Barang Exhibit: Unexpected Visitors to Cambodia’s Floating Villages – by Guest Trekker Gillian Rhodes

It’s always fun and interesting to receive a visit to the Girls Trek Too blog from guest trekker Gillian Rhodes, a young American expat in Cambodia. She made the following daytrip last fall, three-and-a-half-months into her eight-month stint as a dancer/choreographer in Phnom Penh:

Barang Exhibit
By Gillian Rhodes

The girl sitting next to me looks terrified. But when I say quietly, “Sok-sa-bai, own?” (How are you, little sister?), she smiles briefly, before her brow re-furrows and the look of concerned fascination returns.

When I say quietly, “Sok-sa-bai, own?” (How are you, little sister?), she smiles briefly, before her brow re-furrows.

That was a look I got often during Pchum Ben, a Buddhist holiday when Cambodians travel to their home provinces to pay respects to their departed loved ones. In a country where as many as two million people were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, this time to honor the dead may be the most important holiday in Cambodian culture. But that’s not why people stared. They were staring because I, too, chose to travel that day, far off the beaten tourist path. A couple of friends and I headed up the Tonle Sap River to the floating villages of Kampong Chnnang, Kampong Leang, and Kampong Steang. My friend Lizzie, her Uncle Paul, and I were the only barangs, or white people, around for miles.

The floating villages were strange bobbing clusters of humanity on a river swollen heavily from the rains. Everyone there owned a boat, and all the shops were on barges. But although this place was unusual to us, we ended up being the spectacle. We were such a spectacle, in fact, that someone called the police when we arrived in Kampong Leang.

The floating villages were strange bobbing clusters of humanity on a river swollen heavily from the rains.

The village of Kampong Leang is only accessible by boat. Ferries bring over everything, including motorcycles, from the mainland. There are no “special” tourist taxis. Even if there were, we weren’t interested in that. Instead we crammed into a ferry with dozens of locals, sitting on the floor, and scooting in further when at least six motos were loaded onto the deck. It was there that I attempted to chat up my concerned observer. I was mostly unsuccessful, apart from her few quicksilver smiles.

We crammed into a ferry with dozens of locals, sitting on the floor, and scooting in further when at least six motos were loaded onto the deck.

Kampong Leang floats at the base of a mountain, which can be circled via a twenty-kilometer tuk-tuk ride for twenty bucks, if you believe the price we were quoted. Instead we decided to just poke about the village until we found the central pagoda. At the pagoda, we quickly attracted a crowd of the street kids who hang out at the temple. They giggled at whatever antics we did and vied for a spot in the pictures we took. As we finished our circle of the pagoda, we saw a police officer drive up on a moto.

I thought perhaps we weren’t supposed to be up on the pagoda. But as it turns out, the cop just wanted to say hello and see if we needed any help, asking in a friendly but deeply curious way what we were doing there. Fortunately my friend’s uncle speaks decent Khmer, and he chatted with the guy for a while, showing him our map and explaining what we wanted to see. Once we assured him that we were not spectacularly lost, the police officer moved on.

That was not an isolated incident either. Upon returning to the riverside at Kampong Chnnang we debated whether or not we wanted to take the motorized “tourist boat” for a sunset cruise, or one of the suspicious looking manually-rowed versions touted by a group of Vietnamese women refugees. While we considered our options, another police officer came up to politely inquire whether we needed help. We didn’t, and chose the motorized sunset cruise – a good choice.

We chose the motorized sunset cruise – a good choice.

I’m used to being a foreigner in Phnom Penh, but nothing prepared me for being the astonishing exhibit we became in these floating villages. It was like being an alien, or a celebrity, or both. Everyone waved and shouted hello, or gaped openly, usually both. It wasn’t always the police who were summoned to deal with us: once, at a pagoda, it was a monk.

They all wanted to know the same thing: what are you doing here? But once we cleared the initial confusion, everyone was very vested in helping us get where we needed to go, to see what we wanted to see, and most importantly: to not get more lost than they assumed we already were. They couldn’t seem to understand why else we would be there.

It was an amazing experience, but I was glad to get back to Phnom Penh. I’m still barang here, and therefore stick out like sore thumb. But at least I’m not the only one they stare at here!

***

Gillian Rhodes is from Colorado. She works in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a choreographer at a major television network and as an executive assistant at an arts NGO. She has been living in Phnom Penh for the past ten months. She eventually plans to start a dance company.

2 thoughts on “Barang Exhibit: Unexpected Visitors to Cambodia’s Floating Villages – by Guest Trekker Gillian Rhodes

  1. Stephanie @ Where in the World Am I?

    When we were in Burundi, I didn’t mind standing out so much because it seemed like people expressed genuine curiosity, especially the children. Now that we are in India with a child, though, it annoys me how much people expect her to be part of the show. When she was younger she loved the attention but now it makes her quiet and withdrawn. And people get so insulted when we tell them not to touch her or take her photo.

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  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    That makes a lot of sense to me, Stephanie. I believe that those who get insulted wouldn’t feel that way if they thought about it – maybe some do rethink it afterward. You’re a good mother setting protective boundaries for her child, anybody who is a mother or who has one should be able to respect that.

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