eyes, his lips ever so tightly pursed, and then the smallest curling upwards at the corners of his mouth, into something like the beginning of a smile. It was unmistakeable: it was the look of pride.
At Mr. Ny’s age, it is certain he remembers vividly the murderous horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the insidious genocide that swept across his country in the 1970’s, tearing families apart, removing a quarter of the population in a few short years. The Cambodia he knew before is one of hardship, fear, separation, poverty, exploitation, brutality… But it is just possible that when he gazes on the Khmer temple ruins, as he does every day of his life, he feels a sense of pride he can barely disguise. Among whatever else he feels, I like to think he is looking at what Cambodia once was, and feels hopeful — perhaps — about what Cambodia can aspire to be. And there’s a lesson in this for all of us.