As fans of off-the-beaten-path travel, we were excited to find Dani Jump and the tours he offers. After growing up in India and three tours in the Peace Corps, Dani is an American citizen but has lived abroad for most of his life. He now calls Siem Reap home since 1992 and lives here with his wife and two children. As much as we love supporting local guides, we were happy to have a day with Dani and his native English skills so we could learn as much as we could about daily life in Cambodia. Dani met us the evening before the tour at our hotel and asked us about our interests in order to build a custom experience for us. He let us know there would be one other woman joining us, an American who spent the last six weeks volunteering here bringing internet to two primary schools. Across the course of the day, we found out that she is a University of Rhode Island alum, just like me – we graduated one year apart! It was an absolute pleasure to get to know Gabrielle over the course of the full day Dani had planned for us.
Our first stop was the local market: not for the faint of heart. Dani generously offered to buy anything we showed interest in, which was a huge help in overcoming barriers to trying things. Here’s a list of what we ate:
Corn on the cob
Three different dessert soups with varying quantities of beans, rice, tapioca, banana, and coconut milk
Deep-fried sweet potatoes with sesame batter
Stir-fried noodles with sprouts, morning glory, and egg
Dried, roasted rice
Rice balls with palm sugar
A silken tofu ginger drink
We got to see curries being made, coconut milk being squeezed, lemongrass being cut, and plenty of people beheading live snakes, frogs, fish, and eels to sell. More than once, crabs or catfish flopped out of their bowls and into the narrow pedestrian pathway, trying to make a final escape. There wasn’t much of anything that was familiar except for baguettes; Cambodia was a French colony from 1863-1953 and people continue to make them.
I entered the market thinking pretty highly of myself: I’m a world traveler. Local asian markets hold no power over me. Wrong. After about an hour wandering through narrow passageways; jumping out of the way of scooters; trying not to step on people or animals or vegetables; constantly ducking because we are huge, tall, American people; eating too many exotic foods; and getting dizzy from the smell of death and blood, I was getting a little claustrophobic and more than ready to leave. My low point came when we walked by a woman sitting on the ground chopping the heads off the live frogs she was selling. It would be one thing if they just lied still afterwards, but when a headless, bleeding, should-be-dead frog jumped across my path, I had to take a long, deep breath and pray I didn’t vomit all over everyone’s hard earned harvests.
Our first stop was to witness some rice harvesting up close. It was around 95°F but to guard themselves against the sun everyone working in the field was covered head to toe. Because of the generosity and willingness of these folks, I got to try my hand at harvesting. It is tough! The sickles they use are incredibly sharp but they whisk them so gracefully through the rice as they gather handful after handful. I didn’t have enough comfort with something that deadly to do it well, but it was a joy to wade into the rice paddy (the mud was about up to my ankles but it was a dry year) and learn more about how this staple of the world’s food is harvested. The next time you eat rice, imagine these folks, melting under the heat of the sun and often without clean water sources, working all day to bring you that delicious food.
We basically rode our tuk tuk until Dani saw someone he knew doing what they do, at which point we joined them and looked on. He has lived in the area for so long that he’s familiar with different families that live along the roads and the things they do to earn a living. We loved having this connection. It was still a bit like walking into a stranger’s living room, but knowing that Dani had friendships with these folks made us feel a bit more comfortable. We stopped again when we saw this family pounding rice flour and water, preparing to make noodles.
This was step one of the process. We would return a few hours later to find them pressing the dough through pinholes and into a vat of boiling water. This is how you make rice noodles with no electricity or machinery. We ate them a few minutes later on a piece of banana leaf as a “plate” with some salt and spices sprinkled on top. Fresh and delicious and as local as you can get.
Nearby, we stopped at the blacksmith’s home and observed while we worked on making an axe. Working so closely with fire in the heat of Cambodia, even in the winter, seems pretty unbearable.
Our next stop was to eat some local roadside spring rolls. Dani stopped here specifically because I had shared with him that I am a sign language interpreter. This lovely lady is deaf, and I was glad to see that she seems fully integrated into her family and has an active role in their business, not shying away from interaction with customers. In many developing countries, being deaf can be equal to being a pariah, the family shamed by having a deaf member. Though all I had was a 30 minute interaction, that certainly didn’t seem the case here.
We continued on and came across my favorite treat of the day: sweet sticky rice and banana grilled inside banana leaves. These things were amazing!
Because Dani knew I used to work in the HIV/AIDS services area and am curious to learn more about international adoption, he offered to swing us by an orphanage and school that his fellow Seventh-Day Adventist friends Tim and Wendy Maddocks had started in 2003. They now are caretakers of 117 children, 27 of which are HIV+. Tim and Wendy graciously invited us into their home and answered my questions about what it’s like to develop and run a Christian NGO in a Buddhist country. The Maddocks do not do any active fundraising or grant writing. They always find the support they need from their international network of friends and prayer warriors; God provides. They are currently building a butterfly garden as a way to attract tourists and create some income for their ministry, so if you ever travel to Siem Reap, be sure to seek that out!
At the end of the day, we circled back towards Siem Reap and hung out with some monkeys near the Angkor Wat grounds where they tend to gather by the roadside. We fed them lotus flower seeds we had bought at the market that morning. Before we even got out of the tuk tuk, one of the bigger ones pounced on Nate and stole his fruit right out of his hand!
Dani’s tour lasted from 7:00am – 4:00pm: an incredibly full day! We’re so grateful to get to see how most Cambodians truly live and the innovations they create to survive. Everyone we met welcomed us warmly into their homes and yards and we learned lifelong lessons of resourcefulness, hospitality, and gratitude from them.
*A note on photos of children: Nate and I talk often about how to travel in a way that is best for the places we visit. One of our considerations is taking photos of strangers. You know how we tend not to like it when people stick a camera in our face without permission? I sometimes think tourists are apt to forget this. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to ask politely for permission in a different language or they think it’s ok because the people are often poor and look exotic. We decided that taking photos of strangers isn’t for us unless we ask permission first; and children especially lack the ability to protest if they are having their photo taken. These particular kiddos belonged to the family who we watched make rice noodles. We hung around while they pounded the flour and then came back and ate a couple servings of what they made. Because of this brief but meaningful connection with this family, we captured their kids running around and being generally cute and we all laughed at the universality of being tiny in a big world. But, as tempting as it can be – because they are seriously cute – we don’t support taking photos of strangers or children without their permission.