Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Deja Veux

Last year, in 2012, for New Years Eve, I was in Southern Thailand on a bike tour.  It was my “test trip”.  If I could manage a SE Asian foreign country for 3 weeks, I was set to go for a year in any country, or at least that was my thinking.  For New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t stay awake until midnight.  I woke up to the fireworks, figured it was 2013, and went back to bed.  The next morning I was off on a guided tour to see Phang Nga Bay, where the famous “James Bond Rock” is located.  I enjoyed my half-day tour very much, and in the style of Melissa, I wanted to get some riding in afterwards.  I set off at about 3pm and my guide told me I would find a hotel about 2 or 3 hours down the road.  Sounds familiar, right?

I pedaled and pedaled, as fast as I could, knowing that I was taking a chance with the my limited hours of light.  I pedaled to the next town about 2,5 hours away and didn’t find a single hotel or bungalow.  I was getting nervous, so I pulled over at what looked like a market and asked the first person I saw.  Wouldn’t you know, this person spoke perfect English, and even more ironic, they went to go get their friend, who was a young guy from the states, on vacation visiting his “host family” from when he was a high school exchange student.  He was waiting for a bus to go back to Bangkok to fly home.  I was lucky they did speak perfect English, but unfortunately they couldn’t think of a hotel in the next 10 kilometers.  They talked and talked and finally the younger girl in the family said, “Come stay at our house for the night, you can have Nick’s room.”  They were my saviors! I couldn’t believe how lucky I had gotten.  I didn’t hesitate in saying yes, as the only other option was to wait for a bus to come by and take me another 50 kilometers or so. 

Koontida's family where I ended up New Years Day 2013. Her grandfather just passed away this Christmas

For my Southern Thailand tour, I wasn’t using Warmshower hosts, so to see the life of the locals for one night was a true treat.  Koontida, and her family were incredibly hospitable, fed me, took me on a tour of their land, introduced me to all their family including their 100 year old grandfather, who had me sign his guestbook that he kept of everyone he’d met in his later life.  I was thrilled to meet them and spend an evening with this Thai family.  The next morning, January 2, 2013, I cycled off and continued on my way, cherishing the unique manner in which I started off the New Year.  I’m not religious, but I do think that night was a sign of how the 2013 year would go, filled with spontaneous adventures, caring people, and trust.

January 1, 2014 started off in a similar manner.  I was going to do a full rest day in Phnom Penh, after Ed left.  However, I was itching to get on my bike and get out of the big chaotic city.  The city had been built up for a good 20 kilometers coming into town from the south, so I figured it would be the same way up north.  I would ride two hours or so and stop at a guesthouse along the main road.  A brilliant plan that would make reaching Angkor Wat more doable in 2,5 days.  Getting out of Phnom Penh wasn’t as difficult as I imagined, but the roads were in terrible condition once again.  Luckily I spotted a small little road parallel to the main highway and the Mekong River, that was paved and basically only used by motos.  I rode on that for a good 30 kilometers until dark approached and headed for the main road to find a hotel. 

The view of the Mekong from the peaceful road I found heading north from Phnom Penh
I could hardly see 20 meters ahead of my front wheel on the main road because of all the dust being picked up by the trucks and cars.  There seemed to be a paved surface at some points, but the dust and dirt was unavoidable.  I stopped at a gas station to ask for a guesthouse because my choices looked slim.  They told me “oh,…very very far!” But when I threw out some numbers, it seemed it was only another 10 kilometers.  I pedaled and pedaled and reached 10 kilometers.  No guesthouse.  I stopped once again to ask for the nearest guesthouse, this time right by a pagoda, thinking I could also ask them if I could sleep there. 

Ly Peng, my host, calling the police to get the "Ok" to have a foreigner at his house

It was then that I realized a year ago to this day, I was doing the same thing in Sothern Thailand.  I had managed to ride to an area with no accommodations and it was getting dark when I met Nick, Koontida and her family.  I don’t know how I got so lucky, but there standing on the side of the road was a teenage boy, Ly Peng, with two other girls.  Ly Peng spoke really good English and told me there was a guesthouse 5 kilometers away but didn't advise cycling on at this time and with the road conditions as they were.  The pagoda wasn’t an option either as he said they don’t like foreigners because they don’t trust them for the entire night.  Instead he invited me to stay with his family, he told me they have foreigners with them frequently.  This town was nothing more than 150 meters of little shops and stands on the dusty main road, 40 kilometers north of Pnhom Penh.  How and why on earth would other foreigners stop here, and more unusual, how would they ever find Ly Peng? 

Ly Peng's aunt's house, his was tucked under off to the left.  I slept upstairs.

I knew I could have kept pedaling 5 kilometers and found the guesthouse, but for some reason, the sound of staying with a local Cambodian family sounded so appealing.  I think I needed a little bit of family loving!  To my surprise, we first had to clear my “visit” with the local police.  They had closed for the day, but Ly Peng called them and they were quick to arrive at his house.   They were enthralled with all the stamps in my passport and must have taken about 20 pictures of it and sent it to all sorts of different local authorities.  In the end, they gave me the "ok" to stay.  Ly Peng was 17 years old, the second oldest of 6 in his family, the youngest was 3 who he took by the hand anywhere he went.  His parents were out working at a factory in another town and wouldn’t be home until tomorrow.  The guys all slept in a small little house tucked under their aunt's huge house on stilts.  In his aunt’s house, there were at least 6 other family members, including a 70-year-old grandmother and a one month only newborn.  In each house, all the members slept together on a long mattress covered with mosquito nets, all but Ly Peng’s older sister who slept upstairs alone.  She had just lost her husband in a motorcycle accident and was needed her own space.  That is where I slept, upstairs with her. She was very pleasant and spoke good English as well.

Simple but comfy sleeping

Ly Peng's grandma, 70 years old living in a house with now 4 generations of family

I had a refreshing cold bucket bath, and believe me, it was refreshing after the heat from the day and the dust that covered me.  Neither family eats at their house.  They have a small little restaurant where I pulled over on the main road and this is where they all go for all their meals.  The middle sister runs the place and also sleeps there with some of the other girls in the family.  But as Ly Peng told me, most days they don’t eat very much, as they don’t have a lot of food. Today, however, being the New Year, was a special day.  Ly Peng and I were the only ones to eat except one of the siblings.  The others watched TV, us, and just hung out.  The grandmother was busy bringing us more dishes and swatting flies and mosquitoes. 

Ly Peng with some of his siblings

After dinner we headed back to Ly Peng’s house where he entertained his siblings with his laptop computer and a few DVD’s, a DreamWorks movie in English.  Even his grandmother gathered around the laptop to see the entertainment and brought us bananas for dessert.  I learned a lot from Ly Peng that evening as he explained his life in Cambodia.  He went to a language school, which is why he spoke such good English.  He wanted to study IT at the university, but he didn’t have enough money to pay for the degree.  In the IT field, he could make about $400 a month, compared to about $80 to $100 in a garment factory, which is what most people in the area do for work.  He kept insisting his friends were “more clever” than him but with his big heart and open mind, I know he’ll go far in life.

Factory workers at a shift change at a factory on the main road.  There were handfuls of trucks like this one and people lining the road

While talking with Ly Peng and learning about the daily life of Cambodians, I couldn’t help but feel ridiculous thinking of where I had spent my last week on the road.  On New Year's Eve, I was at a luxurious hotel in Phnom Penh sleeping in an air-conditioned room and tonight I was sharing a mattress under a mosquito net with no fan or air conditioning.  What more did I need? Was I safe, in good company, comfortable, indeed I was.  Ly Peng’s family didn't even have electricity during hte day.  They can only turn on the light and appliances from 6 to 11 pm every night.  With the money I blew in a week, Ly Peng and his family probably could have lived comfortably for about 2 or 3 months.  Talk about gaining perspective on life, I was in disbelief. 

I slept great that night. I must have been really tired as I went to bed with dogs howling and woke up to the roosters crowing at 5am.  Oh how I missed my meager, simple, and local lifestyle on the road!  What an experience staying with Ly Peng’s family.  Every one was up at the crack of dawn and I was ready to ride at 6:30 am.  We went for an iced coffee at the restaurant first, and then I set out at 7am. 

Ly Peng, a young boy with a big heart

I left Ly Peng’s house with a familiar sensation inside, similar to how I felt when I left Koontida and her family in Southern Thailand, exactly one year ago.  I had a little leap of faith and trusted the random local people on the side of the road and let them take care of me for a night. 2014, I’m certain it will be filled with a lot of unexpected positive experiences and adventures, random acts of kindness from strangers, and joined in the company of caring people.  I can't wait!

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