Back in May, when the sun blared down and the water in the river was low, but rising, I took my new bike out for an afternoon over the bamboo bridge. The bridge is a seasonal feature of Kampong Cham. It's built at the beginning of the dry season each year, and each year, as the water level rises and the waters come, the bridge washes away and the island's residents have to fall back on the ferry to get themselves and their goods to market.
The island is an oasis. It is made of the fertile red soil for which Kampong Cham is famous. Outside practically every house are slender trees dripping with the weight of heavy pumelo orbs. Bananas are also in abundance, those tiny sweeter-than-sweet yellow fingers. The rice fields are a piercing green and even the cows are nobler than some in Cambodia. There's very little traffic other than a few motos here and there, but the island is mostly silent and idyllic.
That afternoon, I biked around the perimeter of the island, about 10 kilometers. The small space between my fender and tires grew thick with red mud and my feet and ankles were caked completely. Near the end of the trail, a boy came out, hands waving to stop me. "Where are you going? Where are you from? Are you alone?" And then finally, "Come in, come in, my family wants to meet you."
For the next two hours, I sat with Sophy and his family talking with them about their work out in the rice fields, but mostly answering questions in my broken Khmer about my own life, and life in America. They patted my stomach and and asked me if I could cut their hair short too. Sophy asked me about scholarships to study abroad and his aunties admonished me for riding all alone, for not wearing long sleeves, for not wearing earrings (because they would be so pretty!)
When I finally left, they made me promise to come back to visit. Sophy got my phone number and started sending me "i miss you" text messages every so often.
Despite some rough moments, I have found so much openness and compassion here in Cambodia.
At first I was tempted to accredit people's friendliness to curiousity. "What's up with the foreigner?" But then I see the way that people share babies in a crowded car, or the way that strangers talk like friends in the marketplace, and I see that this kind of personal connection is the norm in Cambodia.
I'm going to miss smiling at random people on the street. I'm going to miss calling people sister and uncle. I'm going to miss random belly pats and friendly advice from total strangers. I'm going to miss Cambodia.