Rotmuni, 23 years old, from Korkor, Preah Veng province, single, 1 younger brother
Let me tell you the wonderful story of my beautiful, headed and vibrant friend Rotmuni. I just came back from her homeland where she invited me for the Khmer New Year, one of the 3 major yearly celebrations in Cambodia.
Because, yes, Cambodians love to celebrate. They celebrate their ancestors on Pchum Ben days, the end of monsoon and reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river on Bon Om Thook, or Water Festival, the end of the harvest on Khmer New Year, the country Independence, the end of Khmer Rouge regime, the new moons, the King, Queen, Former King and other birthdays, on Wedding days, for birth of a newborn, the death of family and friends and death anniversaries, and many more fun or sad events.
This trip to Preah Veng province, in the company of my friend, was the occasion for me to go deeper into the Cambodian culture and way of life. I am already quite into it as I have spent over 8 months in the country now. I have my own flat on the 1st floor of a traditional wooden house and share with a young couple of Italo-Australian, while my landlady lives below with I am still not sure how many of her family members including son and daughter-in-law, 2 grand-daughters and a regular come and go from another son, a fairly classic Khmer household.
Here, you generally live with your family until you get married. Consequently, some of my colleagues in their thirties still live with their Mum and Dad. But you could also live with brothers and sisters, if you have to study in a different town, or an aunt or uncle, a grand-ma or grand-pa, etc. Sometimes, there is an orphan to shelter. And, most generally, 3 generations coincide under the same roof, grand-parents taking care of the grand-children, while the mother and father go to work.
Let’s come back to my friend Rotmuni. First of all, I need to tell you how I met her. I spotted Rotmuni instantly among other Khmer females at work, not only for her genuine beauty, her distinctive blue-grey eyes, but also for the fact that she is very straight-forward, self-insured, outgoing, loud-speaking and laughing, for a Khmer lady that is, and probably also for the fact that she is one of the people that speaks the best English, among the Cambodians I met, making it easy to exchange and make jokes.
We had met a couple of times and had a little chit chat, when I really discovered her on a work seminar in Kompong Som, the Khmer Côte d’Azur, with its white sand beaches with palm trees, its bar-restaurants where you can enjoy the amazing seafood and local beer all along the different bays, and its dream islands a few miles away from the coast.
She seemed to pick up on me and make me her new pal on this occasion, spending most of her time clinging to my arm, as many of my students here do with their friends of the same sex (no such contact between different sexes is even imaginable in public here in Cambodia, while marks of affection between males / females that would look totally displaced in Occidental culture are completely inoffensive here, including putting a hand around each other’s waist, on one’s lap, around one’s shoulder, not to mention walking hand in hand).
We shared the same hotel, had a couple of beers and a few squids on the beach, danced traditional or modern dances at the work-do beach party, and sat together on the way back to Phnom Penh for a good six hours, given the numerous stops and the slowness of the bus, when she finally went asleep on my shoulder. So she literally stepped into my life and decided that she knew me enough to invite me here and then to spend 2 to 3 days with her family in her homeland on Khmer New Year.
As she repeatedly told me that she really meant it and insisted to host me on that occasion, I felt this was the thing to do. It would be interesting, and certainly she was a very lovely girl, despite the fact that I felt I hardly knew her yet.
In typical Khmer fashion, the exact when and where were revealed to me at the last minute. In fact, I just knew a couple of days before that I should meet her in the center of Phnom Penh at 4pm, then 2pm, on Wednesday April 13th so that we could go together on a motorbike. I was not too sure how this would happen exactly, as, a week before I had the surprise visit of my friend Marion from France, who was also invited to join our trip, Rotmuni being half blind and myself unable to drive a motorbike, let alone the fact that 3 persons on a bike plus the bags seemed fairly unfeasible, except for Khmer natives of course!
Fortunately, Rotmuni told us, at 2.30 on our meeting point, she had changed the time a couple of hours before that, so that Marion and I had to rush out from our bus from Kep, unpack and repack, to set off immediately after, she told us then that we would take a tuk-tuk first. The tuk-tuk drove us North of the city where a packed local chicken bus was apparently waiting for us to set off.
They had kindly let us the front seat where we were expected to sit the two of us, Marion bravely engaging herself on the hand stick side where she would have to lift every time the driver would need to change the speed. As for myself I was crammed with one leg above the other, my waist completely bended in a most uncomfortable position for a 2 hours trip or more… But it was definitely a place of choice compared to the position of the 20 or so passengers crammed in the back and the other 10 or so sat on the roof on top of the luggage. The rest of the truck was so full that Muni (the Khmers usually call their friends using the final syllables of their names) had to cross the Japanese bridge on the back of her brother’s motorbike until some passengers droped off, before she could join us aboard.
The trip was quite uneventful apart from the fact that two or three passengers suddenly jumped off the roof at a police stop and came back on a few meters down the road, to avoid a fine for travelling in forbidden conditions. Like everything else in Cambodia, there is a way around it. Muni kept babbling with her seat neighbors who were so curious of these two Occidental faces aboard this 100% local transportation means. I was also quite pleased to occasionally catch a few words and join in the conversation with my basic Khmer.
The driver wanted me to go on the roof top to get some fresh air and enjoy the view but the passengers recommended not to because the police would probably catch me and give me a fine. But, after we left the main road and a few passengers arrived to their villages, they insisted that I would have to go on the roof top. Muni joined me and we spent the rest of the trip actually enjoying the beautiful view over the villages and country side, with a lot more fresh air, space, but receiving hips of dust, getting our hair incredibly tangled in the wind and probably risking an abrupt fall in case of a sharp turn or a brutal stop.
As we finally arrived to destination, we were greeted by Muni’s grand-ma, ma, bro, nephew, niece, cousin, aunt, and numerous curious neighbors. It was a bit overwhelming. We were invited to sit in front of the house in plastic chairs to rest a little after our trip. Muni’s brother came to offer us some sort of fruit from a tree, inside a sort of bogue, similar to those of green peas. The inside was a white and extremely astringent fruit that immediately gave me a strange feeling in my stomach, a sort of nausea.
Then, we had a lovely walk around the village, just as the sun was setting down in a burning red. Water buffaloes were coming back home, old ladies were at their doorstep, children played in the streets, mothers were showering or preparing dinner.