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Dan Vercruysse Travels to Cambodia: Part 4 of 5

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    • Dan Vercruysse Travels to Cambodia: Part 4 of 5

      Cambodian Lifestyle

      In the United States, roughly 20% of the population lives in rural settings, while in Cambodia, it is just the opposite, with 80% of Cambodians living in rural villages. Therefore the following observations about village living depict the lifestyle for the vast majority of Cambodians. It is worth noting that much of Cambodian lifestyle (in cities or villages) is grounded in the country’s lack of material resources and struggling economy. The effects of the Khmer Rouge occupation 40 years ago are still present and continue to shape lifestyle today.

      The traditional village house is constructed on columns, so the sleeping and indoor living space is elevated to the second level. This allows for the house itself to act as a cover for the ground beneath it, which serves as most families’ outdoor kitchen, living, and storage spaces–this results in Cambodians being very connected to their environment. The house itself is generally constructed of wood members, with either wood siding or thatched walls, and a metal or thatched roof. The structures are built in ways that support natural ventilation and allows for relative ease of repair. Wood can be a scare commodity, so it is not uncommon to see other non-traditional materials used instead. Cambodians are extremely resourceful and inventive when it comes to the reuse of materials.

      Village living is a pretty social affair, with neighbors and friends stopping by often to catch up on the latest news. Much of this interaction happens on the lower outdoor level, which is commonly outfitted with a variety of seats and tables for meeting. Meals are taken there as well, with outdoor wood-fired cooking tables and raised platforms where families sit to eat.

      Kids are abundant, and the old adage, “it takes a village…” is in full effect. Kids enjoy a level of freedom rarely seen in western culture. At an early age they are allowed to explore and investigate their surroundings as they wish. Before long they also become contributors, helping to secure food for the family by hunting and gathering anything edible they can find.

      Many village families raise some sort of livestock (cows and pigs), however it was explicitly stated to me that these animals are an important source of income and thus too valuable for the families to consume. This has resulted in villagers having a very diverse and inclusive diet–living off the land and rivers, considering anything edible as fair game. An average day’s meals might consist of fried rice noodles for breakfast, a lunch of dried or spiced ground fish over rice with some herbs and garden vegetables, with a dinner of grilled frog (note: Cambodians love to eat frog), indigenous papaya, and fried red ants or grasshoppers.

      Agriculture is at the heart of village life. The cultivation of rice is the mainstay of the village economy, with an emerging focus on village families growing an array of fruits and vegetables to support the developing tourism industry in many parts of the country. I was lucky to be in Cambodia just as the rice crop was transitioning from beautiful lush green fields into a warm golden color that signifies their fully ripe condition ready for harvest. The harvest is a village wide task, with families helping each other to bring in the crop from their fields. Larger and wealthier communities might be able to afford the cost of renting gas-powered harvesting equipment, but the majority of farmers do it the old fashioned way, by hand with a sickle. Once cut, the rice plants (stems and fruit) and collected into bundles to dry in the field. When ready, the bundles are gathered up and the fruit is removed from the stem. The individual grains are then laid out on tarps or mats to dry in the sun until they are ready for sale. During this time, country roads are lined with these blue tarps and grains everywhere you look.

      For greater access to foods and goods, villagers will go to their local market. They can be found from large to small with an incredible range of offerings. In many ways markets act as the center of a community where people connect with others, discuss current events, and establish their local economy through buying and selling. I was completely fascinated by the energy and activity of the markets I visited and made it a point to go to as many as I could. Markets are often organized by what is being sold, with the following sections being represented in some way: clothing, jewelry, electronics, household goods/hardware, repair services (i.e., metals, motors, etc.), prepared meals (think, noodle diner), butcher meats, sea foods, fruits, and vegetables. Building upon my comments about the Cambodian diet, I sought out the most unique foods (to western tastes) I could find–these are my favorite photos from the entire trip!

      Rural families have limited access to services, businesses are generally found in or around urban centers. One benefit of being in Siem Reap (a medium-sized city) for three weeks was the ability to see a variety of shops. Cambodians often observe less defined boundaries between different portions of their lives. The work day, family time, and socializing are often interwoven into the day. It is not uncommon for someone to work hard at a task and then take an impromptu break to chat when a neighbor stops by, or shift from stocking shelves to a parenting task because their child is with them while they work. Many shops are tied to the owner’s living spaces facilitating this erosion of boundaries. Prosperity is scarce, resulting in a culture that works hard and openly embraces the mixing of priorities allowing them to fulfill multiple rolls at one time.

      Next up, for my final blog post, a discussion about sustainability in Cambodia…

    • 80% of Cambodians live in rural villages
    • a typical village house
    • outdoor living
    • cooking with fire
    • the freedom of children
    • harvesting rice
    • livestock
    • outdoor market
    • outdoor market
    • live/work lifestyle
    • About the Author

      Dan Vercruysse

      • Architect / Senior Associate
      • dan@msrdesign.com
      • 612 359 3225
      • View Bio