Katherine Ervasti travelled through Cambodia with G Adventures on their Ultimate Cambodian Adventure tour. This is the story of her inspiring journey.
Google Cambodia and you will find articles on sex slavery, child labour, political instability and genocide. The pictures will show monochromatic stone temples against vivid backgrounds, trees growing miraculously over dilapidated stone structures, and the odd image of disturbing violence. These are all just snapshots of this mysterious land that so many people know so little about, and this is where I wanted to go. I admit, I wanted to see the intimidating stone temples, and to wander through jungles and come across hidden wonders built thousands of years ago, so I can check off a box on my bucket list. Yes, this is what brought me to Cambodia, but this is not what made me want to stay. This is not what made me want to turn the plane around and head straight back. It was the people I met along my adventure that caused a magnetic pull back to this country.
Battambang, Cambodia’s third largest city, was our first stop. Outside of the city, our CEO (Chief Experience Officer) pulled our mini bus over to the side of the road for a quick pit stop to try a local specialty, barbecued rat. We stepped out of the bus and onto the red dusty shoulder, our eyes wide and mouth hung slightly ajar by the sight of the splayed animals on the barbecue. The owners of this particular pit stop laughed unabashedly at our surprised expressions. Our wonderful CEO stuck a petrified rat in my face. I stood back for a moment, and then kissed its gaped mouth. I thought the locals were going to fall off their bamboo huts as they were laughing so hard. Whether it was to amuse our audience, or just to be polite, we all took a piece of rat and delicately ate it. This rat tasted like a burnt chicken wing, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. To be honest, the only taste that I truly remember was the rice wine we were given to wash down the rat. The wine had a distinguished taste, you know, the kind that takes getting used to. I think it burned right through my flavour memory so that I no longer remember the flavour of the rat. Now, I can only remember the burning sensation and how the acidity of the wine singed my nose hairs. We thanked our admiring viewers and headed on our way.
Our mini bus rattled us all around Cambodia – past rice fields, houses that perched on top of bamboo poles, and rivers with fishing vessels in shapes I’d never seen. We bounced across gravel roads with potholes that caused our bottoms to grab air, and through construction zones that had no visible construction workers. Dogs, chickens, and cattle often grazed and napped on the front lawns of homes, or even underneath the homes on stilts. But no matter where we went, no matter how busy the city was or how tranquil the village, we were greeted with smiles and everyone yelling “Hallo! Hallo!!” They all waved frantically until you waved back. We were very fortunate to have been invited into people’s homes to celebrate the New Year, which seemed to last all week; I don’t think we ever figured out which day was the actual start of the year. We were served delectable meals and our hosts were so open about discussing their traditions with us. They explained the process of marriage and shared their personal family stories, some funny and some tragic. They were open and willing to divulge their most private lives with us – complete strangers who they may never meet again. Their kindness, generosity, and friendship warmed my heart and made me feel connected to the people of Cambodia.
When we stopped to tour an infamous bug market there was a woman my height, and I’m guessing my age, who tried to sell me some mangoes, and unfortunately, I am not a fan of mangoes. When I told her I wasn’t interested she continued to walk by my side as we toured around the bug market. She asked my name and where I was from: “Canada? Did you know that yesterday it snowed in Ontario?” I stopped dead in my tracks, and it wasn’t the fact that it snowed in April, it was because she was so aware of my country and I wasn’t aware of hers at all. It almost brought me to tears, but instead we both laughed – I laughed out of shock and she laughed in pride. She wanted to know what snow felt like to touch, how deep it was, and did it snow a lot. She taught me about the different beetles, and explained what the bugs tasted like. We even joked that everything tasted like chicken. “No, not everything,” she defended. “Just snake…. and sparrows, and rat… ok, a lot of things taste like chicken,” she giggled. I was only in that market for about ten minutes, but I wanted to hug her when I climbed onto the bus. I felt like I had made a lifelong friend, she didn’t care that I didn’t want to buy her mangoes; she was just genuinely interested in me and where I was from. It seemed like such a rare moment and it was so bittersweet when we pulled away and she stood waving goodbye.
I am so thankful that Angkor Wat brought me to Cambodia. Although I did tick that box off of my bucket list and accomplished a journey I never thought I would take, the day I spent in Angkor National Park is not in my top 3 days in Cambodia. There is so much more to Cambodia than stone temples and violence. There’s a story of love, rebirth and hope. I urge you to take an unexpected journey, to venture off the beaten path, to travel those beat up roads, and meet the villagers in the middle of nowhere. I promise you that at the end of your adventure, you will wish you took more photos of the people you met and less of stone temples.
For more information on G Adventures and their unique tours, contact Katherine Ervasti at 1-800-665-4981 ext. 7280.