Personal Journeys


August 22, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Bringing in the Khmer New Year

By Derek A. Houck


Chewing on the leg of a tarantula, I was trying to place the taste. Then it hit me -- soft crabs. After three months in Cambodia, I felt a pang of nostalgia for my home in Maryland.

Later, I climbed on my dirt bike, wrapped my krama around my head and cinched my hat and sunglasses tight. Unfortunately, my nose would continue to burn under the searing April sun.

The Japanese teacher I was traveling with climbed on the back of my bike, and we followed my friend Heng, his wife, their son and newborn daughter. They, with luggage, were precariously balanced on their own bike.

We were headed to Heng's home village to celebrate the Khmer New Year. Starting from the capital, Phnom Penh, we would cover 200 kilometers in about five hours.

Driving here is exhilarating or life-threatening, depending on how you look at it. One must be careful to avoid passing cars, bicycles, ox carts, rambunctious water buffaloes and towering produce trucks from Vietnam.

We followed a dirt road through rubber tree plantations from the French colonial period. Now tended by Cambodian peasants, the plantations gave off a peaceful green and white glow in the approaching twilight.

We entered the village on the eastern side of Kampong Cham province. Sturdy wooden houses on stilts -- for flood protection -- lined the road and formed an elongated arrangement that mirrored the banks of the Mekong River.

Children shouted hello and everyone stared, because I was the first barang -- foreigner -- to visit the area since a French contingent representing the United Nations had aided in rebuilding after the Khmer Rouge were ousted 10 years earlier.

The village was green due to its proximity to the river. Fruit trees heavy with durian, papaya, bananas and coconuts ringed the houses. Heng's villagers greeted us joyfully, and after the requisite bows and greetings, we sat down to a traditional meal.

We ate, as is customary, with legs tucked back, on a straw mat. We shared communal bowls that held fish paste mixed with mango, lemon grass and fish soup, grilled beef, dried fish, watermelon and, of course, steamed rice.

I couldn't help thinking of my own family, thousands of miles away. They would be celebrating their own holiday, gathering to share stories and food, hunting for Easter eggs and probably finishing off the day with a rousing game of bingo.

That night, thinking of home, I tucked in my mosquito net, laid back on my wooden bed and went to sleep under the Southeast Asian sky.

Derek A. Houck lives in Pasadena, Md.

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