Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Siem Reap Part 4: Life in Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap the Great Lake
The largest lake in South East Asia, Tonle Sap is actually a combined lake and river in Cambodia, feeding the Mekong River. Geographically, it is unusual for the reason that it changes its flow twice a year. Historically, it witnessed the naval battles (between the Khmer and the Chams armies) and also the tragic death of thousand innocent souls attributable to the vicious and ruthless Khmer Rouge regime.

After a sweltering day spent visiting the mind-blowing Angkor Wat and the other magnificent temples, we went back to our hotel for three hour rest, and we commenced our next relaxing boat ride to Chong Kneas, the closest of all the floating villages to Siem Reap, cruising along the muddy Tonle Sap river. The entire floating village moves with the seasonal change in water level of Tonle Sap. Interesting, right?

6.00 p.m. – Cruising along the Muddy Tonle Sap River
We departed to the jetty by the same van that brought us to Angkor Wat in the morning. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful scenery of paddy fields and the lotus fields along the way, while enjoying the stories of Melissa and John while they were in Africa. Elf was there to guide us all the way.

There were six of us in the boat – Melissa, John, Hazem, Elf, the boat driver and I. And we were good to go. We had a long trip to the village, along a narrow channel leading to the huge lake of Tonle Sap. It was along the channel that really touched my heart. Everything that I’ve witnessed was fascinating. But somehow disturbing.

We passed some empty boats parked by the river banks. And since it was almost sunset, I saw some kids returning from school. Some of them were reading books in the boat.

Occasionally I saw some noisy kids screaming their lungs out and laughing out loud while swimming in the filthy water.

Some teenagers coming back from work, some older men fishing or adjusting their fishing nets, some women washing clothes.

It was difficult for me to comprehend how could the people be so comfortable and peaceful living in a condition like that. Well, that is life.

And they are happy and thankful. For the way they are.

These floating villages are just what the name signifies, furnished with houses, schools, shops and churches, even though the villages are more like floating ghettos.
I waved my hands to some of them. Few returned me with the hand gestures. Some merely smile. While others didn’t seem to pay attention to us as our boat passed by. I guess we were insignificant to them anyway.

From the narrow channel, we made it through the big lake, where the major parts of Chong Kneang were there. We passed through the village and boarded a floating restaurant,with a crocodile farm on it. I saw a young boy, perhaps at the age of 3 – 4 years old, was running around greeting the boarding tourists, with a python around his neck, and expecting people to donate USD 1 for “amusement”. Some tourists gave him some money, only to discover another three to four boys and girls of the same age, out of nowhere, with pythons on their shoulders running towards them for money. I am not sure whether the rest of the kids managed to get some money from the tourists. Because upon realisation that they brought snakes, I immediately ran away to the nearby souvenir shops and hid myself from sight.

We decided not to have dinner there since the day was getting darker. We climbed up the stairs and checked the view from the top of the floating market. The floating village was enormous, but still too little compared to the overall size of Tonle Sap Lake. From far, I can see the sun sinking into the lake, slowly. Before it gets any darker, we decided to leave.

I saw a mother rowing her boat, with three children. A tourist was offering white chocolate to them. Seeing those kids reaching out their hands for the chocolate. And the happiness on their face, really moved me.

While we are living a better life than them, then why are they happier than us? Points to ponder. I have so many things to be thankful for.

We headed to the river bank, passing the same scenery. But with different feelings.

Psah Chaa (Old Market)
It is a market in the city of Siem Reap. Known for various types of souvenir sold, Psah Chaa also lured the tourists via its variety of Cambodian cuisine. 

As a Muslim, my choice here is limited. Either I temporarily transformed myself into vegetarian, or asked the waitresses and cooks on their method of cooking the seafood I was about to order to ensure no pork or liquor in its making. 

8:00 p.m. - Shopping... No.. Window Shopping in Psah Chaa
From Tonle Sap, we requested for the driver to send us to Psah Chaa instead of directly to the hotel. From Psah Chaa, we planned to walk back home to the hotel. It was not that far anyway. We thanked Elf for his knowledge sharing and patience. Melissa tipped him some amount of money. He wished us good luck for future and left with the van. 

We had a wonderful dinner and ice cream treat from Melissa and John. Thanks a lot, you guys! We spent the whole night chit chatting, playing cards, laughing till we were crying and making fun of each other. It was so fun. That I did not want it to end. 

The clock striked 12 a.m. We knew we had to return to our room and packed. The flight next day was 8:30 a.m. After saying good bye to Melissa and John, we went back to our room and packed. 

We woke up early the next day, checked out, board a tuk tuk and went straight to the airport.

Why do all good things come to an end?

I hope that all of you may be able to benefit from the things I have learnt in Siem Reap. 

Till then, adios,

Hairi Tahir


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