We are all in the van, red dust from the last crumbling temple dotting the footboards beneath our feet, rice paddies rumbling past to left and right with iconic old ladies in conical hats picking off the grains. This is Cambodia, Siem Riep, temple land, and we are travelling with friends. So far it has been just like it says on the tin.
We’ve toured four or five temples (or is it six?), hopping over broken altars and scrambling across sacred fallen bell-towers and massive stone toes, crouching in window frames to take silly snapshots and acting out ‘Temple Run’ a hundred times. We’ve driven down a sagging brown track to the mouth of a big, beautiful lake where we got on a narrow wooden boat that was promptly rear-ended, necessitating a mid-river stop so the driver could pump out, before chugging us on to a crocodile farm to stare at the sad snapping crocs and poke a cobra round a small girls’ neck; and that was only Day Two.
This is not backpacker land any more, it is getting wise to tourism, but it is still far from what any of us have ever known. We dine out heartily and inexpensively every night; we know if we were to venture deeper within the country we could do this for even less: it is a real and humbling change from the hardcore cash-heavy exchanges we are used to. As a bonus we have been lucky with the weather (a crucial point when you’re a Brit): this is meant to be rainy season but so far it has only drizzled politely after dark and the days have been cooler than usual for this time of year, and pleasantly sunny.
We have learnt how silk is farmed, seen a local gallery at work where we stroked more stone Buddhas than I ever dreamt possible, and now we are heading for lunch and, possibly, another temple. The three kids are in the back seat of our tour van, slapping each other about. Mr PartlyCloudy and the two other adults are dozing and I’m trying to take arty shots of tuk-tuks through the front windscreen without actually going through it.
A huge truck roars past, piled high with something or other – bamboo, boxes, pigs – to be honest we’ve all stopped pointing these things out because they’ve become ten-a-penny over the past few days. Our van rights itself after the obligatory swerve-past and then the guide (polite, gentle, great with kids) decides to tell us a joke. He clears his throat to call attention to us all, craning round in his front seat to talk, smiling and nodding in anticipation of the punchline:
‘What kind of van (and he pronounces it ‘wan’) has more wheels than any other?’
It takes a while to get to the punchline because he insists on asking us the question again and again, rephrasing it to make perfectly sure we all understand, so that when we finally get the answer it is with a balloon-emptying, flat-eared down-tempo as if we had been set up with the best pub joke in the world only to realize we had heard it before:
‘A wan that transports wheels!’
In the ensuing polite silence the guide explains that this is typical Cambodian humour and of course that as a fact is more interesting than the joke itself. Since none of us have been to Cambodia, and none of us speak the language, and certainly no one has told us any Khmer jokes over the last two days, we have no way of knowing what is hilarious in Cambodia or not. What we can safely say, however, is that our two families are not in the least surprised by the fact that Cambodians like a good laugh. Khmer people have shown us nothing but kindness and gentle humour since we got off the plane. Here amongst the rice fields on our long weekend away from the heat and fuss of Singapore’s National Day (sorry about that but we must take the chances to travel as and when they arise) we have encountered some of the loveliest, kindest, best-natured people ever in the whole wide world. This was a cliché we had heard before we arrived and like all clichés it has turned out to be nothing but true.
Cambodians are gentle, generous, smiling and happy to help; even Tuna the hotel dog sleeps outside our friends’ room every night in the hope of a gentle ear-ruffle in the morning – food doesn’t seem to be part of it, he genuinely loves us all. It’s like a giant scout troupe of the highest echelon, with everyone wanting to do their very best. The bloke in the rain mac in the market tries at first to get us a tuk tuk but we only want to find a nearby café. He is persistent but he’s not hustling, he just wants to get us out of the wet (the only spot of rain, mind, that we’ve been caught in) and when he eventually works out what we want he is quick to point out the way. Helpful, not malevolent.
Our guide is great with the children, brings props every day (a piece of plastic with which he makes bird noises, small change to buy us a bamboo stick stuffed with rice). He tells more jokes, catches endless crickets to the never-ending delight of nature-loving Small Monkey, does magic tricks to keep our three smalls entertained better than any of us ever could, and in between all this he stuffs us full of facts for three whole days. At every crumbling heritage site there are gentle people ready to show the way. On the way home at the airport I overhear a woman in the Duty Free shop being openly bullied by a loud tourist trying to get a discount. The shop assistant is gentle in her rebuff, holding her dignity where anyone else might have been driven to responding rudeness. Admirable.
There are life lessons everywhere, and lifestyle lessons, which we hope will stick. The guide makes the driver pull back down a road to stop at a sagging roadside stall for an impromptu taste-testing session of crickets and silkworms. The day before, a visit to a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap Lake showed the kids how the other half live – naked, in boats, on brown water with a school on stilts for the days when they’re not hijacking your vessel to flog you cans of cola. When this happened to us, Small Monkey had only just pestered – for the 694th time – about going on a shopping trip to the Old Market. Perfectly timely. You can never really be sure how much this sort of things sinks in, but at least now the image has been planted for a handy recap whenever expat brat syndrome rears its tiresome head.
I won’t go on about the temples. They blew us away. I’m almost scared to hand out the link in case everyone piles on down, but on the other hand I so want to share the experience; it’s only a matter of time before Starbucks picks out a plot down those colourful narrow streets. Our two families had a tuk-tuk-tastic time and I’m certainly not done with Cambodia, not yet. We saw a hankie-sized area and there’s a lot more trekking to do – not any day soon (too much of Southeast Asia to get through first), but one day for sure, if only to learn some more of those hilarious Khmer jokes.