There’s a few visits I haven’t written about yet: my journey to The Royal Palace and my visit to Wat Phnom. But, I’m sure I’ll get to them at some other point (like that time I was sure I was going to read 30 books in a year – I managed 5. It was during my PGCE year so back off). However, I wanted to tell you about a particularly memorable day-trip.
Last Thursday, I went to the International Book Company to pick up some supplies, and I asked Vitou to pick me up. (I’m going to stop referring to Vitou as my tuk-tuk-driver-friend from here on in. He’s my friend. He also drives a tuk tuk and he gets me places.) He asked me if I wanted to go back home, and I said I wasn’t sure. I wanted to visit somewhere. He suggested that rather go anywhere that day, we should go to Silk Island the following day. He’d never been before and I thought it was a great idea. I didn’t know much about it the place and Vitou told me it’s where you can see silk being made.
So, after my Khmer lesson, I went to find him and we headed off. Silk Island, or Koh Dach in Khmer, is an island in the Mekong River north of Phnom Penh. To get there, you have to cross the Tonle Sap River, then head up National Highway 6 for 5km. The next bit is very exciting, as it makes it feel like a real adventure, but it also poses hidden dangers – one of which I succumbed to.
You have to get off National Highway 6 and join bumpy, parallel back road in order to find the ferry terminal. This is essentially a gravel ramp which takes you onto an old boat that crosses the Mekong River. To cross in a tuk tuk costs 3000 riel, which is about 50p. This is where my problems started.
Vitou and I had to wait for the ferry to return from the island and as we did so a very friendly Khmer woman came to talk to us. She lived on the island and helped us purchase our tickets. She suggested that we visited her house to see the silk weaving in process. We had a conversation (half in English, half in Khmer). I told her a little bit about my family (the fact I’m a twin and my brother has a daughter who is three, etc; she had her son with her; he wasn’t very well so was going home for the day, etc.). It was all very amicable. I felt quite proud with the amount of Khmer I managed to use.
The ferry arrived. I got out of the tuk tuk and walked onto the ferry, while Vitou waited behind the string of parking vehicles. In order to get a good view across the river, I thought I’d go upstairs. The view was impressive: it showed just how massive the Mekong is. The stretch to get to the island is wider than the Thames, and there’s the same again on the other side of the island.
There the Khmer lady was up waiting, and she began talking to me again. As elements of Khmer culture are based on a number of factors such as age, you ascertain personal details quickly in conversation so that you know how deferential to be towards one another. She knew I was 28, single, about to move to Siem Reap; I found it she was twenty-five and her husband left her when she was pregnant.
Obviously, westerners attract some attention due to the fact they walk around with dollar signs floating above their heads. Furthermore, for the Khmer, the ideal woman or man looks quite western: blond hair, pale skin, large nose. All their beauty products, for males and females, contain skin whiteners in order to attain the ghostly complexion. Therefore, I actually meet quite a few of these ideals. (It took me a while to not be offended every time a Khmer person a person commented on how pallid I looked or how I had a bulbous nose. “Your skin is so white… Your nose is big…”) So, the conversation turned towards my appearance.
“You say you are twenty-eight but you look much younger. I am more young than you but look older,” she said.
I had a vague feeling where this was going; I knew I was being baited but being a polite Brit I had little option but to take the hook, line, sinker and the rod.
“You don’t look old,” I said in as a non-committal manner I could muster.
“Oh,” she giggled. “You are very handsome. Do you have Khmer phone number?”
“I do but I can’t remember it,” I said, smiling helplessly, thankful that remembering strings of numbers was not a God-given gift of mine. I looked around for Vitou, and saw him just below me, with his tuk tuk. The engine was too loud to summon him; I was on my own.
“I write down my number…”
If I ever find myself trapped in a car that is slowly rolling towards the edge of a cliff, I am sure I will experience similar emotions. A strange sort of passivity overwhelmed me as I realised the destination of this conversation and I had a sense that whatever I did would either hasten the inevitable or would do very little to prevent it or some similar disaster.
“…maybe while you are in Phnom Penh you could come here again. Or maybe in the evenings I could meet in restaurant with you in Phnom Penh. I could be your girlfriend before you go to Siem Reap. I get very sad and I will think about you. Keep this number and ring me.”
I certainly did not come to Cambodia to create the next remake of Madame Butterfly (despite being a fan of Miss Saigon – it has some good songs). I quickly said that I was very busy before I go to Siem Reap and it was unlikely that we would meet up (“Knyom roo-wool! Knyom roo-wool!”). I muttered that I would go and talk to my tuk tuk driver. I went down stairs and found Vitou, thinking I may have managed a tuck-and-roll from the metaphorical cliff-bound car.
“Vitou,” I shouted over the roar of the engine, “the lady gave me her phone number.”
“Yes,” he replied, “she wants us to visit her house to see her family make silk.”
“No, she-” The engine kicked up a gear. I couldn’t even hear the words form in my mouth; Vitou certainly wouldn’t hear me tell him that the lady thinks we’re dating. I was back in the metaphorical car once more.
The engine, dispute the sounds that suggested it might not, made it to the port, Vitou jumped in the tuk tuk, and all the other vehicles around me fired up their engines. There was no way I was going to be able to finish this conversation now. Vitou and the other vehicles left and I walked off the ferry.
I had a moment of blind panic. I couldn’t see Vitou or his tuk tuk. However, he had slipped in front of a parked van, and was waiting for me to get in the tuk tuk. About fifty metres ahead, my, er, “girlfriend” was waiting for us to follow her.
“Er, Vitou,” I said as I was sitting down in the back of the tuk tuk. Too late. Vitou started off in pursuit of the lady who was taking us to her house. And so it was: the lady who wants me to date her is taking us to her house. I’ve only known her for half-an-hour and I’m already meeting her family. This was moving far too fast for my liking.
We stopped outside her house, and sure enough, underneath the home on stilts, sat three looms. There was a long table at the side, with a very old tv playing and two spinning wheels. She definitely made silk. Moreover, there were quite a few other people there, presumably her family and possibly my future in-laws. I nervously got out of the tuk tuk.
“You want to come and see it too?” I asked Vitou trying to sound as casual as possible, but also making sure that I was not about to leave Vitou’s side.
“Maybe I come,” he said in his usual polite manner. He got out and we approached the first of the three looms.
And elderly woman was sitting at it, and there was a young child in a hammock just behind. The woman from the boat told us about the process, a little bit about how the loom worked and how the pattern was created. We moved to the other looms, one of which that was also able to weave cotton.
“I will show you our silk,” the lady from the boat told me. She got a bin bag full of fabrics and tipped them onto the table. She proceeded to show me the various design and types. “This is red with Angkor Wat. Very beautiful. Take three week to make. This one is same design but green. Buy for gift for your mum.”
“This one is twenty-five dollars. This one is twenty. If you buy both I give it to you for forty. Special deal. Special deal.”
“These ones all fifteen dollars. These are not as big. The blue one is nice. The green one is nice. Which colour do you like? These are all silk. These ones are cotton. Ten dollars each for cotton. Green. Red and black. Blue and black. Just blue…”
I’ve heard many horror stories about foreign travellers accidentally becoming engaged to a local person. I’m not completely sure, but I think I had two choices: marry her or buy all her silk. I tried to remember how much money I had in my wallet and work out how much I could afford to spend.
I became acutely aware that Vitou was quite a few metres away, watching, transfixed, the elderly woman work the loom. I called him over under the pretense of asking him to help me choose the silks. Vitou would prevent any potential cultural proposals. He’s exceptionally protective of me and is always exceptionally helpful. (Every time I suggest he drops me off at a restaurant where Khmer eat, he refuses to take me, concerned that I’ll get ill. He’s also almost as adamant as my mother that I don’t use or drive a moto when in Siem Reap.)
Fifty dollars, a cotton scarf for Vitou, and a final examination of the silk-weaving process later, we left for the next stage of our journey… [coming soon].