Butternut Squash and Sex: Cambodian Customs, Culture & Curiosities

IMG_0887We are learning so many fascinating things here. Cambodia’s religion is mostly Buddhist but with its own blend and strong mix with Hinduism. They seem to celebrate everything: Chinese New Year, their own and a few others… Smart. After years of warfare and hardships, this country needs all the celebrating it can get.

IMG_1399It is incredibly important what your birth sign is. For instance if you were born in the year of the rabbit you might not be able to marry a girl who was born under the ‘wrong’ sign for you. Our guide, a wonderful, cheerful young man, had to move heaven and earth and really talk his parents into letting him marry the girl he loved because he is “wood” and she is “fire”.

Couples born in a certain year can also not have a baby in a year that is not ‘good’ for them. So they are told to make sure not to have a baby that year. Children often get a ceramic piggy bank in the shape of their sign: a piggy, a rabbit, etc. Our guide was very excited to find out that I am a ‘dragon’ – apparently the most desirable sign to be born under.

IMG_1261Family is very important. A young man does not really want to date a girl who lives in a far-away city because neither of them would be able to move away from their parents and grandparents. Sons listen to their mothers (!) and value their elders.

Families here tend to be larger, with 6 or 7 children. Some birth control is being taught. My favourite story is of people explaining birth control in a small, northern village. They demonstrated the use of a condom by putting it on a butternut squash, just the right shape. However, something got lost in translation… One couple went home, bought a butternut squash, put a condom on it and put it on display in a prominent place in their home. They were most upset to get pregnant despite their precautions….

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We were happy to attend an evening of traditional dance. Cambodia Cycling, the company that organized our tour (http://cambodiacycling.com) arranged this for us. They drove us to a restaurant in Siem Reap where we were served a very good traditional dinner while watching the amazing dancing in traditional costumes. One dance was called the Peacock Dance and both dancers had enormous peacock tails. My favorite was the coconut dance, with coconut shells used like Spanish castagnettes. The girls have long fingers that can bend backwards. Each hand gesture is an integral part of the dance and has many meanings. They stretch their hands for many years to achieve these unusual positions. The dances, like the sculptures and statues in the temples, tell stories of the past and of the beliefs.

The women on the street wear either western clothes or sarongs and t-shirts. The most common Cambodian wear is a pant suit that totally resembles our pajamas. You know those old-fashioned flannel pajamas of pants and a button-down jacket? That’s what most women wear in bright, busy patterns. I hope that they are not flannel – I think it is synthetic.

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Bringing incense to the temple, the red bracelet protects her from evil spirits.

We’re told that robes of monks are bright orange because this is the natural color of leaves on a tree, in the best part of their lives. Not light green when they start growing, not withered away brown but bright orange.

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Spirit House with incense and food offerings

Most people here have a spirit house in front of their home – a small kind of temple on a stand. In it they burn incense and leave offering to please their house spirit – drinks, fruit, etc. Some houses have several. If a business man is successful, he buys more elaborate, larger spirit houses or statues.

From Red Wool Blessings to Rubber Plantations

IMG_0924We visited a new temple rather than an ancient one. Bright orange robes of monks and a shiny gold altar sparkled amid the green of the jungle. We gave some money to a monk and in return he tied a thin red wool bracelet to our left wrist, chanting prayers, blowing on the knots he made, we felt blessed with his well wishes. I certainly hoped his prayers would help me as we climbed about one thousands stone steps to the top of Kulen Mountain. Once at the top, we walked beautiful flat trails in the cool jungle. We heard many birds and met one person searching for bees so that he could locate a hive, smoke out the bees and collect the honey which would fetch him $25 per liter. IMG_0951We walked to a small jungle village with scrawny chickens and dusty dogs. Homes are all built on stilts, for the monsoon season, and have a lower platform where people sit or sleep. Upstairs the room has a roof and sleeping space. The “kitchen” is underneath the house or next to it – a simple coal or wood fire with a few pots. Clothes hang on a strong between the posts under the house. As I watch women on their hunches, stirring a pot on a fire, I think back to my kitchen at home. A world away. IMG_0959

We reached the entrance to a National Park and walked along a small river where, 800 years ago, people diverted the water to run from south to north. They paved the river bottom with one thousand ‘linga’s’. A linga is a spiritual symbol: a square carving is a female stone, a round one symbolizes male. IMG_0931

These linga’s, together with a god image and lotus motifs, still decorate the river bottom. Amazing that 800 years of water has not eroded them. The river is thought to be a gift from Buddha and, once you see the river’s source, this is not surprising. It simply comes bubbling out of the earth: a crystal clear spring in a small blue puddle that grows into a powerful river.

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Downstream we saw many people who come out for the Sunday to rent a small wicker platform with a roof. They were all cooking food, having a picnic, playing games and splashing in the river.

Even further down stream we came to 3 enormous, 30 meter high waterfalls. I loved cooling off in the cold water. We are often the only westerners and little children call out “Hello!” waving enthusiastically.

The next day we walked through a rubber plantation. Rubber trees were planted here in long straight row. The trees have about a 4’ section of bark removed with a shallow line which ends in a small bowl catching the rubber, which is collected daily. But the price of rubber has dropped so it isn’t very viable right now.IMG_1057