Chapter Two: Kampong Speu, Cambodia:
If I ever whinge about my life again, hit me over the head with a water buffalo leg bone.
I'm sitting on a raised bamboo platform - an essential part of rural Cambodian life - under the house of a rice-farming family. Cambodians in the countryside build lovely wooden houses and then live under them. It's cooler.
On this platform all the family is gathered - a baby swings in a cradle pushed by a young woman, gorgeous with maternal love; a small child with scabs on his nose from having fallen from the platform stares wide-eyed at me; a muscled son-in-law in a Khmer sarong holds the hand of a shy little girl. The matriarch smiles broadly, clasping her hands together and bowing her head whenever I look at her.
Outside, the bikes cool down despite the fierce sun. Gloves and scarves, limp from the journey, hang from the handlebars.
The patriarch sits with his legs folded under him, his old rice-farmer's back getting some support from the wall behind him. When we arrived he quickly changed from his sarong into a crisp white shirt and pants. He talks to one of his three sons. This son accompanied us on our ride south from Phnom Penh, where he now lives. He's a friend and was keen for us to meet his family.
In front of the old man is a bag of groceries and fresh meat we presented to him as a gift. I tell him that we have had lunch. (We know they don't have enough food to feed us.)
My legs hurt. I can't comfortably fold them under me or even sit cross-legged on this platform. It's not just the ride on the little bikes that has made me sore, it's that I am a big, unexercised Westerner. My life encompasses none of the physically demanding work the old man's does. I can probably type better than him, but typing doesn't burn calories and help my body bend. He's a little bloke but his body is strong and sinewy like the chooks that wander about. He would be tough chewing for sure.
With his son translating, the old man tells us he has about half an acre. He grows rice and also has pigs, cattle, poultry and a small vegie garden. The family living here is large: father and mother, three sons, two daughters and their husbands, and a bunch of grandchildren.
They live on what they produce. There is no dole, farmer's subsidy or drought relief. Sometimes there's not enough food. The sons have all gone to the city to make some money and send what they can back to the family. Life in the city for these rural refugees is not easy. Life for most Khmer is a daily struggle.
We sip on bottled water and play with the children. Time passes in that slow, comfortable, Asian way. Rice planted, pigs fed, the family hangs together on the platform. With no electricity, there's no internet, television or video games.
What there are, though, are smiles aplenty.
This is the great lesson for me. Be grateful (for what I have). Be happy (might as well). Maybe this is why I return to Cambodia; to learn and relearn this lesson. I'm one of the lucky ones. I have no licence for unhappiness.
The sky darkens. Drops of rain smash into the red dirt. Immediately the brothers-in-law start moving our bikes under cover. The old man lithely slides from the table and pushes my bike under his house.
"Au kuhn," I say.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.