May 2012. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
It’s getting late and Austin and I have done our site-seeing for the day, so we decide to head out for a bite and some beers with some newfound friends. It’s fairly standard procedure during our travels, but after a few drinks, Austin chimes in about a crowded gathering a street over that he noticed beforehand. He’s curious and wants to see what it’s all about. My feet hurt from all the walking around museums and staring at stone sculptures, but I agree nonetheless and the group heads that direction. Before we even turn the corner, we hear the lyrics of western pop favorites mixed with lesser known beats. Coming closer, we realize the crowd is actually moving rhythmically and the street is unaccessible to cars. The cause being dance party. A Cambodian dance party to be precise. Obviously, we all join in.
Within minutes, we make a new friend. He’s somewhere around the age of 12, although it’s always hard to tell the age of our Asian brothers, and he has some serious dance moves. I like to think I can dance, perhaps falsely, but he makes me look bad. C-walk? No problem. Moon-walk? Cake. I can keep up with the American hip-hop, but when the Cambodian tunes start up, I’m at a loss. No worries though as our new friend gives us a crash course lesson. A few steps forward, a few steps back, the entire crowd moves in a gradual circular motion with special care given to circular hand movements and and fingers pointed as far back as possible. I think we got the jist of it and we begin to relax and let loose. Up to this point, the kid hasn’t said much of anything and has communicated mostly in hand and body gestures, along with smiles of acknowledgment. He also occasionally goes off on his own as if the beat is only in his head and he’s alone in his own world. I ask Austin about it. We agree, the kid must be deaf.
2 weeks later. Koh Rong Saloeam.
I’ve just completed my first underwater dive ever. Too say I’m stoked would be an understatement. Now I just have a few hours to kill on this beautiful island off the coast of Cambodia before dinner. I can’t complain. Life’s good. Dave, our dive instructor, proceeds to tell us the neighboring village is starting the Khmer new year celebration that night and word is, the whole village is getting fed. Great news for a skinny backpacker, so Austin and I head over to fill up on whatever they’re serving. I still don’t know what I ate. There were noodles and some sort of curry flavored sauce over top of them containing a mystery meat, but I digress. Next we grab a beer with Dave and that’s when we notice the giant speakers sitting atop the pool table. Apparently, they’re going to dance tonight. Hmm, we may have to bust out our newly acquired dance moves, but then again, one beer isn’t much for liquid courage.
Enter the richest lady in the whole village. Apparently we’re sitting right outside her store, which consists of one large, empty room and a few shelves of food and drinks on the walls. It is no Walmart, but it does have some very odd looking bottles of an unknown alcohol for sale, one of which she promptly brings over. The weirdest part of the mystery alcohol, besides its extremely sweet flavor, is the huge flexing body builder adorning the label. I think they got it from a Google image search, but I refrain from asking and oblige her by finishing my shot. Ten later and she’s showing no signs of slowing. Dave’s long gone and the aforementioned speakers are now blaring Cambodia’s finest beats. It’s loud and the sound quality extremely poor, but that won’t stop us. Suddenly the song, which I can only describe as the “circle dancing one” comes on. Austin and I, having had private lessons, know this one and join in, much to the surprise and amusement of our Southeast Asian dancing companions. We’re summoned for another body building drink.
Many times, I’ve meant to write about these experiences and each time, I wanted to begin the title with, an unexpected “blank.” Titling the post in that fashion would’ve been fitting for either story, as they both were truly “unexpected.” But I already have blog posts that begin similarly and they can’t all start that way, right? We obviously never planned on dancing in a circle in a small fishing village in Cambodia. That wasn’t exactly on our to-do list. We just sort of fell into it, and it turned out better than we could’ve hoped for, but it wasn’t completely left to chance. Staying in a resort with a private attached restaurant and pool doesn’t exactly put you in “local” situations. That’s why I love backpacking and what it makes possible. Many times, I find myself eating noodle soup shoulder to shoulder with the locals, shopping for bananas along side them or squeezing in on a local bus. I intentionally travel in this way and I encourage others to do the same. Jump out of your comfort zone and put yourself in a position to be surprised or to experience something out of the ordinary and in doing so, there’s only one thing you can expect, the unexpected.