The serene city of Battambang, Cambodia was quickly fading in the rear-view mirror of our $8 motorbike rental. My friend, Janna, and I took turns randomly shouting “left, right, straight!” reveling in our quest for the apex of authenticity and charm sure to be at the end of an “undiscovered” dirt road. I imagined stumbling upon Cambodia’s signature simple, shaded, platform restaurants where guests lounge in hammocks overlooking an idyllic lake. Confident we would be rewarded for our adventurousness, I sped up ever so slightly as I envisioned freshly caught fish in spiced coconut milk and a cold Angkor beer dripping with condensation.
We had been in Battambang for several days documenting the country’s budding art revival, and were finally blessed with a day off to explore the area sans bulky camera equipment. When traveling in Cambodia, a sense of humor and an appreciation for ingenuity is vital. This war ravaged country is still getting back on its feet after decades of instability, but you wouldn’t know it from talking with the people who nearly unanimously exude friendliness and quiet fortitude.
Most known for the mesmerizing circus show at Phare Ponleu Selpak and the delightfully inventive Bamboo Railroad, Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city. However, the sleepy feel and the enthusiastically welcoming local population made it seem much smaller. After spending the morning learning how to make a few of our favorite dishes of local cuisine at Nary’s Cooking School, and consequently stuffing ourselves to near capacity, we were itching to get out on our own and explore.
“Straight!” Janna called out cheerfully as I steered our motorbike expertly through an intersection not far out of town. “No! Wait! Baby Crocodiles!” I had just enough time to see the handwritten sign proclaiming that anyone with $2 USD could hold a baby crocodile before we zoomed past it. Not one to ever pass up such an opportunity, a quick u-turn and a short drive down a red dirt alleyway led us to farm guarded by a pack of tiny puppies.
A friendly, unhurried woman guided us up a steel staircase to a walkway overlooking several large concrete holding cells filled with hundreds upon hundreds of small crocodiles. With each tank we passed, the wriggling bodies got smaller and smaller until we stopped above some who appeared quite manageable. She fished out a beautiful little specimen who appeared to be just waking up from a nap. Despite its diminutive size, I could feel powerful muscles beneath smooth scales. “It can bite your finger off,” the woman informed us, smiling. I handed it back.
We were then led to where the full grown crocodiles were kept and I realized that dinosaurs are still very much alive and well on planet Earth. Over a hundred massive armored beasts dozed in the blazing heat. All was still until our guide poked a few of them with a long stick, whereupon they crawled over each other to escape into the pool, getting in vicious fights along the way. In another holding tank, a pair of crocs contended over their favorite meal-decaying snakes. This display, though quite unappetizing to see, reminded me it was time to continue our own search for the hidden countryside gem we were seeking.
With a wave goodbye, we were off once more into the unknown. Narrow roads took us on a hot, dusty journey where busy markets and hotels gave way to homes selling items from their yards and rice paddies reflecting the cloudless sky. It was marvelous. After a while, I glanced back at Janna and gave the international signal for “let’s get some beer”. She nodded earnestly, but the previously ubiquitous red Angkor beer signs were nowhere to be seen.
Quite some time later, when buildings of any kind were few and far between, we spotted a small red sign in front of an unkempt shack. Not exactly what we had imagined, but I parked and cheerfully called into the darkness. A mostly naked man emerged slowly tying on a dirty sarong. He eyed us incredulously as we pointed toward the sign and mimed drinking. “Two Angkor beers please,” I said in Khmer, one of the few phrases I knew along with “thank you”, “sorry” and, “hello, how are you.”
“No Angkor,” he huffed, but after rummaging in an old cooler came up with two lukewarm cans of a beer we had never seen before or since. He handed us these in exchange for $1 and stumbled back inside.
We stood in the brutal sun sipping already warming beers. Sweat streamed from every pore while our dream of paradise wilted. Then we heard a call from the home across the street where a few smiling women motioned us over.
As we walked towards the small wooden house, an old woman creakily got up from her seat and waddled over to a chair just vacated by a younger woman. I watched the strange game of musical chairs until I realized they were making room for us on a bench. We protested meekly but allowed ourselves to be guided down. It was 20 degrees cooler in the shade and I felt a bit of life seep back into my body.
At first I was wary, conscious that we had just bought something from a neighbor, perhaps a competitor. Yet as the minutes passed I realized they had offered their home and shade to us for no reason other than kindness. This thoughtfulness toward strangers was unexpected and touching. Our languages were different but a camaraderie quickly developed through smiles and knowing nods.
Soon a small school aged boy was pushed forward to stand in front of us. A quiet muttering and a poke at the boy from the nearest woman prompted what seemed to be an oft-practiced speech now used practically for the very first time: “Hel-lo! How… are… you?” (The women hold their breath) “I’m well, thank you. How are you?” I replied. “Fine, thank you,” he answered breathlessly, almost in shock that this ploy actually worked. The women let out their breath and smiles erupted all around. This seemed to be the extent of the boy’s English, but everyone was quite proud.
We finished our drinks and reluctantly rose to leave. The whole group, which had somehow grown to a crowd without my realizing it, stood and waved us off. I had found my diamond in the rough: not in a scenic photo-op to share online, but in a wordless connection in the cool shade of unconditional hospitality.