A sharp turn off the paved main road and our volunteer team finds itself plowing through muddy, unpaved tracks dozens of miles from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bustling city activity and buildings are quickly replaced with seas of lush, green rice fields. Worn-out street bicycles replace motorbikes. We crane every which way, taking in the tall palm trees that rise starkly from the paddies. It is early morning and farmers are already tending their crops. We spot a few fishermen on long canoes, crossing the shallow swamplands.
Glancing starry-eyed at each other, we take it all in.
We are visiting the only primary school for miles and are bearing face paints, balloon animals, egg-shaker instruments, and a couple soccer balls for impromptu games. Eager anticipation fills our modest van. We are looking forward to working with the kids, ranging in age from six to eight. We hope to connect with them through crafts they have probably never seen or heard of before.
The road becomes more challenging to navigate. Straw huts and homes on wooden stilts begin to emerge as we near our destination. Seconds from the school, a face-off ensues with the children. In little blue-and-white uniforms, they dot the landscape like strewn pieces of candy. They stare at the van as if it were an apparition, and then dart into their schoolyard once they realize what is happening. Giggles and small scampering feet welcome us as we disembark.
They epitomize cuteness.
Meandering from classroom to classroom, I observe volunteers at work, making balloon animals and painting wee faces. Furiously shaking their new, plastic musical instruments shaped like Easter eggs, the kids begin to sing and scream in tiny, yet shrill, voices. I beam and scan each child until I finally spot him. He grins at me with a giant smile with a gap between his two front teeth.
He is absolutely precious and I instantly consider him my son.
We stroll into the nearby village, where a wave of life and smells overcomes us. We step back into a time where living simply is all that really matters. Beneath stilt homes lie pens of livestock. From sows and piglets to ducks and ducklings, and chickens and chicks, animal husbandry is one of the residents’ main sources of sustenance. Cattle wallow under tarps and observe us, the approaching intruders. Vegetable gardens emerge as we press deeper, and enormous heads of the freshest lettuce grow from fertile land.
“Or Kun,” we thank the elders gleefully as they grant us permission to explore their village. They sense our excitement and lower their heads slightly in response. Children’s laughter fills the air and we gravitate to the source, only to arrive at the edge of the lake. Wooden canoes line its banks. The kids swim with reckless abandon in its murky green waters. Some try to use their balloon animals as flotation devices. The little boys do back flips and cannonballs off the sterns of canoes, making splashes as loud as their small bodies can. I spot my “son.” He peers out at me, neck deep, and gives me a wide grin before disappearing beneath the surface like an alligator. I beam proudly.
We stroll by village women playing a card game, men swinging lazily in hammocks, and older villagers trying to decipher how we got here – and why. It is time to head back to the school and we leave the village like pied pipers with a swarm of kids trailing. They are still eager to show us every inch of their village.
More balloon animals are made and faces painted that afternoon. The little boys begin exchanging their inflated swords for air-filled flowers. Our norms mean nothing here. Appreciating the simplest of things is what sums up one’s existence in Kwang Yaw. We quickly realize the unlimited bounds of energy that first- and second- graders possess; keeping up seems futile.
Several hours later, it is time to go. The humid air feels denser. Our bags seem a couple pounds heavier. Tiny pattering feet shadow large, heavy ones as we stroll back to our van. The ride back to Phnom Penh is somber. The lush green fields don’t seem as captivating anymore. Even the beauty of the gorgeous floating lotus flowers begins to wane.
Certain sadness fills me. I have left my son behind.
Krang Yaw is an excerpt from my book Due North which is a collection of travel observations, reflections, and snapshots across color, cultures, and continents.