The five-hour bus ride from Sen Monorom to Kratie, a French colonial town along the Mekong River, was just shy of dreadful. From this experience I learned that you should ask if everyone gets their own seat when booking a ticket. The bus had 25 seats, but I stopped counting at 35 passengers. Across five seats sat at least seven people, and that didn’t include the kids who were on laps. One guy was sitting on top of luggage and another was standing in the door well. For about an hour of the trip, even the driver was sharing his seat. He had to lean over the passenger to shift gears. I was just waiting for a bunch of chickens and a cow to board.
After the moderate temps in Sen Monorom, Kratie was a shock to my sweat glands. I signed up for a two-day motorbike tour to visit rural villages (I do love me some villages!), an overnight stay in a stilted home and to see the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. Aside from a fear of melting, I was excited. My guide, Ben, met me early in the morning, and our first stop was a peanut farm where we both helped with the harvest. It was a balmy 95 degrees when I learned how to pluck nuts from the ground, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t even know how peanuts grew. I knew they didn’t come from trees, but only because the allergy council distinguishes them from tree nuts. I worked for about 20 minutes, pulling the plant from its root and throwing it onto a pile. Sweat dripped from my face as I took the “occasional” break for photos. When I learned the wage for these people was $5/day, I was reminded how hard much of the world works. This is backbreaking labor in ridiculous heat. Not an easy life. We had the luxury of continuing on our journey, so we bid farewell and continued on. Later we stopped to watch a family make rice noodles, and another distill rice whiskey, which they sell to others in the village.
Around 3pm we finished our day at the home where we would stay the night. It is owned by a 90-year-old couple who both walk hunched over with a stick; the husband is blind. There is no running water and no electricity. The outhouse is under the home (which is on stilts), so these poor old people have to walk outside and down the stairs, which is more akin to a ladder, to use the loo. When we arrived, the daughter-in-law (who also lives with them along with their son) was walking a cow, and her husband was in the forest looking for local tree medicine. Ok, this is all very quaint and nice, but what am I going to do for the next several hours until we go to sleep?! Ben must’ve noticed my restlessness so he asked if I wanted to go for a ride around the village. Yes, please.
We stopped for beer at a small shop where a woman was furiously tapping on a calculator while looking at a list of numbers in her notebook. She was running an illegal lottery. “They listen to the winning numbers announced on the radio from Vietnam,” my guide confessed. “A man nearby won more than $100,000 USD and bought TWO motorbikes. Brand new!” Then Ben told me about the wedding that evening, and that the son in the house where we were staying was attending. A wedding, eh??? Ben said he was asked to attend too, but couldn’t cough up the $10. In lieu of an actual wedding gift, attendees are asked to pay $10. A wedding cover charge, if you will. “Do foreigners ever attend?” I asked innocently. “Oh yes, sure,” Ben replied. “So if I paid $20 for the both of us, do you think we could go?” Ben quickly made a phone call. We were in.
There was only one problem… I was a filthy, sweaty mess in dusty pants and a t-shirt. “No problem,” Ben said as we sped back to the house to get ready. Now mind you, there is no running water, so I scooped up some water from a huge jug outside and splashed it on my face and arms. Oh yeah, that did a lot. The couple’s daughter-in-law wasn’t attending the wedding, so she was happy to loan me some of her fancy duds. Grinning ear to ear, she produced a long woven skirt and bright turquoise lace top. My eyes grew big, then she hurried me into a room and closed the door so she could dress me. The skirt was clearly too tight and too short (she laughed as she tugged the bottom), and the lace top barely hooked closed. Let me tell you how comfortable lace is NOT in such heat. When I was sufficiently stuffed inside, she opened the door to reveal her success. Huge smiles surfaced as the family chattered in Khmer, giddy at my transformation. I felt like a sweaty, oversized Cinderella sausage. In the best way possible, of course.
I even slipped on the woman’s shoes so I didn’t have dusty Pumas poking out below. Thankfully, at least my feet are Asian-sized. Then my carriage, in the form of Ben’s motorbike, rolled up out front. I hopped on side-saddle and off we went down the red dirt road to my very first Khmer wedding.
When we arrived I caused a few head turns. Ok, more than a few. I was the only foreigner there, and despite my costume change, there would be no blending in. The stares were friendly ones, though, as I felt simultaneously awkward and proud. The wedding party sat at the entrance of the tent, and they graciously posed for pictures, perhaps wondering why this strange white woman was crashing their wedding.
Ben and I, along with the actual wedding invitee, were escorted to an empty table, which quickly filled with men as soon as we sat down. A huge plate of beef loc lac (a stir-fried Khmer specialty) was set in the middle of the table along with fried quail, pickled vegetables and chicken feet. A case of warm Angkor beer was also delivered, along with two bags of ice. We all grabbed some cubes for our glasses and poured the beer over it. Many, many glass clanks occurred over the course of the evening with someone every five minutes yelling “Cheers!” prompting everyone to participate.
Of course no wedding would be complete without dancing, and I was not excused from this exercise. Our invited guest escorted me to the dance floor where I joined the others in traditional Khmer dancing, which thankfully consisted of walking very slowly in a circle while moving the wrists in a figure eight motion. The music, unfortunately, was blaringly loud and not pleasing to my ear drums. Over the next hour, men and women both pulled me onto the dance floor. I was amusing to them, and while I had a hundred eyes on me, it was fantastic fun. I’m just glad I didn’t do a face plant into the dirt. After much exhaustive dancing, we left the wedding and took off into the dark blackness of night.
When we arrived back at the house, I slipped off my Khmer duds and into my pjs before crawling under the mosquito net. I tried to get comfortable on the hard wood floor, the air thick, hot and still. I longed for a soft bed and a/c (or even a fan), but the evening’s memories sustained me. If someone had told me a few hours earlier I’d be dressing for a Cambodian wedding that night, I never would’ve believed them. And that, exactly that, is what I love most about traveling.