Sweat is cascading down my back and my arm brushes against the boy next to me. I smile an apology and change my rhythm to mimic his movements. He looks back mischievously, changing his dance to something quicker and more complicated. I’m not sure what’s more surreal, the fact that I’ve been invited to an engagement party in rural Cambodia or the eight sub-woofers that are blasting a new beat for what feels like the entire village.
A large group of onlookers are leaning against mango trees content to watch an even larger mass of dancers. My friend’s pigtail braids bounce against her shoulders as she dances in front of a crowd of eager children. Without warning a handful of girls slow to a halt and start whispering amongst themselves. Suddenly, a shy girl in a green skirt is pushed to the front. She blushes and takes a moment to find the courage to move her hands from in front of her face to behind her back. She stretches her neck skyward and blurts out her question.
“Are you happy?”
Somehow my friend manages to make her already large grin bigger as she nods vigorously.
“Yes. Very happy.”
Convinced, the posse of girls shriek and their grins somehow grow as well. The dancing continues. Behind the group and off to the side, my other friend Bryce is towering over our Khmer host. Twenty four year old, Socheat is the picture of cool in his black tank top and black pants. He’s a good dancer. His movements are relaxed and smooth in the same easy manner he exudes at night, talking story with us on the porch of our bungalow. If he knew that our presence at the party would encourage so many stares, he doesn’t let on. He is the only one here who acts like this is completely normal. We do our best to act normal but we are selfconscious because of all the attention and stares we are receiving. The brave among the villagers approach and practice a few words of English, the children have attached themselves to the girls and the men want Bryce to drink rice wine and play cards. We’ve even captured the attention of the town drunk who is always close by.
Socheat works at the guesthouse we are staying at and, since our arrival a week ago, has quickly become our friend. When he mentioned tonight’s party, none of us knew what to expect. But now the three of us are across the street from his current, and childhood home in a village eight kilometers outside of Kampot. We’re rocking out, immersed in a Cambodian block party.
The music slows and most of the dancers move to the sidelines. Eager for a breath, all of us end up on the edge of the dance floor. We’ve been here for a few hours and just like every other break we’ve tried to take it’s interrupted by another local asking us to dance. Like all the rest, this invitation is too good to pass up. A folding table is in the middle of the dance floor with two vases full of fake magenta flowers. We join everyone in a traditional Khmer dance and slowly make our way around it as we walk in a circle, taking four steps forward, and then four slow steps back. Lightning occasionally brightens the night sky providing strobe lights for anyone relaxed enough to look. After a few songs, we opt for another break on the sidelines. This time, an old woman with a hard face approaches Socheat. She leans in and says something that sounds serious. He looks over and tells us we’ve been invited into her home for refreshments. We nod agreement, and her deep wrinkles rearrange into a heartfelt smile.
Taking our shoes off at her doorstep, we enter a modest one-room house. There is a bed and a floor mat full of sleeping children. Another mat has nine school age boys crowded around a handheld Sega game. They are all eagerly watching the screen but impressively not fighting over it. The three of us follow Socheat’s lead and sit cross-legged around another floor mat. I notice for the first time that the old woman is already in her bubblegum pink silk pajamas and my eyes meet her gaze. I place my hands together in front of my chest and bow towards her saying the only Khmer words I know are au khon, ‘thank you.’ She bows back and points to plates of cookies and a customary holiday food of candied bananas wrapped in sticky rice and banana leafs. After some tea cools, it is passed around as well. We sit, comfortably smiling and completely content, forgetting even, that there is a language barrier. We are careful to leave plenty of food in the center signaling that our host has provided more than enough. Indeed, she’s thought of everything. A bowl of water is passed around to wash our hands in, and Socheat’s friend asks me to dance.
We walk back outside and head to the dance area. Even though the guy beside me comfortably leaned against Socheat during our snack break it is obvious that touching across genders is taboo. Side by side, with a few inches between us, we step onto the dance floor and take up the traditional dance. We take four steps forward, and four slow steps back not in time to the music or in step with the other dancers but to a beat that is all our own. It’s strangely intimate. After a while, a song from the Black Eyed Peas that has been dubbed into Khmer takes over. It’s almost midnight. Our friends rejoin us for what will be our last dance. As we exit the dance floor all the villagers seem to know that we are leaving. The crowd stops moving. Our waves are returned with smiles and shining faces.
Herman Hesse has a short story where he basically says he is forced to travel, to be a wanderer because so much love gushes out of him. He says every tree he passes, every coffee shop he steps into, even the strangers across the room engaged in a lively conversation with someone else pull more and more out of him. If I thought I understood his sentiments before, they have grown tenfold to a point that is almost painful. I’m overjoyed with the fake flowers, the tea, and even more with the faces that are familiar after just a few hours of dancing. Khmer hospitality is not just a rumor. And I hope that the man I bow to just before ducking under the fence, understands that I’m not just saying thank you as I utter au khon.
Copyright © 2008 Noël Dunn