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On the Road with Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn

December 3, 2010

girls on motorbike spotted from the tuk tuk

For a tuk tuk passenger the ride is breezy and not too fast so you really see the view. And a great view it is. Cambodia is so GREEN. Smiling people on bicycles and motorbikes, skinny cows with a neck waddle skin flap, fields of pink lily pads with edible stems, rice paddies, wooden houses with hardwood carvings, ruins and Buddhist temples painted sunflower yellow.

skinny cow with neck waddle skin flap

soda bottle gas station

There are some real gas stations with tanks and pumps, but more common are the roadside stands with fuel in soda bottles. Many people prefer the stands because they’re way cheaper – no government tax on the fuel.

two cyclists getting a hand from a motorbike

school children on parade viewed from the tuk tuk

While in Cambodia I was re-reading a favorite old book, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He writes “all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see.” After our first tuk tuk rides, Nasreen and I concurred that tuk tuk is THE WAY to travel in Cambodia. It’s not as fast as a taxi, but if you want to see everything, there’s no better way except maybe by foot or bicycle. Hiring a tuk tuk driver for several days in a row is also a great way to get to know a local and lead us to some surprising experiences.

Nasreen and I spent several days each with drivers Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn. I already wrote about Sam in my Angkor Wat post. Here are a few highlights from our days with the other two.

In Kompong Cham with Chort

Chort means gecko in Cambodian. Pretty funny as Chort may be the biggest Cambodian I’ve ever seen, at about 6 feel tall, and not the typical super thin body. He explains that his mother nicknamed him gecko when he was a baby because he was so small and didn’t eat much. He then does a gecko imitation, pursing his lips like a goldfish and letting out a chirp-like “geck-o”.

Chort in his Leo Beer hat with his tuk tuk

He wears a Leo free promotional baseball cap that he won. He likes the cap, wears it all 3 days that he drives us. It’s very new and crisp looking. Leo is a brand of beer in Cambodia, but it must be made by and for foreigners, because leo means underwear in Cambodian, much to Chort’s delight. “You know briefs? B.R.I.E.F.S?” – pointing to his butt. “You know bras?” – pointing to his chest. Everyone in the house is laughing with us – his wife, brother and teenaged niece. We’re at the house for an informal cooking lesson, learning how to make Cambodian style curry. One of the main components is a large quantity – 3 or so cups finely chopped and then laboriously ground with a mortar and pestle – of fresh lemon grass from the yard. Lemon grass is a quintessential flavor of Cambodian cooking, along with coconut milk, citrus, ginger, garlic and fish paste. Chort says that lemon grass is easy to grown in the mud. “You know Mud? M.U.D?” Yes, we know mud.

in Chort’s house enjoying the curry we’ve all helped to prepare: Nasreen, Chort and his wife

Chort’s niece, wife, himself and brother

Chorts’s wife and niece are wearing pajamas. They are not going to bed – this is normal day wear for many Cambodian women.

Chort’s Dad passed away when he was 13. He is the youngest of 8 siblings. Shortly before passing his Dad asked him if he would like to become a monk, since he didn’t know if there would be enough food for the family after he died. Chort said he didn’t want to be a monk because they only eat breakfast and lunch, no food after noon, and he didn’t want to be hungry.

He wants to have tourists stay in his house, like a home stay, but he can’t yet because he doesn’t have a bathroom. He needs to save about $500US to build a bathroom. His house has a split bamboo floor which allows for lots of air circulation and is a natural air conditioning. The bamboo is shiny and smooth from years of foot traffic. The house is spotless and sparsely furnished. It would make a great home stay. Chort has been learning English for about three years and his playful sense of humor comes out in a delightful way with his simplified way of talking. Some great one-liners from Chort:

• “oh my God” in a valley girl accent
• when we asked if he’ll give us a cooking lesson, he agrees but says “I am not skilled” of his cooking (with some help from his wife the food was delicious)
• when showing us his wedding picture album (photo styling reminiscent of glamour shots) he says to me “you show these pictures to your husband and he will see that I am very good looking. Yes, he will be jealous I say” (I must say, Chort does look good in pink silk)

In Battambang with Mr. Han Houn

We spend two days with Mr. Han Houn driving to the sites in the country side around Battambang. The most striking was a memorial with a story book of carvings depicting the Khmer Rouge reign of terror starting in 1975 when he was 18. He was so malnourished, no food except rice porridge with too much water, that he was too weak to do the forced labor of planting rice from the standing up bent over at the waist position. So he sat in the muck and planted the seeds. He must work or be killed. Both of his parents were killed. Later he spent 10 years in the Vietnam army. He has four children and tries to teach them about the Khmer Rouge time. The difference between Chort and Mr. Han Houn is striking. Chort is charming, funny and well fed. Mr. Han Houn is serious, with a very thin frame and skeletor-like face with very prominent cheek bones – he is of the older generation who survived the killings and mass starvation.

Mr. Han Houn telling us about the genocide under the Khmer Rouge at a memorial near Battambang

No tourist to Cambodia can, or should, avoid learning something about the genocide. We went to the excellent Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Pen. However, I found learning Mr. Han Houn’s personal account to be more conductive to a deeper understanding.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 12:31 am

    Amazing Sariah, this truly is one of my favorite posts. An inside view of these gentle people mixed with humor,yet a serious edge teaching us all that we must work together to protect humanity
    from the atrocity of wartime and genocide. I personally love lemongrass and have fond memories of a week long silence retreat that taught me to enjoy the simplcity of life and look for deeper meanings. Our only luxury was lemongrass tea and a bar of soap. Removing comfort,
    speech and eye contact from the eqaution allowed remarkable exploration of the less obvious.

    • December 4, 2010 10:54 pm

      Thank-you Lauren. Cambodia was one of my very favorite places so far, especially because of the people. I felt like all these great experiences landed in my lap simply by hiring these drivers who were so generous in sharing their histories, hospitality an humor. I also love lemongrass and the other flavors of Cambodia. I need to experiment on my own at home with a mountain of fresh lemongrass and my cuisinart. I have a hand written recipe written down by Nasreen from our informal cooking lesson for Cambodian curry.

  2. Sissi permalink
    December 21, 2010 1:31 am

    Hehehe, a nice and fun experience!

    • December 21, 2010 10:04 am

      Hi Sissi – definitely fun – I highly recommend hanging out with a friendly Cambodian driver for a few days.


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