A Retrospective: Chi Phat, Cambodia

In 2014-15, I lived nearly two months in a village in Cambodia, volunteering for the ecotourism project in Chi Phat. My duties included training the guides in techniques for interacting more effectively with tourists. I loved daily life in this isolated place, where I made many friends and taught myself to speak a little Khmer.

Milk fruit

A day in Chi Phat village.

I want to say “a typical day”–but really, there’s no typical day for me in Chi Phat. It usually starts with a bicycle ride, but then anything can happen.

At 6:00 AM I’m out for my morning ride. When I pass Veasna, a former cycling guide, I invite him to join me. He declines, saying he just finished jogging (I doubt that) and besides, he doesn’t want to wear out the chain on his bicycle.

Dogs in the village

I keep going, observing village life. Dogs everywhere, sitting on the dirt road, sitting in the ashes of fires, sitting on house steps, sitting on each other, assessing the happenings around them. Chickens waiting until the last moment to dash out in front of me. Crowing roosters; bloated water buffaloes chewing grass. Cows clanging their bells as they plod to the fields. I weave around the beasts, hoping one doesn’t jerk his sharp-horned head or let loose a projectile plop. Kids in school uniforms heading for class on bicycles. People huddled in their jackets and hats around fires of leaves and branches. I’m in a T-shirt.

Cows everywhere

I pedal along, enjoying the rising sun shining through the coconut palms.

After twenty minutes, I’m at my turn-around spot, with fields on both sides, strange birds grazing and perching. So quiet.

The popular lady who sells nom

I head back. More people are out and a few two-wheeled motos pass me. I look for the lady who sells nom, the steamed banana leaf-wrapped cakes of rice mixed with coconut milk, enclosing nut paste or bananas. I like them for breakfast.

My favorite haang bai, or restaurant where I get duck egg soup

Alas, I find no nom lady. After getting back to my room and taking a bath, I go to the local haang bai for breakfast consisting of rice, duck egg, and cucumber soup.

Then I visit my second Cambodian son, Rat. He lives in a small wooden house on the prImary school yard with his wife and three children. He makes me walk into a classroom of kids. He tells me I must speak Khmer. The teacher has no idea who I am. The kids all pop up from their seats and stand while I’m there. I speak in Khmer while I see Rat through an open window having a good laugh.

Rat’s precocious three-and-a-half-year-old daughter whines a couple thousand riel out of her father so she can go buy nom. She easily charms him and runs off by herself to buy her snack.

His wife invites me for dinner that night. I accept.

I hang out at the visitor center for a while, chatting with another traveler, then go to the coffee shop for a Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk over ice. Alistair from England shows up and takes me across the street to meet a teacher that he knows. Her name means “millionaire.” I see Savin, my first Cambodian son, and he tells me he’s taking a visitor to Andoung Tuek by moto.

I sit at the local pub and chat with the owners while baby ducklings toddle around my feet. One taps his bill on my toes, surprising me. I see a guide bringing back a tour from the forest, and since he wanted to do a class with me, I find him at the visitor center. We meet later, and I give him ideas on how to skillfully move the visitors through the forest. Part of the lesson includes teaching him how to tell tourists how to poop in the woods.

I have to explain the word “poop.” I’m thinking if he doesn’t already know this, I’ve got a problem. Should I demonstrate, perhaps? Play acting of course. He comes up with the word “shit,” so now I know that he knows what we’re talking about. I tell him it’s better to use the words “poop” or “poo,” but his accent is so strong I fear visitors won’t understand.

“Poop,” I pronounce it very carefully.

“Pope,” he replies.

I try again. “Poop.”

Camera shy guide who earned his English-Khmer dictionary

He watches my mouth. “Poup,” he says.

“Poop.” I draw the word out, rounding my lips.

“Paoo,” he says. He’s not getting it, so I tell him to use the word “toilet”. That doesn’t work, so we finally go back to using poop.

This seems to be a topic of concern among the guides, who always want to be polite. My friend Pon who’s cooking in the center today, is sitting and listening to all this as I try to explain to the guide in Khmer and in English. Except I don’t know the Khmer word for poop, or shit for that matter.

I show him ways he can help people in rough places on the trail. He is very sincere and earnest about learning. We play act what to do when talking to a group. He does a convincing caricature of an old man that makes me laugh.

When the lesson is over, I give him an English-Khmer dictionary. If a guide completes three lessons with me, I give him a dictionary. He’s the sixth person to earn one.

Then he tells me he’s giving a village tour for some people and I tell him I’ll go too. Except it never happens. I hang out for several hours. Other guides come in from the forest and I greet them. Savin shows up, and suddenly there’s me and five Cambodian men sitting there. A cook for the treks shows up and he says he wants to study with me. I say I don’t know how to cook. But he wants a dictionary so he can learn English. I say I got them for the guides—I hadn’t bought enough for cooks also. But he wants to study. What to do, I think.

A guide asks me how much longer I’ll be in Chi Phat. I tell him three more weeks, then I go home to the United States. 

Savin tells them I’m traveling longer, which is true. Savin seems sad when I talk about leaving. I feel sad too.

Leeheng, a guide I recently got to know better while attending his tour, comes in from the forest and sits with me. I give him a card I wrote thanking him for his wonderful tour. While on the tour, he showed me tracks and trees and animal poop, including elephant, which I identified.

He also wants to be correct when talking about poop, so we have a discussion similar to the one earlier with the other guide, except I understand him easily when he says “poop.” He invites me to dinner with Alistair the next evening, but Alistair is going to a party.

I bicycle to Savin’s house nearby. No one is home, so I relax in the hammock on his big porch and listen to motos and kids and water buffaloes walk through his yard.

My bungalow at Sun Bear Bungalows

I return to my bungalow where I’m staying, and the mother there presents me with a milk fruit, a shiny purple apple-sized ball. Her daughter tells me her mother climbed the tree to get a ripe one for me. I ask them to save it for me for after dinner.

At Rat’s house he’s cooking outside, and his three kids are playing. We sit in his tiny house at a tiny table, but his wife and three kids sit on the bed right next to the table. So delicious, everything. She made a wonderful hot sauce, fried fish, and an egg vegetable stir fry with rice. She says she’ll cook for me the next night. I give them money to buy river lobster. They never eat it because it is so expensive. I tell them it will be New Year’s Eve for me, so we should have it. Rat says they’ll get lobster, fish, and beer. He’ll put the table outside so Mum (me) can see the moon. I say I’ll make party hats.

Right after we eat, his wife goes outside and starts yelling about fire. Someone was burning leaves in back and now it was out of control and the trees are starting to burn. I tell her I’ll bring my water bottle. Rat goes out in his flip flops and beats the fire with a leafy branch and knocks it down, saving the day.

I return to my bungalow, where the lovely family slices my milk fruit and I share with them. I tell them about my first experience eating milk fruit, when the juice made my lips stick together. When I tried to blot off the juice, the napkin stuck to my lips. I tell the mother next time she climbs the tree I want to make a movie. She says there are no ripe ones now, so she will not climb the tree soon. I say “I don’t believe you” in Khmer, and everyone laughs.

Now I’m in bed, tapping this out. Karaoke blasts away in the village and I’m pleasantly tired.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. And if you’re falling asleep while reading about my atypical day in Chi Phat, well, I’m doing the same.

This post is from my travelblog, where I’ve written about many other adventures in Cambodia and around the world.

2 thoughts on “A Retrospective: Chi Phat, Cambodia

  1. Once again, I am enchanted by your blog and the adventure you tell of “a day”…in the life. It’s something I’ll never experience. I love that you loved it and wrote about it. I can almost taste the food. I can see the people and things you did on your bike ride.
    You have a beautiful gift. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Oh Martha, thanks so much for your encouraging words. Makes me so happy that I can connect with you in this way. I so enjoy sharing my travels and thoughts with others and it means a lot when readers tell me they are moved by my words. Terry


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