Finding My Home Away from Home in a Cambodian Village

As soon as I stepped out of the van, I could feel that I had entered into a place of community and love. Children were popping out everywhere yelling and waving "hello!" as we stood on the street and took in our surroundings. Teenagers in school uniforms were riding bikes, whispering together and giggling at the site of us. Teachers, shop owners, farmers all taking a moment to greet us as we passed. We had arrived in their neighborhood, and they were ready to welcome us with open arms.

It wasn't just any neighborhood, this was Vibol's neighborhood. Vibol had been with us since the start of the trip in Siem Reap. He was training to be a tour guide and we had all become friends as we worked at the orphanage and explored the city. I was able to experience Vibol's first time to Siem Reap, first visit to the great Temples of Angkor and first stay in a hotel. Now it was his turn to watch me have many firsts of my own.

Within those 24 hours I had my first home-cooked meal in a Cambodian home, my first walk through an authentic Cambodian village, my first sight of Monk's gathered together eating lunch, saw my first naturally blooming Lotus Flower, visited my first fish farm, taught my first English class, delivered my first water filters, slept in my first mosquito net palette fort, my first dance party with our Cambodia house mom, my first experience sleeping above cows, my first experience sleeping in the same room as a family not my own, my first wake-up-call by rooster and my first feeling of being truly at home in a place so far away.

There were so many moments that connected me to this village and reminded me of my own childhood town. Everyone here knew each other, they rode their bikes through the town and waved, laughed and chattered as they walked in and out of school, talked to each other through the yards and fences to see what was for dinner or if they could borrow some eggs. Cambodian village life was not that different than Suburban America.

One of my favorite memories will always be the spontaneous dance party Shara and I had with Aunty (our host Mom) as we were getting settled for the night. They had built us our floor palette and secured the mosquito net, essentially tucking us in for the night as she was watching a version of a Cambodian singing contest. The band on stage had several choreographed dance moves that Shara and I tried to imitate (I can only image how far off we were!). Aunty smiled, got up and started busting a move with us laughing and saying "just let it go, just let it go!" We danced and laughed ourselves silly for the next hour.

Here I was, thousands of miles away from home but feeling so connected to this family. Just a few months before I had a pajama dance party with my own mom, aunt and grandmother. It may have been in a different type of home, preparing to sleep in a different type of bed, but the love and joy that this family exuded was exactly the same.

Language may have divided us, but love forever bonded us.

Other Memories from Phnom Penh:

  • Attempting to teach English at Vibol's school. He told us this when we arrived, with no wifi access to prepare, Shara and I were so nervous! We helped with pronunciation and a few basic things, but when it came to building and diagramming sentences...we called Mike up to help take charge :) Luckily Holden had just finished 5th grade and was able to remind us that "is" is a verb!
  • Exploring Vibol's fish farm - we took boats out to the lake which was filled with various fish farms and fish huts. Vibol collects fish early in the morning (3am) and takes them to the market several days a week before teaching school.
  • Our projects! We delivered several water filters and helped pay for an indoor toilet to be installed in one of the homes that had several children focusing on their education. They had told us we'd be painting a toilet which confused us...what color? why does a toilet need to be painted? But in the end we helped to paint what was essentially the bathroom surrounding the new indoor toilet for the family.
  • Rooftop conversations - DMC's (Deep, Meaningful Conversations) on the rooftop of our hotel, going over to the rooftop down the road with Shara, Natalie and Cham where we opened up about love and life and also saw some pretty awesome break dancers!
  • Afternoon adventures with Natalie - trying to find an ATM, feeling very iffy about crossing the busy, busy highway, deciding to ask everyone if there was another ATM, finally finding directions...and realizing we had passed a nice, calm ATM a half hour before. Whoops!
  • Massage time with Natalie - one across the street from our hotel where they put us in a room, gave us towels and just left us. We were very confused on what to do and ended up getting to know each other quite well! We then got foot massages at our hotel and chatted some more :)
  • Tuk Tuk rides through the busy traffic, across the ferry and to Silk Island where we learned firsthand the intricacies of making handmade silk patterns.
  • Sunset boat ride along the river
  • Great dinners along the river and on rooftops
  • Retracing our steps from January when Mike and I explored Street 51 - it was much less busy this time around and we had the whole Reggae Bar Rooftop to ourselves (in a little bit of rain) and ended up around a bit afterwards.