We spent last week in the distant forests of Preah Vihear province. Go to Angkor and head northeast three hours. Follow the bumpy dirt roads through empty lands, past ancient temples rarely visited, past CMAC camps and fields delineated for landmine clearing. Turn down a sand road to Tmatboey, a village of 1,800 people and a couple hundred huts on stilts. There in the nearby Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, you will find two of the world’s rarest birds, the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis. These magnificent birds feed and nest around watering holes known as trapaengs, which were built in the Angkor era.
That’s why we visit, to see the birds, to work on a story about the Tmatboey ecotourism project established with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Accommodation is rough — a communal room of slat beds and mosquito nets, bath by bucket, car-battery power for one light and a fan at night. But the village is the picture of quintessential Khmer life. And the kitchen: full of good vibes and good food.
A few of the Tmatboey village women have joined the project’s “Cook Team,” waking each morning by 3 to feed birders at 4 before their pre-dawn treks to the field. The women have learned to cook Western dishes such as spaghetti and omelet, but they quickly discover my taste for local food. In the early morning darkness, I forgo bread and jam, and ask for rice with fish instead. “Fish? You like fish?” They are delighted. The nearest river is many miles away, but the women arrange for a fish to be bought for my benefit. Every meal afterward, I am presented with a personal plate of fish, fried with garlic or mixed in a lemongrass, shallot and peanut curry. My love of chili intrigues the women further, and along with each fish they serve me a side bowl of hot red peppers.
I make several new friends on this trip, through my interest in their work. We form a bond. And when I leave for Siem Reap, for a return to bright lights and paved roads and telephones, several of the Tmatboey women tell me they will miss me like a loved one; they will love me like a sister.
You see, when people ask me why I travel or what makes me go where I go, it is days like these (rather than days like these). Just a few days in a hot wooden house in a faraway forest. Just a few days in a dark kitchen with stoves of fire and women who tend them — and so quickly the bond that forms. They speak no English; I practice my sketchy Khmer. But all we really need to get started is the language of food.