|We are taking in the culture at the moment and I’m not only referring to what’s green and growing at the bottom of my noodle soup bowl. You really do get a sense of connecting with the real Cambodia up here amongst the Ethnic Minorities of the Ratanakiri province. Now that’s their choice of words as they do not like us referring to them as tribes, or hill tribes. As is the case in many countries the minority peoples of the Cambodian highlands such as the Tepun and Jarai are being shafted by the dominant Khmer’s of the lowlands. Their only asset is their land and shonkey developers a la Dave Henderson and rich farmers are stealing or duping them of the one thing that provides a stable income. Staple rice cropping gives way to forest clearing and cash crop planting such as rubber trees and cashew nuts subjecting these people to a life of ever increasing poverty and marginalization. So next time you fit a set of Goodyear GT radials or sprinkle nuts on top of your soft serve spare thought for these folk.
Belinda’s brother Jeremy has for the last 14 years been helping the Topun, Jarai and Korung peoples stand up for themselves and defend their rights against these latter day Conquistadors and it is really quite obvious the respect and gratitude they have towards him. Last night we were invited for dinner by one of the Tepun village elders as it was important for him to show respect and hospitality towards Mr Jirimi’s sister. We all jumped onto the back of a moto, the only form of public transport in the area, and turned up at a collection of houses built on raised stilts. Sam, his wife Liueng and two and a half thousand kids welcomed us with beaming smiles and a genuine desire to make us feel at ease and welcome in their village. Lukie had brought along his soccer ball and was an instant hit with the lads and played kick about in front of the huts. Bel got stuck in with Liueng looking at all the lovely weaving she had made and bought up enough to keep her family going for the next 2 years.
Jeremy wanted to catch up with an elderly friend who lived up the road so Bianca, Jasmine and I tagged along. Even within a poor Cambodian village there is an up town and a down town. The “have more’s” will generally have a more solid looking house and some even have a generator providing electricity for the TV and re-charging the cellphones, which nearly everyone has in Cambodia. The “have less or next to nothing’s” only have thatched walls, small houses on shorter stilts and their prized possession’s such as pots and pans and tools can be counted on one hand. This friend of Jeremy’s definitely fell into the latter category and as it was past sun set by the time we reached his house the whole encounter was played out in pitch darkness. Invited into the 5m x 4m shack we were greeted by an old fella with less front teeth than Luke and in the squatting position looked remarkably like Gollum from LOTR’s.
It was like the return of the prodigal son. Much song and dance was made about Mr Jirimi calling in and on such a special occasion they must celebrate so out came the rice wine. There was much back tracking by Mr J who I could see was desperately avoiding getting sucked into the rice wine ritual which has been the rack and ruin of many a good meaning NGO field officer. I shall explain what it is all about as it is quite fascinating and if it ever caught on in NZ it would put Lion Nathan out of business.
Rice Wine (or rice beer as it is sometimes called).
• Freshly harvested rice or if none available lightly steamed rice
• Rice husks or if none available sawdust (non treated)
• Natural yeast from the forest or Edmonds brewers yeast
• Water preferably with nothing floating in it
• A large ceramic jar, about 4 times the size of Winnie the Poo’s honey jar or it none available empty out Grannies ashes and use the urn.
• A long bamboo sucking straw, failing that a length of PVC plumbing pipe.
• 4 Thick foam mattresses, enough to surround the jar. This is an OSH requirement for NZ as in Cambodia a paralytic, semi comatose body bounces quite nicely off bamboo floors.
Smash up the rice into smaller bits and mix it up with the rice husks or sawdust. The latter two are just filler used to bulk up the mixture. Add the yeast and pour the dry mixture into the urn until about two inches from the top making sure to have placed the drinking in the middle of the jar. Now amazingly enough that’s it! Store the urn until a suitable occasion arises like Barcelona having just won the Champions League, NZski having dropped the price of a ski pass or anything worth celebrating with a bunch of your best mates. Finally just just add water and hey presto!! Fill the jar up to the brim 6-8 hours before consumption. How cheap is that!
To me it epitomizes social drinking. You sit around the jar in a big circle and take it in turn to suck on the straw and ingest a liquid with the consistency of anti freeze and a taste somewhat between fourth rate Russian vodka and mushed up Sushi. Everyone shares the straw and shares the love. The four by two plank usually hits you between the eyes at about the 15th long sip and funny things start to happen, people talk to you without moving their lips, all of a sudden you become fluent in Khmer and amazingly enough Tran Duc sitting next to you understands every word you say and replies back in flawless English, astounding!
Anyway suffice to say that Jeremy and I destroyed millions of neuro-connections inside that hut but made it out safely with the kids in tow in time for dinner and funnily enough, rice wine at Sam’s place. It was one of the highlights of the trip so far as the kids had a ball playing with all the Khmer kids.
Talking about highlights, even Bel and I got excited over this wee little event. Jeremy and Sam managed to jack up an elephant ride with some fella that owns two animals in another village a fair drive out of Ban Lung. We went for a ride on a mother elephant (57 yrs old) and her daughter (30 something yrs old) Bel and Jasmine on one and Lukie, Bianca and myself on the other. It was so neat gently but firmly making our way along a jungle track stopping every so often for Nelly to have a feed on a leaf or twelve. After an hour or so the novelty had worn off a bit but luckily we were back at base by then with Lukie busting for a pee. It’s nigh on impossible to pull over to the side of the track, jump off an elephant and go for a jimmy riddle. At 3 meters above ground you either stand up and pee over the edge of the stationary elephant or hold it in. Lukie opted for the latter and made it, sort of.
Anyway the trip has been magic so far we are so impressed with the travel hardiness of the kids as we have done two 10 hour plus days in an assortment of vans and buses in varying states of dilapidation. We’ve now arrived at Siem Reap where we can recharge batteries and enjoy a few of life’s little luxuries like swimming pools, AC and draught beer. Tomorrow were off to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, something we’ve all been looking forward to.
Liu Son Howie to everyone.