Living in Phnom Penh – with its easy supply of good coffee, air conditioning and (relatively smooth) tarmac roads – it’s easy to forget that a 30-minute drive beyond the city limits will take you into the sparsely populated, poor, but stunningly beautiful Cambodian countryside.
Last week, a Cambodian friend mentioned that he’d built a tree house near his village in Kampong Cham. A friend and I immediately decided we had to go that weekend, as we were impatient to breathe clean air, connect with nature and take a step into rural Cambodia.
The three-hour journey on motos over pot-holed roads and dust tracks provided neither fresh air, nor relaxation, but eventually, mud-smeared and with our vital organs jumbled, the three of us dismounted in a quiet clearing in front of a mango orchard along the Mekong.
Ten metres above our heads sat the thatched tree house of my childhood imagination. Dropping our bags and not stopping to take much else in, we scrambled up the bamboo ladder, changed quickly into our Mekong swimwear then raced into the cool water of the river.
Refreshed, we padded barefoot back along a sandy path where our feet sent up clouds of dust like cocoa power.
Back at the tree house, it was turning to dusk and we realised that there was no running water, electricity or kitchen. Instead of hardships it felt like relief. A local villager built a fire in a small terracotta stove and other farmers, friends of tree-house owner Boner, brought fish from the river, rice and mangos, tomatoes and fresh, fiery chili.
More men arrived along the winding trail, the lamps on their motos lighting their arrival. They brought cases of beer and huge blocks of ice which we smashed into jagged cubes with a stick and dropped into cups we’d fashioned from water bottles with their tops cut off with a knife. We talked late into the night and the next morning I marvelled at how much fun you can have with only nine shared words.
My Khmer now covers the essentials: numbers one to five, thank you, hello, good-bye and bottoms-up.