Beneath the stilted timber house the man lazes in his red netted hammock, swaying gently through the sticky afternoon air. A few metres away, a white humpbacked Brahmin cow stands in the shade of a banana tree, her wet brown eyes staring into the distance and her tail switching back and forth. A skinny black chook scratches at the base of a nearby haystack, and a young boy trundles by on a creaking bicycle that's too big for his gangly frame.
Witnessing this slice of rural life, which has barely changed since 100 years ago, is quite rare in Cambodia. Most rural villages were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the mid-1970s, but not this one. No, Angkor Ban, in Battambang Province in the country's north-west, was claimed by the Khmer Rouge during their reign, who used the village houses either to live in or as storage.
Escaping the Khmer Rouge's ransacking wasn't the only reason Angkor Ban was nicknamed the "lucky village", though. As Somnang, our guide from the 24-cabin Mekong Pandaw ship that has ferried us along the Mekong River from Siem Reap, tells us, it also survived the flash floods that often touch the region, and American bombing of the country, too. As a result, time here seems to have stood still, turning this laid-back riverside town into a window into how the whole country might have once been, before all its hardships.
We continue walking the dusty village paths, soaking up the mellow rhythm of local agricultural life. Knowing what these stilted houses, most of which Somnang tells us are more than a century old, have endured makes them that much more beautiful. We stand before one of them, painted a particularly optimistic yellow with deep green shutters, and remark on the cleverness of their stilted design. Somnang tells us this keeps them out of the mud in the rainy season, pushes air through the house on the hottest days, and gives families extra space below in which to keep their livestock, firewood and wooden carts – "Cambodian BMWs", Somnang calls them, cracking up at his own joke.
A woman whirs by slowly on a bicycle laden with green leafy vegetables; we turn a corner to see two small children clad in red T-shirts running through a verdant laneway, shrieking with delight. Every few metres we pass another small Buddhist shrine, miniature versions of the real things we've been exploring over the past two days, dotted between the coconut palms and banana trees.
Scattered among this peaceful bucolic scene, however, are signs of modernity. The odd vine-choked electricity pole. The pairs of rubber flip-flops gathered at front doors. And when we reach the local primary school, a simple open-sided room equipped with electric lights, ceiling fans and a brand-new whiteboard, time instantly fast-forwards to the modern day. We sit down with the kids, about 30 in total, and attempt to help them with their reading.
"This is a book. This is an apple. This is a car." As they read to us from their thin English books, their slender fingers following the words, we hear the note of pride in their high voices. It's enough to break your heart. But there's no time for heartbreak, because before we know it it's time for the pronunciation workshop. One by one the kids stand up, walk to the front of the classroom and, pointing stick in hand, read a passage written on the whiteboard.
"My mum is a pilot. She goes to work at nine o'clock. Then she flies to Spain." The children read the words rhythmically (clearly they've done so many times before) and we nod our heads in approval. Acknowledging both the skill of the readers, and the modern message the passage is conveying to the kids, whether they properly understand its feminist undertones or not.
Soon, it's time to wave a forlorn farewell to these very cute kids. But we walk back to the Mekong Pandaw with smiles on our faces. Happy in the knowledge that although much of life here has been preserved just the way it was a century ago, in the way that matters perhaps the most, Angkor Ban now firmly has one foot in the modern world.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur from every capital city for about $1100 return. See malaysiaairlines.com
Wendy Wu Tours offers a range of Pandaw River Cruise itineraries, and a selection of private pre and post cruise itineraries. The Classic Mekong cruise aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw travels from Siem Reap to Saigon (and the reverse) over eight days, from $3,755 per person twin share. See wendywutours.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines.
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