Dec 17, 2011
Arriving Siem Reap
Our party of four — Becky, Gwen, Paul and myself, flew into Siem Reap from Guangzhou. My encounter with Siem Reap Airport Immigration was smooth and uneventful, but Gwen’s experience merit mentioning. The immigration officer who served her queue asked Gwen to pay $1 USD, even though she had already paid $25 USD for her visa online. She paid up since she thought it was a normal procedure, only later finding out that none of us was requested for this payment.
Raksmey, our hired driver for the upcoming days, was already waiting for us at the arrival hall. Along the way to the town centre we saw many hotels, both in operation and under construction. Ours is located just off Sivatha Rd, close to several night markets and many restaurants and bars.
We were led to an inconspicuous restaurant after unloading our luggage and were introduced to several Cambodian dishes. There were the Amok Trey (fish covered with kroeung and coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves then steamed), Loc Lac Beef (stir-fried beef with red onions on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes) and a generic Southeast Asian curry chicken that was heavy in coconut paste.
Our plan for the afternoon was to visit Kampong Phluk, a floating village on Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Before setting off, Raksmey recommended us to pick up some snacks for the kids who lived in the village. We were dropped off at a local market that is a smaller and more easily navigable version of Saigon’s Binh Tay Market. Not quite sure how much to buy, we ended buying $3 USD worth of snacks and a few bottles of water.
Car could only get us as far as the pier on the lake shore. After paying our fare at the ticketing office, a boatman came over to lead us to his diesel-powered boat. I was expecting the boatman to wait for the boat to fill up, but he set sail with only the five of us on board.
For twenty minutes all we saw were mangrove shrubs and occasional stilted houses before arriving at the floating village, where we were dropped off at an elementary school. Several kids immediately ran over and asked me to buy some notebooks and pencils for the school children. I told them we had come prepared – not really, it turned out.
As the one who was holding all the snacks, I was urged by the others to hand them out. Expressing my intention to the children was simple – I merely had to walk to the middle of the playground and gave a pack of cookie to a nearby kid. This action caught the other kid’s attention and every of them rushed over and demanded their share. When it became apparent that I was running out of stock, several kids forcefully reached into my plastic bag and grabbed what’s left inside. Those who ended up with nothing started to cry. Moving away from the chaotic scene, I figured in a similar situation in the future I should coordinate with a teacher or supervisor of the kids instead of just giving them the food directly. And of course bringing more food doesn’t hurt.
We appreciated the chance to spend some time at a school instead of the typical souvenir stalls, but it caused us unease to watch the kids in this unsanitary environment, especially without any local guidance we didn’t quite know how to carry ourselves. Besides the snack-giving episode, the kids generally ignored us and went on with what they were doing which made us felt like a bunch of strange intruders.
Reaching a proper balance on opening up for tourism is always difficult and we caught a glimpse of this struggle in this village.
Leaving Raksmey behind, the four of us switched to a small canoe rowed by an elderly man. Two kids who we believed to be his grandchildren accompanied us. They were complete opposites – the brassy boy requested for candy the moment we got on the boat and sat down in Gwen’s lap soon after. The younger girl? She avoided any eye contact with us almost till the end.
As we rowed by the stilted houses, some villagers were fishing, some were taking bath in the lake water, some were transporting their goods on a canoe, some were feeding their pigs and chickens caged on a stilted platform – everyone’s livelihood resolved around the surrounding water.
Our elderly guide’s expert rowing skill became even more apparent once we sailed into a mangrove forest. He had to constantly navigate between the many tree branches and trunks in the limited amount of light that managed to trickle through the thick vegetation. The steady sound of our guide’s paddling was the surest sign that we were in good hands.
The deafening sound of diesel-powered engine greeted us when we reemerged from the mangrove forest. It was Raksmey and our boat waiting for us. He asked what took us so long and that we might miss the sunset. We quickly handed over some tips to our canoe guide and transferred to the larger boat. We then sped off to the west, hoping that the sunset would last for a few minutes longer.