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Hammocks by the rice fields

Today was an unplanned extra day in Siem Reap, necessary because the flights to Kuala Lumpur do not run every day. Beuk had introduced us last night to his nephew (in law?), Mark, who is a tuk tuk driver in town and had arranged for him to take us down to the floating village a little way out of town. Our route out of town tool us past little villages strung out along the road, villages that seemed to be only one house deep. The houses were made of bamboo or wood as we have seen elsewhere but here under quite a few of them cars were parked. The houses did not look affluent enough for them to be there for personal use so I suppose they could have been the houses of tour guides or taxi drivers.

Once we had left the villages behind we drove along a main road that passed through the rice fields. It was raised up, like the roads we had driven on with Beuk around the reservoirs of Angkor. Mark explained that in the wet season the land either side gets totally flooded. Now in the dry season it is turned over to agriculture and the inevitable rice fields stretched out before us. Along the road were large restaurants all raised up from the ground on stilts to bring them level with the road. I had expected them to be used for the coach loads of tourists who must come this way to the floating village, but no. These are where the local people come to chill out at the weekend, swinging in the hammocks that hang from the rafters and watching the world below them go by.

After about forty minutes we turned off the main road and onto a smaller unpaved road. There is a central office where you buy your ticket for your boat ride where I suspect a large proportion of the cash paid goes into someone’s pocket rather than to help the local community. The village itself shifts location depending on the water levels so for us it was about six kilometres further down the road than it is during the wet season.

The road here was in a pretty poor state with fairly large bumps and holes that Mark navigated through well. He kept looking back to check we were OK and I was pleased that he had stopped in town to buy a padlock to keep the tuk tuk carriage firmly secured to the back of his bike (he can take it off at the end of the day so he just has a normal motorbike). The local people here looked very very poor. They have tiny little bamboo shacks for houses and the smell along the way is horrific. It is a combination of sewage, rotting rubbish and drying fish. On the way back we saw a couple in a tuk tuk quite near the main road still with hankies over their noses to try and block out the smell. I would have loved to see them when they got hit the depths of the village because the smell was much worse there.

Mark showed us where to go to get our boat. It is all a neat little set up with certain tuk tuk’s bringing people to certain boat companies. Everyone knows each other and everyone knows the score. We had to walk along a plank to get to our boat and as my foot slipped slightly all I could think of was not wanting to fall into the water here. It was a dirty brown colour, not just from the mud but because of the muck that comes from the diesel boats plying up and down and because it acts as a public sewer as well. As ever our boat was nearest to land so the driver had to push and pull his way between the other boats until he had got into a clear channel of water.

Fisherman off to set his traps at Tonlé Sap

At first we had a slow crawl through some narrow channels before the inlet widened and he picked up speed. As we speeded up water started to seep in between the planks of wood of the boat, for me not a good sign but I do not think Stef even noticed it. I had to force myself not to watch it and kept telling myself that the rate of inflow was a mere trickle and we would not sink. Every now and again the driver would scoop out a bucketful of water. We were obviously in the cattle class boat as most of the others had an electric pump.

There is a whole maze of little channels that eventually lead you out onto the Tonlé Sap Lake and every facility of a village is based on the water. We passed primary and middle schools with lots of little boats moored up outside, obviously the equivalent of the school bus. On top of one of the schools was a caged in area for a playground. Next to another was a similar caged in area housing a basketball court. A small boat moored up along side one of the schools was selling sweets and drinks, the only floating tuck shop I have ever seen.

Along the river bank a group of men were mending a large fishing net, the only land based activity I saw in this village. As we made it out onto the lake proper it was a strange sight to see the village floating around on either side. In the Mekong we saw floating markets but these were temporary and something quite different. Here the whole village was on the water the churches, houses, shops for the locals and the inevitable shop for tourists.

For the $10 each that we paid for the tour it was, as it says in Lonely Planet a bit pricey for what you get. The length of the tour was also stretched out by a spell of about ten minutes where we were simply just sat out in the lake looking back at the village and a further stop at the tourist shop. Here they had one pen with fish, another with about five or six crocodiles and a small aquarium to give you something to look at if you were all shopped out. You could also sit and have a drink if you wanted to.

Back on dry land Mark took us back into town and toured us around to the Post Office and the market. We were keeping an eye open for a few nick nacky bits but did not see anything we liked. We were then taken to one of the big tourist shops where Mark was sure we would find what we wanted. What we wanted though is probably something hidden away in the corner of an antique shop rather than in a brash shop designed for Chinese tourists. In the shop the staff followed us closely wherever we went, no doubt used to people slipping things into their pockets and leaving without paying.

With a failed shopping trip behind us we headed back to the hotel to sort ourselves out in advance of leaving tomorrow. In the evening we went to a dinner show, another recommendation and a totally touristy affair. We had booked our tickets this morning so we had good seats close to the stage (the best seats were all pre-booked by big tour groups). There was a big buffet dinner with a wide range of food to choose from and if you wanted to, and several people did, you could eat yourself silly here going up time and time again.

The traditional dance show started at about seven thirty and it was entertaining to watch. They performed a mix of dances, some based on every day scenes of village life others more traditional classical dances. For the latter the dancers were sumptuous costumes made of silk and woven through with lots of gold thread which sparkled in the bright stage lights. The dancers made slow and graceful movements which must take a lot of practice to master. Although they were beautiful in an ornate way, we both preferred the village life dances more.

These were based on things like gathering coconuts or fishing. In the coconut dance five boys and girls swirled around each other clipping each other’s coconuts shells as they went. It was very simple and probably the dance we both enjoyed the most. The fishing dance was a variation on the theme of boy meets girl, decides she’s the one for him, shows it by teasing her and pinching her fishing net but they get together in the end and all was sweetness and smiles.