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Cambodia Surprise


Blog Post 3 in a series of responses to a Cambodia visit

Sovann Neth drives slowly through puddles on a Cambodian dirt road. A local staff member of World Renew,* he is guiding us (three North Americans) through rural Cambodia.  In a clearing amid rice fields a woman squats on a reed mat, scooping rice into a large plastic bowl. Sovann explains that the rice has been spread on the mat to dry. She is probably gathering it because of the rain clouds looming in the distance.

I already have a photo of the rice fields, but not of rice processing. “Oh . . . could we take a picture?” I ask.

“I will check,” Sovann says.

We stop and exit the ancient Lexus that World Renew has rented for our trip. Its air conditioning works well. Its driver-side visor does not. When our trip began, it dropped in front of Sovann every 10 seconds. During a fuel stop an hour ago, my engineer husband Marlo taped it up to the window-top and the rear-view mirror. So far, the tape is holding.


We step a


round the mud, and when we reach the clearing, our skin is already wet with sweat.

In Khmer, the language of Cambodia, Sovann asks permission to take photos. The woman smiles shyly and nods. She stops moving and looks at the camera. I want an action shot, so I ask her to keep working. Sovann translates.

As she squats, scoops rice into a basket, and then pours it into a large, two-layer paper sack with the motions of long practice, we snap photos. When just a smattering is left, she bends the mat and pours the remaining rice seeds into the sack. I don’t see a grain fall to the ground.

A barefoot man watches us from the edge of the rice field. A few women stop working and gaze from the open porch with a dirt floor.  I wonder if we are their first-ever Caucasian guests.

Sovann greets the women, spots a drum amid a pile of crumpled blankets on the platform bed, and thumps it a few times. The man smiles, walks over, moves the blankets. To my surprise he uncovers a guitar, then an electronic keyboard, then another keyboard.

We ask if he will 




 for us and he obliges. He plugs the keyboard into an outlet on the bare-wood wall, pushes a few buttons, and a rhythmic beat of drums and cymbals begins.

The rice safely gathered, the woman carries the sack to the house and joins us, and along with the other women. She motions us toward the plastic chairs, and we sit. The Cambodian adults squat comfortably on 

a raised platform bed. A few children stand in front of them.

The beat of this music is like that that from my husband’s keyboard in North America, but when our host starts to play, the haunting melody is totally Asian—in a minor key, but cheerful. We all smile and listen. Together, we move to the beat.

When the music 


ends, Sovann converses with the musician in Khmer. Then he answers the question we have been too polite to ask. Our host is the village musician. He plays for gatherings, parties, and weddings.

As the instru

ments are put away, I see standing behind me an ancient woman with a sun-leathered cheeks and a sunken mouth. I gesture toward my camera and hold it up with an inquiring look. She understands my body language and nods. I click a few times and show her pictures.

She smiles and then puts her hand in front of her face in a typical Cambodian gestur. Her fingers cover a mouth empty of teeth, but her cheeks, still visible, crinkle with deep lines of delight.

As I respond across cultures, my cheeks crinkle too.


                                                                                                Carol Van Klompenburg writes blogs somewhat regularly at