» Role reversal

Role reversal

It’s a wonderful time of the year in Cambodia, because the rice fields are hives of activity! Not only that, the luminous landscape, a sea of bright, young green is a sight to behold: not a day goes by that I am not in awe of the beauty of the countryside!

Hence, it should be of little surprise that for the last couple of weeks I have spent almost every morning in the countryside. It is during one of these trips a couple of weeks back that I met Bong Tip, Pooal and Peit. I noticed their group busy planting rice and it was a photo opportunity not to be missed. After chatting to the group for a fair while I asked if it would be ok to take some photos and they said they don’t mind at all so back to work the ladies went and I set about taking some photos.

The queens of the rice field. The queens of the rice field.

This caused a bit of a stir, because of course every person that came riding past on their bicycle or motorbike laughed at the situation and made a comment about the barang taking photos and that they should smile nicely for the camera etc – all in good spirits! I got some beautiful photos and after thanking them set off on my way back to Siem Reap again.

I have seen the group a couple of times since that first encounter and recently I went back to share a picnic with them. While we were chatting away we came up with an idea: this time the ladies would have a turn to take the photos and I will learn how to plant rice! So, we had a role reversal.

We had such a laugh and the commotion caused all the other planting to come to a standstill as they were also laughing at the new photographer on the scene and the new planter amongst them! Then something even more funny happened. A tuk-tuk came past with some Japanese tourists on their way to a remote temple. They also stopped to take photos of the scene and I naturally assumed they would be taking photos of the locals busy in the fields, but was I wrong: in an instant there were three telephoto lenses focussed on me! Suddenly the photographer became the subject! Hahaha, what a strange encounter! It really put things into perspective for me: to feel and experience what the locals experience so often when we aim our cameras at them.

Time to pay for the photos I have been taking! Time to pay for the photos I have been taking!

I have already learned that to get the best photos it is important to engage with the people you intend to take photos of: you have to show respect and by having a conversation with the people rather than snapping away you learn so much about them and what they are doing. This shows respect and it is only then that you will also be respected in return and be allowed to take photos to the best of your own ability. We were still laughing long after the tuk-tuk road off!

However, our laughter came to a sudden halt when one of the ladies yelped out. My first thought was snake, but it turned out to be a only a leech… even though the rice planters encounter these and other creatures on a daily basis it still isn’t pleasant to have a leech get stuck into you (as I also found out myself later that day when I went fishing with a friend)!

The evil creature The evil creature

I went back the next day, because I wanted to give Bong Tip, Pooal and Peit prints of the photo I took of them and before long I was employed as a temporary worker again, but this time under the watchful eye of Neak Kru (teacher) which was one of the senior ladies in the group. After completing an entire row of planting I think I had passed some sort of test, because the men (who had been busy ploughing the adjacent piece of land) called me over and invited me to have a drink with them. It looked like some refreshing syrup from the sugar palm so I took a big gulp from the cup that was offered to me. However, it was not a sweet tasting syrup.. no, it was rice wine and it really set my mouth, throat and stomach on fire because this was a potent drink! I declined the offer of a second cup, because, as I explained to them, I think my rice planting wouldn’t be down a straight line if I had any more of this substance inside of me! They just laughed, finished off their drinks and then back to work everyone went.

The ladies taking a break and a sip of the good stuff The ladies taking a break and a sip of the good stuff

I had a great time out in the rice fields with the planting team. It really is a spectacle to witness during this time of the year: Literally the whole household is there: men ploughing away, women and some of the younger ones planting, kids running around playing in the mud and even the dogs seem to be there for some purpose unbeknown to me. There is a lot of banter and laughter and I realise this is how they keep their spirits up. It is a team effort, but the effort is made with the real Cambodian smiles that I have become so accustomed too.

One more thing I have to say: standing bent over for 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon for 6 or 7 days per week during the planting season is unbelievably hard work – I only did 3o minutes of planting and I certainly felt it – so spare a thought for men and women that put in the effort to make sure we all have rice on the table!!

Some of you may remember the MasterCard advert: this was one of those experiences that they call “priceless” .. meaning it is one of those experiences that money simply cannot buy. I never thought working for free could be so much fun!




More to follow on this project soon!















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