When I was 37 I went to Cambodia. It was the first time I ever went to South-East Asia which is odd because it would have been my favorite place likely in my 20’s, much like the rest of the male affluent white world. Loads of sex, cheep beer, and endless adventure is hard to pass up, but I did, probably because deep down I knew that if I did go there I would never come back, due to the fact that I probably would die there due to some circumstance directly under my control.
For whatever divine reason I dodged that death sentence and ended up in Phnom Penh on a film shoot with a guy I had worked with a handful of times named Sami Joensuu.
Sami was a super nice, super cool guy from Finland via Sweden. He had fun tattoos, a skater attitude, and a great smile. He was a pleasure to travel with, was funny, adventurous, and we would have made one hell of a travel show. We weren’t there for a show, we were there to film a documentary about a small village called Anlung Leak, which is not on any map, and about two hours due west in the backcountry from Phnom Penh. A humanitarian, Christian organization named FIDA wanted to document the benefit their assistance did on the town. We were to focus on one woman, a mother, and wife, named Ana Ong.
Ana lost her youngest daughter to Dengue fever, a completely treatable and curable disease even without medication. She lost her because the way her village had treated this sickness for the last millennia was to put the affected out in the sun, and let them sweat it out. Most died including her daughter. Then FIDA came and taught them what we of the first world would consider some very basic education; that there are these things called germs, untreated water needs to be boiled before drank, and washing your hands can stop you from being sick most of the times. They also taught her that she killed her daughter.
Not directly of course, but the understanding was that she did not need to die. The understanding was that if he mother just had this knowledge a little earlier, she would still have her daughter. It was a singular experience, that I will never have again, to witness, for the first time, another person, for the first time, be illuminated in such a profound way.
Of course that was life in the village. Here in the states I imagine there would be all sorts of ceremony, therapy, years of medication, self-doubt, and a life dedicated to “what ifs”. For Ana Ong it was part of a larger cycle, no doubt horribly difficult, but was a life that did not afford the luxury of pity.
We talked to her in a little wood shack that her husband built with his hands, axe, and rope. She showed us her most treasured items: two poorly photoshopped photos of her parents that were a tradition in Cambodia. A generic red sports car behind the man, and a disproportionate commercial center behind the woman, framing them in their dreams and aspirations.
On a derelict but well-kept wood chiffonier was an old 13 inch CRT tv. I asked what her favorite show was and she didn’t understand the question. She went over to the TV with a big proud smile and turned it on. White snow illuminated the dim shack. The TV was hooked up to a car battery and they would turn it at night to use as a lamp. They had never experienced it for it’s intended use. During the day the kids would ride a stationary bike attached to a generator to recharge the car battery. This was a town that had no running water or electricity, no cell phones, no current knowledge of the outside world, not even the basic knowledge that washing your hands could save your life.
Yet, here humanity thrived. Outside the children laughed and played like any child does around the entire world. A rich kid with a Xbox, or these kids that invented a game played with discarded rubber bands, had the same laugh, the same desire to win, the same need to be accepted. They were just as happy, and that, to me, was a tremendous discovery. It made me closer to humanity, made me realize that what was important was human not object, and made me feel that we do start pure, that the world as a whole does have a chance. You can read a thousand books, see as many documentaries as you like, I doubt you will be able to see it any clearly then a gaggle of kids giggling over a game they invented with garbage.
The village was fascinated with us. We were big and different and we came with these cameras and microphones that didn’t look like anything the had seen before. The kids loved to see their picture taken, one of Ana Ong’s daughters even posed like a model, hand on an extended hip, chin down and eyes up at the camera, without being asked, almost, instinctual.
“She wants to be an tour guid” said her mother, “that would make me very proud.” That however would not be the fate for the young daughter who has never left the village; at 12 she would go to the factory and begin to make t-shirts, or assemble electronics, like her older sister did. “School is very expensive, and hardly anyone has money to go to college.” I asked her how much it would cost to send her to school. “Well, from elementary, through high school, and then college, with all the supplies, it’s nearly 15,000 Bhat.”
That’s almost 400.00 USD. Almost.
We carried on filming, at one point even brought my little DJI drone out to get some aerial shots. I’ve never blown so many minds at one time before. The kids went absolutely nuts, and some of the older villagers ran into their houses, unsure and unwilling to participate in whatever the hell this loud, flying, flashing, buzzing white thing was. The drone to me represented perfectly the modern world, and to see it in this gentle, primitive setting was quite extraordinary. We flew over the rice fields, through the village, and down dirt roads, documenting an ancient place with the newest technology. I imagined this is how explorers felt when they came to lands filled with indigenous people. For me it was inspiring, to share the possibility of the future with the youth, but I could easily see how this power could be manipulated for other purposes quite easily.
And here is the film I made, just of the drone footage. It’s stunning to see the country this way, and must have been for many people; it’s won numerous awards around the world, and what’s more, I’ve had people actually leave comments thanking me for showing them their beautiful country. The pleasure was truly all mine.
We shot for about 10 days, and became very close with the people of Anlung Leak, and the children who welcomed us each day as if we were some sort of show for them. The last evening we shared a humble meal with Ana Ong and her family, she insisted in cooking for us. Lovely young rice and fresh eggs with golden yolks, fried as an omelette with garlic. Fish sauce and tapioca. It was simple and beautiful, and was probably more food then she eats in a week.
After dinner she took a large towel off an old cast iron ice shaving machine. It was French made, and was left over from a people who colonized her land that she never met over a century ago. She took a precious block of ice, rare and precious, and placed it gently under the mechanism. Children jumped for joy as she cranked the machine by hand; a giant iron blade scraping a symphony for them to dance to. The shavings were gathered, placed in a bowl with tapioca beads and some tapioca vermicelli, dried fruit, and condensed milk. She offered this treat to us first, before making any others and waited. It was delicious. Everything about it, delicious.
While we packed up, and the kids collectively helped clear the feast, Sami and I snuck into the little dark shack. Under her rag stuffed pillow we placed 400 dollars tied together with strand ripped from my red bandana. We piled into our car, placed our hands together and bowed a hundred times, and made our way back to the modern world of Phnom Penh. In the wake of dust behind us we left the hope that maybe one little girl might experience a larger world, and maybe bring the good things of that larger world back to her home town. Maybe.
Here is the full documentary we produced:
And if you like, hop over to my Flickr album … so many beautiful images.
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.