24 January 2013
A very early 4.30 start this morning as we go to view the sunrise over the main Angkor Wat temple. As usual Kom has everything carefully organised so that we arrive just ahead of the crowds and get a seat on the steps of a small temple. It is very strange walking in total darkness except for our torches marking the path as we have no idea what to expect. As we are seated a lady comes round offering coffee and hot chocolate which is just what we need even though it is already hot and humid.
From our comfortable vantage point we watch hordes of people stream in light by torchlight and cluster around what we discover is a lake in front of us. Gradually the sky begins to lighten and the magnificent spires of Angkor Wat are silhouetted in front of us. Some colour appears in the sky but it is not inspiring and many people start to leave. Kom of course just gets us to move around the lake to where the sun itself is starting to appear as a fiery red globe behind the spires and wonderful reflections can be seen across the glassy lake of lotus flowers.
As most of the crowds head off for breakfast we head into the temple and are able to see most of it largely crowd free, even climbing to the top for spectacular views. We are heading home for breakfast at 9.00 as the day really starts to heat up and the crowds are pouring in.
Some opt to catch up on some sleep but Eke, Brian and I realise that it is the last real day of the trip and set off by tuk-tuk to find a workshop where they train people in making basketware, soaps candles body lotions teas and spice mixes. Like the Artisan centre we are shown around the various activities learning how they make things. We are given complementary tastings of some nice teas and then let loose in the shop. There are beautiful things realistically priced that will make great gifts so we spend up large.
Brian wants to go for a massage so Eke and I are dropped off at the Ceramics Fine Arts centre where we again see how everything is made before visiting the shop. The style is quite chunky traditional pottery so we buy only a small token piece. In all these places we know that they are providing training and employment for poor and disadvantaged people so it is good to support a worthy cause.
Eke and I lunch at the rooftop restaurant at the hotel and talk with the waiters who are keen to practise their English and teach us Cambodian. We discover that one young guy has only been in the job 4 days and is shadowing a delightful girl to learn how things are done. He comes from a small village in the same area as our home stay but it is such a long way away for him that he can’t understand that we have just visited there. Both of them are staying away from their families and have to bike 30 minutes to start work at 5.00 am. They saw us leaving this morning as they came in.
Our full-on day continues with trip out to the lake and to visit a local village. We have the bus for the day so we only have to pay for the boat and most of us opt in and choose to go to a less touristy option a bit further away and of course on a bumpy dusty road. This has the added benefit of having Kom coming with us to share ‘small stories’ with us.
On the way we passed through a village that reminded us of our homestay although there was a wedding going on rather than a funeral. We arrive at a landing on a narrow muddy piece of river where there are hundreds of boats lined up (153 to be exact because Brian counted them). We are met and directed to board one of the closer ones, which seemed rather blocked in.
Once we were all aboard the driver proceeded to rev the engine and push and crash his way out into the main channel which at that point wasn’t really large enough to take a boat but somehow we got going. We stopped to pick up life jackets from another boat. Further along the narrow canal we rounded a corner and saw rows of houses on very tall stilts all along the edges of the canal. The houses were mostly wooden with thatched sides and roof, and they were precariously perched on stilts that hardly seemed strong enough to hold them up. Underneath them were various piles of wood, fishing paraphernalia and garbage. There were boats of every size and shape moored alongside, filled with children playing or men fixing engines and nets. The river is used for everything from washing and bathing to sewage outflow, but they do have a clean water system for drinking.
There are over 1000 families living in this community living from the sale of fish or now from tourism. Although it appears to be extreme poverty, Kom tells us that they are better off than the people in our homestay village. They come from generations of fishermen and don’t want to live anywhere else – they wouldn’t know how to live off the land. Most go out fishing at night but as we go up the river we pass hundreds of nets and baskets and people checking their catch. There are also some interesting devices that have a net on one end and a paddle on the other. People stand up in their boats and alternate paddling with fishing. This didn’t seem very efficient but the waterways were so crowded that you may as well fish while you wait for the way to clear.
In the wet season the lake expands vastly and the houses are surrounded by water. If they are lucky the water stays below the level of the floor. We learn that 5% of children under five drown.
But now it is the dry season and we land and walk along the dirty dusty ‘streets’. It seems strange to be voyeurs into their lives but they see tourism as a way of bettering their position and welcome us. An investor dug out the channel and now takes a cut of the fee for admin costs, but the chance to take passengers is spread amongst the families.
We pass children playing as they do everywhere: boys improvising guns and punching and chasing each other; girls looking after younger brothers and sisters and laughing together or skipping rope. We are approached to buy books and pencils for the school children and we are keen to be able to contribute something. We happened upon a school teacher and he suggested that the best way of doing this was to take the books to the monks so that they could distribute them to the most needy families. So we trailed Kom to the temple where he sought out someone to ask.
We are asked to participate in a ceremony where the items can be presented to the head monk. Only some of us can participate because being a temple we are required to have our shoulders and knees covered and this activity certainly wasn’t envisaged at the outset. We are required to remove our shoes and kneel on the ground around the monk and one by one hand him our gifts. He must take each item from you because if you put it down without that he is not permitted to pick it up. As women we had to be particularly careful that we didn’t accidentally touch him or his robes. Brian also made the mistake of putting his hat on the ground with his shoes while we did this, only to have someone pick it up and give it back because apparently no-one puts their hat on the ground there.
Feeling that we had at least made some contribution to the lives of people in this community we boarded the boat again, surrounded by children who had mobbed Leonie while she waited for us (knees and shoulders uncovered). She had shown them her camera and they were intrigued that they could see themselves on the screen and were laughing and giggled as they figured this out.
We headed out of the canal and onto the main Tonle Sap lake where there are large fish farms and all manner of craft. The lake itself is vast. Even in the dry season we cannot see any land on the horizons. There are a few enterprising people who have set up bars and cafes at the entrance to the lake to entice passing travellers. As luck would have it we are getting close to sunset so we decide to have a drink and watch the sun go down before heading back to the bus.
This is my last night with the group, so we have arranged to celebrate Sarah’s birthday early. Kom has booked another nice restaurant for us and arranged a cake. I had arranged a card and present for Sarah and got everyone to sign it. We end up coming home very late from the village and only have 15 mins for a quick change before we head out again for dinner but a great night was had by all. I was definitely ready for bed (having been up since 4.30am) but some of the group insisted that we have a drink up at the rooftop bar as it was my last night.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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