Smiles from nowhere

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

SHARE THE LOVE: 'Thank you for your smile,' a monk told us. 'If you give your smile, it makes the world better and spreads peace.'

Cambodia is the place where, for the first time, I really cursed the world of technology.

It began on a surprisingly smooth minibus ride from the capital, Phnom Penh, towards Battambang - the second-largest city in the country, and I wished my eyes were able to take a photo every time I blinked.

Was that too much to ask?

Instead, my camera groaned under my attempts to capture every second of the dynamic country as we zoomed through traffic at what felt like an average speed of 140 kilometres an hour.

The postwar history of the "Land of a Thousand Smiles" tends to prompt a grimace rather than a grin - but that's changing.

The nation was at least 30 years behind the rest of the world, I'd been warned, thanks to the Khmer Rouge role in a civil war that crippled it. Like the beautiful lotus flower, which grows like a weed across the countryside, the country is reopening itself to the outside world.

The 300km journey between Phnom Penh and Battambang is not the most popular of journeys for tourists: they tend to fly 45 minutes to Siem Reap, home of the famous ruins of Angkor Wat.

We stopped at a silversmith village, filled with the most intricate silver creations; where adorable children ran from their huts clutching trays of jewellery and ornaments. Other family members busily hammered away, barely looking up as they knocked out another elaborate design.

There is a certain level of satisfaction in handing over a couple of US dollars to a small child in a village off the beaten tourist trail. In a country known for corruption which filters down from the government to street level, parting with a few greenbacks to the person you just witnessed creating the item leaves one with a great sense of economic satisfaction.

Pottery manufacturers in Kompong Chhnang, tucked away in lush country like the set of Platoon, are also worth a deviation.

Rural Cambodians have the most novel common sense about them, as if, after being knocked down through their civil war, they've jumped back to their feet, dusted themselves off and kept going. Immensely resourceful and impossibly polite, even the most sheltered Cambodian has a basic grip on English and will bend over backwards to have you witness their lives.

Once in the country's northwest, it becomes obvious Battambang city is less than used to visitors. Centred around a busy food market and a nondescript river, the city boasts one major hotel, a handful of backpacker accommodation - and one rather luscious French boutique hotel called La Villa.
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The smattering of French colonial architecture is a pleasant surprise, and suspends visitors in a sort of time warp.

On a rusty bike, the town really comes alive: riding along the Sangker River to Wat Slaket pagoda, the residence of the provincial Buddhist patriarch, was a highlight of the trip. There we met a 12-year-old monk and his mother, who gave him to the monastery to ensure he had a better life. His haunting gaze was a window into a wise soul.

We also met an older monk who beamed the famous Cambodian smile. "Thank you for your smile. I give you my smile too. It is important to give your smile to people. If you give your smile, it makes the world better and spreads peace," he told our group.

My eyes prickled with tears, which mixed with sweat from the bike ride in the searing heat to make a salty tang on my lips.

Cycling enabled us to inhale the smells of the countryside and wave at the children who would run to the roadside to practise their English. "Hello, hello," they yelled, with the odd "bonjour" thrown in.

We heard the noises of wedding celebrations and soccer wins, funeral dirges and loudspeaker entreaties for donations to the local monastery.

A couple of days later we walked through the village of Kompong Khleang, about an hour from Siem Reap. This community, again off the beaten trail, is home to more than 20,000 people who live in enormously high stilt houses and make a living from fishing.

Children screamed welcome from high up in their homes which, when the monsoon arrives, will have water lapping at their doorstep and fishing lines cast from their windows.

Despite the remoteness of the village, cellphone towers loomed overhead. Landlines are like hen's teeth and the country has adopted mobile technology to the extreme - nine mobile phone companies compete to provide services to a population of 15 million.

Near Siem Reap we visited the Khmer silk village of Phnom Srok or "the little hill" and watched over the shoulders of women who weave intricate silk scarves. We witnessed the silk production line - from silkworms on a mulberry tree leaf to the finished product - by visiting each family responsible for one of the five steps in the process.

Stepping outside the comforts of the minivans was, in short, experiencing the country - rather than just passing through and ticking the boxes of the major tourist spots.

And it made for a moving and unforgettable adventure.

* The writer travelled courtesy of Adventure World, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair and Bangkok Airways.



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