A "presagio" in Cambodia

by Natan Tu (Brazil)

I didn't expect to find Cambodia


When you backpack, one of the most exciting things to do is meet other travelers. Some extra knowledge could enhance a supposedly meaningless experience. A fellow to count on could give more courage to explore places. Or at minimum, a couple of extra eyes could perceive things you wouldn't. Lorenzo Valletta, an italian guy that I met waiting for a minivan near Chbar Mon, Central Cambodia, has it all, but our story really began after he saw a treasure I didn't. While we head to Kampot, a city close to the country's coast, he told me he ran a bar in Italy, and that in the past he used to be a very party guy — which nowadays nothing but his aviator sunglasses could denote. But after all theses years, the reason he came to Asia was to connect with a more spiritual and calm part of him. We then set our things at the hostel, rent a motorbike, and before we follow our plans, he said he had a thing to show me. By bike, he took us to the riverside where the van dropped us. “Look inside!” I approached the retaining wall, and what I could see were countless 100 dollars bills at the river bottom. “It's fake. There’s no way this could be real”, I said to him. “No! You see, the bills are hidden by the retaining wall. No one passing by here can see. Only if you put the head like you did”, he answered. I think to myself… “Let's do this way. We follow our plans, and when we comeback, if the money continues here, I'm in”. Kampot wasn't very flashy. There was Bokor National Park — that didn't have any trek or nice view to see, only some man-made attractions —, tiny waterfalls, and some amazing local people. Before we get back, we decided to visit Kep, a city 30 minutes by bike where people take the boat to some heavenly islands. But since it was night, we were content with a famous night market where fishermen come from the sea with fresh crabs. After having a great dinner, near the place we park our bike, Lorenzo finds a Cambodian bill resting on the ground. And with a big smile on the face, he says: “This is a [with a very italian accent] “presagio” — which means omen in english. I laugh back and agree to go back. And laying in the river, the money was still there… Unfortunately, there were lots of people around, cheering on bar boats. “So, Lorenzo, they say the parties here tonight will continue after noon due to Chinese New Year. But we can…” “Wait!”, he interrupts me, “Today is Chinese New Year? C’mon, man, this is hell of a “presagio”! “Ok, we do it. After all, I win anyway. If they are real, we can split the money. If not, I'll have a big laugh of you”. And then we decided it we were going to wake up at 5am so nobody could see us entering the river. But again, with the first lights of the day, there was a tuk-tuk driver parked in front of the place. And after he went off, a fisherman. I took these moments to see the water. It was Preaek Tuek Chhu, a river that flows from Bokor National Park — which even being uninteresting, keeps fresh water. But as I could see, forty minutes (by bike) down the mountains, the river gets totally polluted, with all sorts of waste, dead fish and… money. It was finally the moment. While I watch the streets, Lorenzo lowered the pants, take a big breath, and enter the river. He reaches the first bills and… …obviously they were fake. As soon he gets the bill, it comes apart in his hands. But after a big laugh, the story doesn't end here. While we recompose ourselves, we decide to visit a bat cave near the area. And on the way, we pass through some salt fields, local villages, and lots of friendly children impressed with a blonde, blue-eyed and beard guy like Lorenzo. Besides that, we also saw people gathered around a real chest with a log stuck in it. Since we didn't know what kind of celebration was that, we assumed it was a wedding due to the fancy music. We then stopped our bike, and kept watching them for a while, which was enough for us to get invited to eat with them. And the two things that happened next totally flipped our experience there. First, as soon we found an english speaker, we discover it was actually a funeral. And second, while we approach the tables, what do we see? The same fake money thrown all over the ground! It was only when I got back to Brazil that my father told me his family used to do the same thing when he lived in Taiwan. But on that moment, we sat at the table and kept long moments of silence looking at nothing. I had eaten great things in my journey, but that one was the most special. Imagine you inviting two totally strangers on the day of your gradma’s burial. The kindness these guys put in this food was from another world, and neither of us two know how thank them. And for the river money, we felt ashamed for our greed. But on the other hand, we felt glad. After all, we’d never give the same value for this ritual’s detail if we didn't pass through all of this. It was like a cycle being close. Almost like we had to live everything as it happened to get to this moment. In other words, a “presagio”...