Christmas with a difference – Cambodia


It’s Christmas morning – we awaken tangled in our mosquito nets as we push back the vibrant blue shutters on the windows of our wooden stilted hut. The sun is only just piercing the horizon. As our eyes adjust, I wonder what beautiful experiences may greet us this morning in the Isanborei Community – a remote village in central Cambodia. With no electricity and no flowing water, we watch quietly as locals pluck cashew nuts from the lean branches and climb tall grassy hay stacks. Ox’s pull carts with wooden wheels that squeak and clunk on the unsealed roads and naked children run around squealing with glee as small puppies chase the featherless chickens. Surrounded by banana and coconut trees, the aromas of the fruits float on the morning breeze.

We sit patiently as our host cooks breakfast with the village cat weaving between her ankles waiting anxiously to collect anything that may be dropped. Then something quite peculiar happens. Stacks of brand new blue and red plastic chairs, about 100 of them, appear from nowhere and are placed in the centre of the dirt driveway. Two brand new small silver billy like buckets are placed on top. They are still wrapped in plastic. Suddenly the chaos begins.

Voices holler as the neighbours are called in. The husband at our homestay rushes frantically up the wooden stairs and quickly re-emerges in a dress shirt and smart pants. A group of 12 people including small children in school uniforms are ushered towards the sparkly new red and blue plastic chairs and they all gather around looking at them in awe. A young boy whips out a camera and all the neighbours have a group photo taken with the chairs. We sit there grinning, amused by this light-hearted morning entertainment until we are signaled to join in the photo. Confused but happy to join in with the villagers excitement, we participate in the happy snap as we are pushed and jostled between relatives and animals alike and pose with cheesy grins. As quickly as it all happened, it is suddenly all over. The chairs are whisked promptly away back underneath the house and the crowds have dispersed. What just happened? We had no idea but hey, we were living with the locals of a remote village in Cambodia and sharing their Christmas joy with them.

Breakfast consists of fried noodles with onion. Bland, simple, but authentic village food. We are offered some tea but politely decline due our experience the previous day. The glasses are simply ‘washed’ by wiping them out with a serviette. Squashed bugs cling to the inside of them, the tea only as hot as the mild temperature outside.

Following breakfast, we drive along the bumpy unsealed roads, past skinny cows and swaying palms, to the crowded city of Kampong Thom. With time to kill before boarding our bus to Phnom Penh, our driver urges us to go for a wander around this busy township. We come to an odd, sparse concrete building that looks almost prison like. It is draped in saffron and orange sheets and it suddenly dawns on me that these are monks’ robes. We have stumbled into a monastery. As we move closer, monks start to emerge. Cautious and elusive at first, but becoming seemingly more confident, they seem as fascinated with us as we are with them. Most of them linger back, but one has the courage to come over and speak with us.  “Hello, very handsome, you married? Show me ring.” He proceeds to take photos of us on his mobile phone before calling over another monk to join us for even more photos. He speaks to us softly but briefly about living and studying here in Kampong Thom before he suddenly says “goodbye” and disappears as quickly as he appeared.

It is now time to make our way to Phnom Penh. After a few hours of terrible driving combined with terrible roads and feeling like being bus sick, we arrive into the bustle of Phnom Penh. It’s big, dirty and crowded. We weave through the chaotic streets and our first stop is the Killing Fields. Lawn with huge craters where mass graves have been uncovered, rooms full of skulls and bones silence us. As we wander slowly and silently, our guide points out the white fragments poking out of the dirt beneath our feet and advises these are actually bones that hadn’t been fully uncovered yet. The rainy season would wash away the dirt and these bones would be collected in a few months’ time. Rags of clothing flapped about in the sodden ground still half buried. Somberly we walk on. We witness some horrific sights of where babies were smashed against trees and mass graves where bodies were found without heads. As we leave, our tour guide has tears rolling down her round face as she shares with us her personal experience of escaping from the Khmer Rouge. She had fled to a refugee camp in Vietnam and continues with her heart wrenching story of loss, survival and hope, explaining through sobs how she ate rats and insects – anything to keep alive. She has never heard from her brother since she fled, still not knowing if he is dead or alive. As she tells us her sad story, a wave of sadness sweeps over me as I think of everyone at home munching away on crackling, Christmas ham and delicious sweets with their loved ones.

Leaving this ghastly and confronting area behind, we continue onto the former S-21 prison. This place churns your stomach. A former primary school until the Khmer Rouge took over; this place was turned into a torture prison. Photos of the innocent victims line the walls, their lifeless blank eyes glaring at you, blood still splattered on the floor in some of the cells. Horrible disturbing images of distorted and mangled bodies filled the eerie cold rooms. There were only 7 survivors of this prison and one of them was here selling his story for $10 a copy. People are walking around in tears, nobody saying a word or making eye contact.

Although fascinating and a part of our history, we couldn’t wait to get out of here – it was too much, almost haunting and too real seeing as all of this suffering and torture happened not that long ago. As we leave the compound we are hassled by beggars with no limbs and one man has half his face ripped off and his eye is missing. You can see straight into his skull.

This evening, our Christmas dinner is much more light-hearted as we dine in a restaurant which recruits street kids and trains them in hospitality. This restaurant is beautiful. The setting was tranquil and quiet, littered with fairy lights, the food absolutely amazing. The sound of water lapping the pools edge is soothing and soft glowing lanterns flicker as we reflect on our emotional day over our Khmer meal.

Served by the teachers and their students, we eat some of the best Khmer food we have eaten in Cambodia. These street kids are amazing, so attentive to their teachers and so eager to learn. Passion and admiration gleam in their eyes. They have been thrown a lifeline and all they want to do is succeed. One student brings out a huge tarantula (still alive) to show the table next to us. He asks if they would like to eat it if he deep fries it, as it crawls across his hands. The young girl at the table screams for him to get it away from her. We smile at his light hearted approach with this terrified customer.

Small children fill the streets running around with Santa hats on their heads as we stroll back to our hotel to call it a night.

Starting our Christmas morning with a family who has nothing but a few chickens and some plastic chairs who are content and extremely happy, to reliving a horrific part of history that is still raw with many of people in Phnom Penh, to ending with an enlightening and delicious meal knowing we are helping keep kids off the street. My heart swells at the perseverance of the human spirit and I think of those at home unwrapping their material gifts oblivious to the experiences and emotions I have shared on my Christmas Day in Cambodia. This truly was a Christmas with a difference.

The neighbours
The neighbours

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