Loren and I visit the floating villages of Chong Khneas, Kampong Phluk, and Kampong Khleang, all part of the massive ecosystem that is Tomle Sap lake, the largest body of fresh water in all of SE Asia. During the dry season the lake drains into the Mekong. During the rainy season the Mekong drains into the lake, increasing its size by a factor of ten. Thus the villages on Tomle Sap are either comprised of literally floating churches, schools, basketball courts, restaurants, houses, and a water processing plant, as in Chong Khneas, or they are built on stilts literally up to thirty or forty feet in height, as in Kampong Phluk. Google Cambodian floating villages for a better description than I have the impulse to give, other than to say that the villagers are painfully poor and painfully dirty, that many of the young children have rotted teeth, and that in the stilt house villages tourists are exceedingly rare, thus making Loren and I the objects of considerable curiosity and good humored laughter. And, of course, the sense of unity in community and family was palpable, extended families and neighbors living their lives in full and fairly open and intimate view, taking their meals together, and sleeping in long bamboo houses with rooms separated by thin bed linens or some other form of curtains. Begging was non-existent, but enterprise was everywhere: fishing net weaving and repair, boat building and repair, new house building and repair, vegetable gardening, and, of course, fishing. I did buy a very nice big bunch of fresh salad greens (which I gifted our driver) that cost me two and a half cents. Even so, you don’t want to retire here. Not now anyhow.
The city of Siem Reap is awash in tourists and everything is priced in American dollars not Cambodian rials, all of this commerce seemingly fueled by the draw of the Anghor Wat temples. That said, Anghor Wat is truly amazing and its scale incredible. The details, the carvings, the kilometer after kilometer of bas-relief drawings of historical and mythological stories, the absence of the use of any mortar on big stone sculptures and arches, the immense faces (at least 8x8) put together like matching adjoining blocks or puzzle pieces at the Bayon temple, over 200 huge Buddha faces, four on each spire or chimney, each facing in one of the four ordinal directions, each one different, eyes up, eyes down, eyes closed in meditation, smiling. Our tuk tuk driver took us around to more than half a dozen temples, waited for us, had lunch with us, mediated with begging children on occasion for us, from 8A to 3P, for all of $10.
At one point in Angkor I closed my eyes and saw the bas-relief drawings etched on my inner eyelids, and then opening them encountered a laughing orange robed monk from Phnom Phen who I instantly hit it off with, joking, and laughing together, taking one another’s pictures, and hugging one another. He told me in very broken English that his name was Green Hawk, something I cannot understand how he came by, other than saying the guides were speaking, and to mean and believe that quite literally.
I also had a series of very charming engagements with young children, notwithstanding the fact that the encounters were mediated by the children’s seeking of money. Over lunch, for example, I bought four little brass statues (that I’m sure were made in India) from one little girl who knew the capitol cities of all fifty states, flawlessly, and in another such event, at a quite different unreconstructed temple, more than a dozen boys followed/led me around, showed me their English homework, got me to correct some of it, and hit me up for a contribution to their school, or whatever it was I actually contributed to, but most of all were genuinely and immensely charming.
I have also encountered at least a dozen bands playing classic Khmer music that advertize themselves as being comprised of land mine victims, and indeed all of the musicians have limbs missing, leg prostheses in evidence, holding bows with the stubs of arms, or are blind. Although not widely reported internationally, there is even today a “small” border skirmish going on between Cambodia and Thailand that is the lead story in the local newspapers, and as a result of which casualties are being brought in to the local hospital.