I wake up to a rainy day in Koh Kong, situated in southern Cambodia, near the Thai border. Peering out of the curtains, I see a woman and child walk right through a deep puddle, their feet dragging through the muddy water.
“It’s raining!” I exclaim, as Tyrhone rolls over, shielding his eyes from the light.
I’m not sure why I’m so excited about this, except for the fact that it makes a change from the searing heat of the last week or so.
I step out onto the balcony. Underneath on the street a man sits, smoking, adjacent to his sugar cane press. I bought a couple of icy glasses from him yesterday for 2000 Riel, or 50 cents. His friend offered me a seat while I waited for the sugar cane to be fed through the press, extracting sweet nectar from an otherwise dry-looking stalk. After about four feeds through the stainless steel machine, the carcass, stripped down to its bare fibre, was discarded onto a large pile, to be hardened by the sun.
Poured onto shave ice, it made the perfect summer’s day drink, topped off with a squeeze of fresh lime from the market.
But that was yesterday.
Today is a new day. That’s what I love about mornings, the potential is limitless.
We cross the street in search of coffee from a small street stall. I’ve learnt from my wanderings through the market that the ladies pre-make coffee syrup in glass bottles, which they then mix with either ice, or hot water. I would have never known what it was, but I saw someone order one when I bought a bottle of water.
“Nescafe,” the lady at the market had assured me when I pointed inquisitively. Of course. Nescafe.
But as I said, today is a new day, and the coffee is served differently at the small shop we sit down at. This lady pours the think black syrup from a thermos, into small espresso-sized glasses already prepared with a glug of ‘sweet milk’. The glass is then sat in a small bowl of hot water to keep it warm.
“Mmmmm,” we approve, as we sip from the glasses, trying not to burn our fingers. The coffee is hot, strong and sweet (like a good man). For two coffees and two small vanilla muffins, the bill is 3000 Riel, or US 75 cents. We give a dollar.
Afterwards, we walk along the street that runs parallel to the river, dodging muddy puddles on the side of the road as cars, bicycles and motorbikes whizz past.
Small shops, a primary school, a gas station, a bike repair shop, the tiniest barber shop in the world (they have a lot of those here!), food stalls. These are the sights of Krong (which means town) Koh Kong (the province).
A young monk makes his rounds as a young boy places a crumpled note into his collection bowl. The boy squats, hands joined and head bowed in prayer as he receives his blessing.
On the way back, I have my opportunity to make my donation to the monk. He stands outside a tile shop, but the family are busy inside, so I approach him and place my note in his bowl.
I hope I’m doing it right. I’ve observed enough Cambodians participating in the ritual that I can mimic them somewhat. I don’t squat, but I bow my head into my pressed-together palms and close my eyes, letting the soothing tones of his blessing wash over me. I give a small smile, but don’t dare stare into his eyes, as the locals don’t seem to engage the monks too much. I don’t want to upset tradition.
Entering the market, we make our way through a menagerie of interesting foods for sale. Squid, small crabs bound in twine and slimy silver fish are presented in large silver bowls by their sellers, hoping to capitalize on the morning crowds buying food for the day.
I make my way to a fruit stall, stopping to place a note in the hat of a man who sits on the floor, his spindly legs unable to elevate him any higher than ground level. To be honest, I wouldn’t have seen him if it wasn’t for a local woman making a donation. The Cambodians are generous people.
“Thank you!” the man smiles happily and I smile back widely.
I make my way to the fruit stall and purchase a green, but sweet-smelling mango and a large bunch of small yellow bananas for one dollar, before exiting the market. I have to pick up laundry.
On approaching the tiny wooden house, the familiar faces of the old man, two ladies and two young children greet me and give a knowing look. The toothless old man with the kindest eyes scurries to find the two large bags of laundry I delivered two days ago.
I push a tiny banana into the hands of the little toddler, and offer a small bunch to the older boy, as there is no way I’ll eat them all.
“Aw koon,” the ladies giggle, while the children just stare.
The old man returns with two clean, crisp piles of clothes, wrapped in plastic film. He points to the price, written in marker on the plastic. 22,000 Riel, or US$5.50.
I find the five dollars and hand it to the man, whilst Tyrhone hunts around for 2000 Riel (yes they use both US and local currency here!). The man waves us off, not wanting the rest of the money.
He’s giving us a discount? I think, looking into the tiny wooden room where five people squeeze onto a mattress.
We find the 2000 Riel and press it into his hand.
Later when I unwrap the perfect parcels of crisp clothes and towels, I find them pressed and laundered in a way I wouldn’t be able to do at home.
I’m glad we found the extra fifty cents.
Eating my mango on the bed at the guest house, the curtains fill with air from the open window. I slice open the green skin with my small pocket-knife to reveal perfectly ripe flesh underneath.
I pierce a slice and pop it in my mouth, letting the familiar taste remind me where I am. Yes, it’s definitely the taste of Southeast Asia. There’s something about this part of the world that has kept me coming back, and though I’m not sure exactly what that is, I’m happy to spend many more days like this, enjoying simple pleasures, kind people and sweet fruit, while I figure it out.