Cambodia is a country that marks you, I would find out as soon as I got off the plane. The history of this country is very painful, with deep wounds that have not healed.
In Cambodia I cried, I laughed and I cried again. I cried when I saw some of the treasures of Angkor hidden in the jungle and about which I wrote here. I laughed at the jokes of the locals, trying to overcome the black period of their existence and laughed at the happiness of being in a place where I wanted to get to. And then again I cried seeing the shortcomings ordinary people encountered, talking to them and entering their homes, once crushed by gunfire and destroyed by a civil war. I will not go into the details of the genocide that has destroyed the people there, I will try to write the impressions as I have perceived all of it and translate into the Cambodian reality of the 21st century.
If you arrived in Siem Reap and made a tour of the finest temples in the Angkor complex, another place where you should go to understand Cambodia is Kampong Phluk, the suspended village from Lake Tonle Sap. What did I know about a suspended village before I got here? Pretty nothing! We had seen such villages in Thailand and Vietnam, but here is another reality, the Cambodian one.
A new morning in Siem Reap. We hurriedly took two bottles of water from the pension’s refrigerator, and immediately we were in tuk-tuk, heading for the floating village, on a reddish road covered with sticky dust. Children barefoot in hot dust, some cows that grazed a grass that could not be seen anywhere, families that lived their stories at the edge of the road, eating, doing laundry or relaxing in the hammocks in front of the dwellings were pictures of an ordinary day in the life of Cambodians in rural areas.
With the mouths covered with masks in order to be protected from the dusty dirt on the road, we traveled the distance to the place where we were taken over by the boat and started the adventure on Lake Tonle Sap. Soon we began to see houses hanging on very high pillars.
During the dry season, the water from this lake flows to the Mekong River and in the rainy season the lake level (powered by tributaries) increases quite a bit and feeds the canal we are advancing. Now we were in the dry season, the canal had a fairly low volume of water, and the houses were very tall and seemed to have 2-3 levels. In the rainy season, the water reaches the first floor level, which turns into a pontoon. Now I could see the children playing on the sand at the base of the houses, basically the bottom of the wet season canal. For details and pics about wet season, click here.
Along the canal, which was far from having a relatively clean water, the people in the suspended village of Kampong Phluk were doing their usual activities, mainly fishing. I saw children and men standing in the water to their throat, looking for fish in the nets they had placed on the bottom of the canal. Many of them you could only see their hats 🙂
We made a quick tour of the canal, and then we went out on the big lake. Our boatman stood at a floating restaurant, perhaps a family business, where we cooled off with a cold beer, we were saddened to see some crocodiles in captivity, but also a huge water snake. We took some pictures and went back to the canal to get out. My question was only one: how do people live in such conditions?
On the way back, Dan suggested that I ask the boatman to land at one of the floating village wharfs. I was still under the effect of the first impressions, focused on what I saw from the boat and it took two interventions on his part to achieve what he really wanted. Later on, I thanked him 1000 times 🙂
If, while we were in the boat, we were two spectators, inside, the village had another story in which we were characters. Even at the base of the improvised dock, we met some very sweet children who were playing barefoot through the sand, at the base of the pillars, while their mother dried in the sun probably the material of the future fish nets.
With the camera set to capture the smallest details, I ventured among the modest homes of the locals. Very close to where we were, a family was staring at the upper floor of their home. They saw us, welcomed us and invited us over. While Dan hesitated to follow me or not, I already climbed the stairs. In a few seconds I was the guest of a local family, I was in their house and listening to their stories.
It was a moment of my life that I can never forget. I liked that they were speaking English quite coherently, and so I could understand how an ordinary day in their lives is. What do you think they were doing? They were producing raw materials for the only boy in the group who at the age of 19 was working on a arras. My words are few to express the image, I hope that the pictures will play at least a small part of what I have lived.
We sadly said goodbye and continued to discover the village, heading for the main street, as it was in the dry season. This is how I saw the inhabitants spend their days outdoors and, even if their homes have a roof, many of them do not have windows or doors, and they prepare their food or rest on the first floor platforms. Many kids came near us, some happy to practice English, others to play with us. And we even played with … everyone. No matter how much you try to control yourself, a force beyond your powers takes control of the emotions you experience before such sensations.
Time passed very quickly, and because the boatman gave us only 2 hours of exploration, we had to interrupt the spell and return to our reality.
The boat took us to the tuk-tuk that was waiting for us and we returned to Siem Reap, loaded with a bitter-sweet feeling. I realize that in their world they are happy with what they have and if they had more support, they could do more. I say this because I have seen an inner will that I have not met before.
We ended the evening in the tumultuous streets of Siem Reap, where loudly played music and fun contrasts with the feelings we have experienced in the floating village.
Until next time, I hug you and give you some splendid pictures that you will find here.