Last week, I took my own advice about not wasting time and spent my last few days in Cambodia on Bamboo Island. I’m glad I did — it turned out to be the highlight of my trip, my first glimpse into Khmer (Cambodian) culture.
Bamboo Island is an hour off the coast, near the town of Sihanoukville (where I’ve been the last month). It’s a small island that you can cross in 10 minutes and has only two beaches. There isn’t a lot of snorkeling here. Only ten bungalows. There’s no Internet. No power except from 6pm to 11pm. No hot water. No fans. It’s just you, the beach, a good book, and a handful of other people.
I spent my days on the beach, did a freestyle poetry night, limboed, and caught up on my Family Guy. After a few stressful months of writing, it was just what I needed to relax.
But what I enjoyed most was my night with the Cambodians on the island. I had come to Bamboo with two friends because we knew the manager of the bungalows, and he was having a “bungalow warming party” to celebrate his newly built bungalow. It would be him, the local staff, and us.
After the kitchen staff had served the tourists, they shut down early and we all went over to the new bungalow for food and drinks. I ate — and ate some more. They kept putting food on my plate and drinks in my hand. Curry dishes were poured onto my plate, filling my mouth with fire, spice, and unknown chicken parts. Savory BBQ fish was passed to me. There was no fillet — I just picked what I wanted off the bones. There were also grilled squid, shrimp, and vegetables.
As we ate, I was struck at how different cultures outside the West always seem to eat. Like much of the world, the locals in Cambodia enjoy communal eating. A tarp is put down, dishes are brought out and placed in the middle, and everyone sits crossed-legged, eating and grabbing what they want. There’s no my plate or your plate. It’s a shared communal meal in a society where community is important.
I was struck by not just how they ate, but what they ate as well. Like many poor, rural communities I’ve visited, nothing here is wasted. The squid is cooked whole, the shrimp head is eaten, and no part of that chicken goes unused. This isn’t unique to Cambodian culture; it happens throughout the world and is in stark contrast to the wastefulness of the West. Everything we eat is super-sized and thrown away.
I could wax on poetically about this, divining great meaning about society, culture, and values from how people eat. I won’t though; instead I’ll simply say that sitting down, watching the Khmers eat, talk, laugh, and bring me into their community was a blissful and joyous experience, even if I wasn’t so keen on that ink-covered squid.
After dinner, when the plates were cleared away, the music was turned on and cranked up, and the locals performed traditional dancing. Khmer dancing involves a lot of slow hand movements, finger turning, and grace. Everyone was pushed up off the ground, and my friends and I were made (taught) to dance. We followed the Cambodians as they gave us instructions; unable to speak Khmer, we simply learned by following along. There was no one there to say do “left, right, left” so we did our best to keep up. Note: I’m really bad at Khmer dancing.
As night continued, I learned some basic Khmer phrases, became buddies with one of the boatman, and did a shot of some really bad Khmer liquor with one of the cooks.
Thinking back on my time in Cambodia, I realized I hadn’t wasted it after all. Had I followed my original plans, I would have been on the island weeks ago, but I wouldn’t have come to know the manager, having only recently been introduced to him through my mainland friends. Even if there’d been another party, I wouldn’t have been invited. Getting stuck in Sihanoukville allowed me the chance to spend time with the locals in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
One of the questions on this month’s video Q&A (I do a video Q&A on Facebook — more reason to become a fan!) asks if people should spend added time in a destination to get to know it.
Because my time on Bamboo reminded me of what I learned in Greece, Bangkok, Amsterdam, and countless other places where I got stuck: culture only shows itself over time.
As travelers, we move around a lot. We scratch surfaces but never peel back the layers of the onion. There’s only so much you can do in a few days. If you really want to understand a place on a deeper level, at some point, you need to just stop, stay put, and soak in your environment.
Even if it means missing other places you wanted to visit.
So I guess in that sense, the month that I spent locked in my room wasn’t a waste of time that cost me my trip to Laos and Malaysia. That month was part of the journey to getting to know Cambodia in more than a passing way.
And in that light, I leave Asia not sad at what I missed but happy at what I got to see.
For more Cambodia travel tips, check out my Cambodia travel guide and start planning your trip today.