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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A life less ordinary

A life less ordinary

Smith casts a fishing net from the floating bridge that connects his house to solid land. He had the pond excavated and built his dream house in the center. The gaps between the pontoons leading to the house keep at bay his most persistant enemy: ants.

F
inding David Smith in his adopted home outside of Battambang isn't

hard; he's the only foreigner for miles around and certainly the only idiosyncratic

American who provides half his village with fruit and vegetables.

Leonie Sherman tracked down the former surfer from California at his bamboo-and-rope

oasis of alternative living.

David Smith was jogging on the beach one morning in northern California when he came

across a Laotian fisherman.

From a distance, Smith watched the man haul in enough fish on a single line to fill

a 20-liter bucket.

"After I started hanging out with these Laotians, I realized that they don't

work. They hunt and fish and grow vegetables and pick mushrooms all day and eat the

best food America has to offer," he says with a grin. "Rich people in America

eat crap!"

The 35-year-old native of Humboldt County started hunting and gathering, passing

on a part of his catch to the crews he worked with as a contractor and landscaper.

"But after livin' off the land in the USA for a while, I realized that the only

thing I had to buy was rice."

So he moved to a place where he could grow it himself.

Landing a deal

In 1999, Smith took his first trip to Thailand.

"I ate some sticky rice, and I just thought, this is it, this is where I want

to be."

Nine trips later, he had roamed Thailand widely and even purchased some land, but

still couldn't decide where to settle. The north was too smoky from the burning of

rice husks, while southern Thailand felt overrun by tourists, and there wasn't enough

wildness for his liking.

In 2003 he made his way to Cambodia and fell in love with the land around Battambang.

On the back of a moto, Smith started inspecting plots of land within the "rice

bowl of Cambodia," looking to buy.

"When I first came to this land the soil was terrible," he remembers. "There

was a rickety old shack and this old woman came out, saying, 'Oh please, please buy

my land. I need the money so I can buy back my daughters.'"

Word had gotten around that a barang was looking for property in the area and during

his two-and-a-half month search for paradise, he'd been swamped with hard luck stories

from people desperate to make some money on their land.

"I didn't believe any of it anymore. But this thing about the daughters, that

was real deep."

He asked around and the neighbors in Yoan Katum village all confirmed the woman's

story: she had sold her two daughters, aged 15 and 17, for a total of $500 to a woman

from Phnom Penh.

Smith was puzzled why she didn't sell either of her cows if she was so strapped for

cash; they would bring about $500 each. He was told the woman's husband refused to

sell the cattle, preferring instead to part with his daughters.

"I had to go back to my hotel and think about that," Smith remembers. "I

didn't really want the land. I thought maybe it was bad luck, 'cause I saw what it

did to that family. But then I thought, well, maybe if I can turn it around, then

it will be good luck."

Smith returned the next day and offered the woman a deal: He would give her $700

up front, they would talk to the village chief and make sure everyone knew she was

selling him the land, and when she returned with her two daughters, Smith would give

her an additional $3,000.

"Two days later, she was back with the girls," Smith says. "I still

tear up when I think about it. One of the girls just cried for, like, four days straight.

They told me it was because her sister's skirt was torn, but she was probably sold

to a brothel. The younger one was sold to a furniture factory, but I bet the older

one was in a brothel."

The family took the money Smith gave them and bought another plot of land nearby.

The two daughters are now "just village girls, running around," and the

land has brought Smith some mighty good luck.

Home is where the pond is

Smith set about creating an oasis that could be imagined only by an ex-surfer from

California with an ex-hippie mom.

First, he showed up with two excavators and dug out a large pond that cools down

his property, allows him to swim when he feels like it, and provides abundant fish.

Then he hired villagers to help him build his house, starting with the stilts.

"It took a hundred dudes to haul each of those posts," he says, pointing

to the four sugar palm trunks, each about 10 meters tall, that support his two-story

house. "A hundred dudes! I paid them a dollar each."

There was plenty of work for the eager villagers, and Smith now has a core work crew

of about five.

"We would die for each other," he says, pausing during some muddy, heavy

labor to acknowledge his friends and employees.

They bought bamboo and built a spacious multi-level house with a heart-shaped, open-air

window that reaches about 15 meters above the pond.

It's an original "boys own adventure" design: a drawbridge over a moat

connects the property to the road, floating bridges made of woven bamboo link the

edge of the pond with a floating kitchen and then on to the house.

"It's all bamboo and rope," he says proudly. "There's not a single

nail or piece of plastic in that house."

Smith and his wife Sokhum. After a series of mild misadventures, Smith found that his water bottle full of cash buried in Thailand was not nearly as 'waterproof' as he thought. His money for the dowry was waterlogged and fetid, which left his dreams of matrimony in need of a serious cash injection.

Within months the dried, cracked land and rickety shack had been transformed into

a jungle garden paradise, with abundant fruit trees and vegetables.

Relations with the villagers were strained at first but have mellowed over time.

"Before I didn't have a job and now I work here, so it's good. David has a good

heart," says Ra, a member of Smith's core work crew.

The American is generous with the copious amounts of fruit and vegetables he grows,

selling some at local markets and giving away large quantities to neighbors.

According to Smith, villagers appreciate the food more than they do the employment.

"I never got any respect here until I started giving away food that I grew with

my own labor and hauled over to their houses in the heat of the day," Smith

says with a grin.

In the early days, villagers came to stare at the crazy barang, but as the land developed

they came to frolic in his gardens. They soon became a distraction and interfered

with his work, so Smith hatched a plan. He decided admission for a garden tour was

5,000 riel for each party, and gave the villagers the task of collecting the fee.

Any fee they collected they could keep. Their vigilance gradually led to a decrease

in the number of visitors.

Then one day, his future wife showed up.

Love actually

"She was not shy, she came right up and started talking," recalls Smith,

who was bowled over by the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

Unfortunately, she spoke Thai, and Smith didn't understand. Frustrated, she tried

Khmer, but that also failed to elicit a response.

"I recognized him but he didn't recognize me," says Sokhum, 24, who swears

she met him on the street a year prior in Battambang.

"We were having a big party to celebrate the one year anniversary of my grandfather's

funeral, and I tried to invite him," she said. "But he didn't understand."

So Sokhum left.

The next day Smith hired a moto driver and set off to find the beautiful woman. When

he finally located her family's house, they told him that she had left an hour before,

heading for Bangkok where she worked in a restaurant

"I thought, 'Oh great, she's a prostitute for sure,'" he admits. "But

I had to go see."

In Bangkok, he spent two days watching her cook and eating the food she prepared,

but he was still not convinced that such an attractive woman did not work in the

sex industry, or have a boyfriend.

So he made an unannounced visit one Friday night and was relieved to find her watching

television and eating snacks. One more visit was all it took - he was ready to marry

her.

After much wrangling, the girl's aunt agreed to let her return home to Cambodia,

and the couple's courtship began in earnest.

For their first date, Smith and Sokhum went boating on a nearby lake. A friendly

water fight ensued and other boats soon joined in. But the splashing quickly escalated

into a full-fledged affront, with weapons shifting from water-filled plastic bags

to sticks.

Smith was the main target and jumped in the water, hoping to draw the fire away from

the several young children who accompanied the dating couple in the boat. He yelled

at the driver to start the motor so they could get away, then jumped back in the

boat and took up his bow and arrow - which he carries with him most of the time -

to hold the crowd at bay.

The engine rolled over but refused to start.

The fight seemed over, but the moment Smith turned his attention away, a stick hit

him in the head.

"I picked up my bow and arrow and shot a bird arrow [which has a dull tip] at

the guy, and then another guy chucked a stick at my head," Smith says. He shot

another dull-tipped target arrow through that man's legs and readied a potentially

deadly razor-tipped arrow.

"This drunk guy started coming at me, yelling, 'Go on, shoot me,' in Khmer and

bearing his chest," Smith recalls with a shudder.

The man slogged towards Smith's boat through the shallow lake. Smith put down his

bow and arrow and took up his samurai sword - which he also carries with him most

of the time. He didn't want to shoot the drunk guy, but he needed to defend himself

if the man kept coming.

Before the drunkard could reach the boat, Sokhum dived into the water and grabbed

the man's legs to hold him off. The engine turned over, Smith dragged the bedraggled

Sokhum back into their boat, and they made a speedy getaway.

"That's when I knew she loved me," Smith says.

Getting hitched

Wedding negotiations are never easy, but when you don't speak the language and have

no relatives to help, the difficulties multiply.

Some people from Smith's adopted village agreed to represent him, and they met with

Sokhum's parents. Elders from both villages sat in to prevent any disagreements.

"Her mom opened up by saying 'I want seven grand,'" Smith says. "That's

just way over-the-top. The normal price for a wedding is, like, two grand. But I

said, 'How about if I give you eight grand - but no karaoke!'"

Sokhum's parents had a karaoke machine and planned to employ her as a waitress before

the wedding date, but Smith says he didn't want a wife who made money from her beauty.

Smith agreed to pay half the money on the spot, and set off for Thailand to retrieve

$4,000 he had buried at the corner marker of his property there.

He doesn't have much faith in banks.

"Those hard plastic Nalgene bottles are great," Smith says. "Totally

sturdy, waterproof, nothing's getting in there. You can fit about $12,000 cash in

a one liter bottle."

But when he went to dig up his stash, black water oozed out. A crack had formed down

the side - probably caused by his neighbor digging a new fence post nearby. When

he unscrewed the lid, "out came this big turd of the land title paper and all

my Thai and American money."

"So there I was on the road, with the tweezers from my medical kit, peeling

off bills and spreading them on the road to dry, just beside myself," Smith

says.

He managed to salvage about $600 in US dollars and 20,000 Thai baht. A Thai bank

told him it would take a month to approve the exchange of such dirty money, and he

realized he would have to go back to the States to cash the mangled dollars.

He returned to Cambodia empty-handed, and told his fiancee's family he would have

to return to the America to earn the money to marry Sokhum.

They were not impressed.

"They thought I had a bride in Thailand," says Smith with a laugh. "They

thought they would never see me again."

"I called Sokhum every day for four months to tell her I loved her," David

says. "My phone bill was $1,400! But when I got back she was skin and bones.

She had just stopped eating."

When he returned, cash in hand and ready to claim his bride, he met with another

dreadful surprise.

In his absence, and in preparation for what they hoped would be the wedding-party-to-end-all-wed-

ding-parties, Sokhum's family had milled all the rice Smith had grown over the past

year - two tons of it. His first crop of rice, the reason he moved to Southeast Asia

in the first place, had been claimed in an unannounced dowry.

"If I didn't love Sokhum so much I would have called it off right then,"

he says.

Smith will be eating someone else's rice for the next year, but he and Sokhum finally

married March 17, 2005.

Back to basics

"It's hard for my wife to be married to someone with no material aspirations,"

admits Smith.

"At first she really didn't want to live here. She wanted to live in a house

with windows, made out of wood. Now that she's been here for a while, she loves it.

She understands that this is a simpler and better way to live."

Sokhum certainly appears at ease with her new life, skipping nimbly from bridge to

floating raft, throwing herself gleefully into the water, fully clothed, and cooking

up elaborate feasts over an open fire.

It's the perfect marriage: a gardener and a chef.

Soon, the couple hope to open a "super-organic Khmer and Thai restaurant in

Cambodia" on their property.

While the newlyweds are learning to live together and neighborly relations are going

well, for the villagers of Yoan Kutum, David Smith will always be the slightly crazy

barang that lives on the pond.

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