Pha is 58, looks like a weathered 68, but bounds up the wobbly ladder to his wooden house-on-stilts like a sprightly 18 year old.
Inside is surprisingly spacious – essentially one big room, with a cooking area at the far end and a sleeping section to one side. The first thing that strikes me (apart from the low beam above the entrance) is the flooring – planks of wood, but unlike floorboards I know, these springy strips are only 10cm wide, with a good 1cm gap between each one, so you can see right down to the ground area below. It’s only as the day hots up that I appreciate the way this allows air to circulate – and that the gap is ideal for rolling marbles, and for disposing of cold tea and fag ends!
Pha introduces me to the family – as far as my stuttering Cambodian tells me, he and Veum are the grandparents, and one of their daughters Payap also lives there with her husband and sons, the well-mannered and slightly shy 12 year old Botay, and the cheeky showman Titao, half his age but twice the volume!
I’m not sure though - it’s all rather fluid, how I imagine a northern English terrace in the 1960s, with kids and adults popping in and out as they like and the parenting a shared task between all the adults and the older children. I think the sparky 6 year old Rizar actually lives next door, but spends most of her time with us, making good use of the pens and paper I’d brought as a gift – though she seems slightly exasperated with my lack of skill in writing the khmer alphabet.
Food is a nice surprise – fortunately VSO tipped off the families in advance that many of the volunteers on the homestay are veggie, so I’m presented with a delicious feast of rice, tofu with beansprouts, a bowl of green oniony things and some red spicy sauce – horror stories of pig’s feet and cow’s insides abate. I eat on the floor, in the middle of the room. The family watch me, then retreat to the floor of the kitchen, presumably to discreetly tuck into fishier fare. Pha stays back to fortify me with copious glasses of black tea – he may not realise just how much that homely touch was appreciated.
After lunch is time for sleeping of course, so I do as the locals and bed down on a slightly hard wicker mat for a couple of hours of shut-eye. It’s a bit hot though, and I’m not quite at home enough to strip off my rapidly dampening t-shirt. Pha’s on the case again though, popping up with a brand new electric fan (I say brand new as it was still in its plastic wrapping, but I think Cambodians like to keep things this way as long as possible – either way, it does the job perfectly).
In the afternoon, Pha takes me and Botay for a manly walk in the fields. His placid face becomes animated as he jabs at the worms eating the wheat crop and prods the parched paddy field where the irrigation river has run dry. I think he’s doing ok though – he’s very proud of his 7 cows, which must make him well off around here. And I’m happy – in the middle of the fields is an overgrown area with red and white posts at each end - the nearest I’ve seen to a football pitch yet!
Later I go for a walk myself to watch the sun set over the Mekong. With such a beautiful view, I’m surprised that the village’s attention faces away from it towards the rice fields. Maybe admiring the scenery is a luxury afforded only to visitors, though the men in the family still wax lyrical about the setting as they pass my camera round later on.
The evening food gets more interesting: as Veum relieves the local women of their 100 riel notes at cards downstairs, the men tuck into what looks like a bucket of raw turnips, complete with clods of earth. Once the muck is peeled off, however, the white roots are surprisingly tasty, especially when liberally smeared with sweet brown gloop which I’m assured is palm syrup – you heard it here first.
And so to bed – after all, it’s 8pm already. So it’s back down on my straw mat, hoping my barbie-pink mosquito net will deter the various beasties who are already circling with intent.
The cock crows at 6 in the morning, a fine traditional countryside awakening – if the howling dogs hadn’t been at it since 4am. Still, I’ve had a good 8 hours sleep, so feel fine. Pha chats to me a little – it doesn't take me long to ask if he speaks English (he doesn't), but eventually it transpires he knows some French – wish he’d told me earlier! Whatever the language, I must speak a little too much (or too close), as he abruptly marches me to the downstairs bathtub-room making rigourous teeth-cleaning gestures. I assume my oral hygiene is his concern, though on reappearing he presents me with a heavily-sugared coffee – who am I to reason why?
And that’s it – 24 hours in the home of a Cambodian family, a fascinating insight for me and great preparation for the move to my new home in the rural north-west next week. That's was it was like for me - I wonder what they made of it all?