We’re feeling more at home in Phnom Penh, so there’s less enthusiasm to run after the next must-see. I wanted to get the kids out of the cramped apartment and the night-noise of the city, but didn’t want to spend a day on the bus. So taking an interest in Atey’s hometown, I set my sights on Takeo, a town set on a lake about two hours southeast of the capital. It’s barely a paragraph on the travel advice sites, not promising much more than its lake, a few low-budget guesthouses, and some food stalls. A history museum set up by some donors is apparently kept under locks to save on a custodian while nobody visits. Not much aimed to please tourists. But Atey’s sister has been in town and was planning her trip home, and her family jumped on the idea and set up our shared ride.
So to celebrate the end of another school year, we grabbed our bags again and headed out to the street. The two sisters packed us into the car and laid out to the driver all the plans in Khmer, then Puckie kissed his babysitter and we were on our way. The driver looked over my kids clamoring into his backseat and then smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I was in friendly territory. That was the extent of what we understood from each other for the weekend. But it was OK for me. This was a crap-shoot, and I was pretty sure we’d figure out how to entertain ourselves no matter where we were headed.
It was a mostly peaceful ride, a pretty good, tree-lined, paved road out to Takeo. I had read that Takeo is a very poor province, mostly farmers. We would pass many stooped elderly Khmers along stretches of road, sometimes throwing a pot of water in the roadway to signal drivers to give money, sometimes leaning on a stick, sometimes just sitting in the sun with their hands out. We were cheerful riders, and Atey’s sister kept up a steady peek-a-boo with Puck while we rode. We stopped at a group of women with a bucket at the side of the road, and she jumped out of the car, returning with a bag of dark purple berries that she pressed into the kids’ hands. We chewed and spat pits for the rest of the ride. Then, as in all Cambodia trips, the driver spotted an unmarked dirt turnoff, and we veered off into the fields. We came to a gate and then a yard by a one-room bamboo house. A man with darkened teeth was smiling and waving his hat, welcoming his wife home. Atey’s sister gave a friendly lee-hay and we turned back out to the main road. Twenty minutes later we came to the town of Takeo, as the websites had suggested, a few streets, a lake, and a place to sleep.
On Saturday afternoon we crossed the street from our guesthouse to the walkway along the edge of the lake. Under a tree we passed a monk squatting on the low wall, having a smoke and watching us go by. Next to a bush we stopped to watch a lizard dart up a branch. We noticed that the biggest building in town was two blocks to our right—a colossal peach-stucco and mirrored-glass structure—the Takeo District Tax Office. A noisy cart drove by on something like a lawnmower engine. Two blue plastic tanks were set on the back marked H2O, and a young man sat on top. At a break in the low wall, we stepped over a hose running across the walkway and down into the lake. Then Puck peered over, and we saw the same young man maneuvering the hose into the littered muck at the side of the lake. Glad I didn’t try the tap water. We ventured a ways down a raised concrete walkway out over the lake to see what things might look like from that spot. A few meters out from the shore, the walkway holds up the concrete shell of what used to be a little room. Tika peered in. It was once a toilet, suspended in a concrete box over the lake, and now partially blown up and filled with trash and soil. We came back to the shore and the food stand I’d read about. We approached tentatively two women at a plastic table under a covering, beer flags strung from side to side. She turned on a small light and a fan, indicating ready-for-service. I pointed to the first three items on an all-Khmer language menu, and motioned toward a refrigerator with bottles inside. She let me pull out four sodas and a beer, lukewarm drinks from the unplugged case.
That night I lay in bed alongside Puck and Tika and listened to total silence. I don’t think anyone drove past the lake all night.
On Sunday morning, we tried something new, turning left as we walked out of the guesthouse. We meandered from side to side of the street, nothing but bicycles passing here. Then something caught Ernie’s eye. A hundred-dollar bill poking out of the grass. Two, three. Then fifteen or twenty of them fluttering down the sidewalk, and the kids were giggling and diving to grab them. Puck squealed with uncomprehending delight. The boys rolled and stuffed bills into Puck’s pockets, and he smiled and patted his pants. I turned one over in my hand. The size and design were right, but the paper texture was wrong. No wonder so many girls were bicycling over them.
Then we were passing the gates of the Ministry of Youth, Recreation and Sports Takeo Division. Sounds of an amateur brass ensemble rang out into the street. As we got closer to the honking, we could hear a frustrated instructor correcting the students with an accented “DOE-doe-doe, RAY-ray-ray, ME-me-meeeee!” A boy with a tuba balanced on his legs peered out at us from a doorway. I aimed my camera, and he hid behind his horn.
As we headed back toward the guesthouse, an important-looking vehicle pulled into the Ministry gates, and Ernie yanked Puck back. Rolls of the fake money were poking out of his pants, and Ernie was suddenly nervous. I pulled them along by the hands, still more bills blowing behind us.
Everywhere are so many anachronisms—glorious dilapidation and everyday jerry-rigging—that you need a sense of humor, a can of (warm) beer, and a long, lazy weekend to appreciate what’s going on around you.
In the hottest hours of the afternoon, Takeo offers nothing. We’d learned that walking further down any one of its roads led to the same beer umbrella and charcoal grill serving an identical glob of rice and salted meat. That was also breakfast and dinner, although I held off on beer until noon.
With nowhere else to go, we retreated again to our guesthouse room. The little ones made a game that the closet was a rocket ship, and the big boys grabbed their books. Ernest is deep into Survival in the Killing Fields, a gritty and probably-not-age-appropriate recounting that makes him wrinkle his face and ask me all kinds of questions. He dug his elbow in the crease of his book and warned the little ones to keep quiet. Yoshi rolled and stretched on the bed for a while, then settled down with Swiss Family Robinson. He digs between his toes and rocks from side to side when a book is good.I read him a few pages. Tika shouted that Puck had just landed on Jupiter. We read about a rigged-up homestead of a family in the trees. Yoshi chewed his finger and looked out the window toward a fisherman on the lake.