The only sound that frequently interrupted the calm silence of the village was when the flowing waters of the Mekong met the rocks at the riverbank. The Chea family was sound asleep inside their wooden stilt-house on the banks of the river. An orange hue appeared on the eastern horizon and the rooster sang its song. Panya opened his eyes and rushed towards the earthen pot to quench his thirst. Panya was very happy today since the day he was waiting for had finally arrived.
Panya’s parents were paddy farmers like most of the families in the village. The money they could squeeze out of farming was barely enough for the family to survive. With little to no aid from the government, Panya’s parents had to think of alternate ways to earn some extra money. Luckily for them, people from all parts of the world looking for a break from the Wi-Fi, Barista and shopping mart lifestyle used to visit the village on a regular basis. So the Chea family would occasionally rent out their wooden house to foreigners who were looking for an authentic rural experience in Cambodia.
Panya, who was six years old, had never seen anyone outside of his village in his life. He, along with his younger sister, would often listen to stories about the people who used to come to the village.
“How big are they Ma?” asked Narem, Panya’s four-year-old sister, rubbing her hands with curiosity.
“Sometimes they are very big! They can be as tall as the sugarcanes next to our field!” replied Panya’s mother, as she tried to recall the last time they had visitors in the house.
“Is it true that they are as white as the milk from our cows?” asked Panya, his face gleaming with anticipation.
“Yes. They are so fair that you can see their skin glow when they are inside the house!” said the mother, trying her best to make the children happy.
“What will I say to them? Do they speak Khmer? Will they understand when I ask them questions?” asked Panya, who could barely control his excitement.
“No Panya! They do not speak Khmer. Do not bother our visitors otherwise they would stop coming to our house.” replied the mother hastily, who was very busy making breakfast for the family and doing lunch related preparations for the visitors at the same time.
After a delicious breakfast of Bobor, which is similar to rice porridge, Panya and Narem went outside the house to play with colorful marbles.
Since Panya was the older brother, he would take great pleasure in telling his younger sister imaginative stories about the foreigners. He would tell his sister stories about the luxurious lifestyle of the ‘big and white’ people.
“Do you know that they live in huts that are much more bigger than ours? Their huts are not on stilts but on the ground!” told Panya to his sister.
“Are their huts bigger than that of the village head?” asked Narem.
“Oh you are so innocent Naru! Their huts are so big that it cannot be described. And every person in the house has his own motor! If you don’t believe me then ask Ma.” replied Panya boastfully.
They continued to chat and play till noon and it was finally the time of arrival. Panya and Narem were staring out to the window, waiting to hear the sound of the tractor that would bring the visitors to the house. Panya’s mother had almost finished her lunch preparations that consisted of steamed rice, fresh water fish and traditional Khmer curry. The aroma of the food filled the house and added to the impatience of the kids.
Panya’s ears picked up a distant sound of the engine and he stood up instantly. He poked his head out of the window and he could see the trail of dust that was caused by the speeding tractor. He and Narem looked at the mother for her permission to greet the visitors. The mother smiled.
Panya bolted outside the house. He ran as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. His sister followed suit. They ran opposite the wind, towards the tractor. As they were running, they yelled out the only word they knew in the English language.
Ian’s back was numb after an hour-long tractor ride. He was glad that he had finally reached his getaway destination. As his tractor slowed down, two half-naked kids ran towards him yelling – Helloooo! Helllloooo! Heelloo!