Travel

DAY 12, SUN., NOV. 10 AFTERNOON

The afternoon was devoted to a visit to the Chong Kneas Floating Village on Tonlé Sap lake. This is one of a set of such villages that ring the lake, which expands from about 1,500 square miles in the dry season (November to April) to 4,500 square miles in the wet season (May to October), when the lake floods with waters that the Mekong River brings down from the snow melt in Tibet. According to our guide for the afternoon, Tek, about one million people live on the lake, most in houses that float on pontoons so that they can be moved to wherever the water is throughout the year. Many of the villagers are Vietnamese who came up the river from the Mekong Delta long before the Vietnamese war and who fled (or perished) during the Pol Pot regime and returned again after the regime’s demise in 1979. Here are the tour boats at the departure point, and one en route.

1-CHONG KNEAS 1

2-BOAT

As we were racing along, a small boat with a family pulled up next to us, and one of the young sons grabbed his way onto our boat in order to sell us soft drinks or water. Here he is on our boat, and here he is returning to his own. This lad should emigrate and start a career as a Somalian pirate.

3-BOY

4-BOY

Some scenes as we traveled through one of the Vietnamese villages. Homes:

5-HOUSE

6-HOUSE

7-HOUSE

Here’s a “spirit house” put up by the cooperative of local fishermen (fishing is the major industry here) where offerings are made to ensure good catches:

8-SPIRIT HOUSE

A communal help center. Shades of Pol Pot, the sign on the side reads “Charity Rice to Help Poor the People.”

9-CHARITY

And here is the entry to the lake proper. The cell phone tower is newly built. Beyond it you can see the vast lake, whose far shore (now at its time of near maximum extent) is too distant to see.

10-TOWER

We traveled through another village. Here, a “big boat” restaurant.

11-BIG BOAT

A primary school.

12-SCHOOL

And a Catholic church and school.

13-CHURCH

On the way back, another pirate youngster tried to earn cash by showing off his snake for photographs. I gave him a 500 Riel note (about 12 cents) and he and his enablers grudgingly sailed off.

14-BOY WITH SNAKE

On the way back to our hotel in the bus, in response to questions, our guide Tek

 15-TEK

unfolded yet another horror story of the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge years.

He was thirteen when the regime began. A city dwelling high school student, he and his family were sent to the countryside. His older brother was imprisoned because he had some education. During three months in prison, the brother was fed almost nothing (prisoners tried to survive by catching and eating insects that flew into their cells). Finally one of Tek’s sisters managed to “talk” the warden into releasing the brother. But he was so weakened by starvation that he died shortly after returning to the family.

Food in their village was cooked in communal kitchen. Each day’s meal was a thin gruel of rice. Many people died of hunger. Private cooking was forbidden (as was smoking in the village, because it could indicate a cooking fire using stolen rice from the communal fields).

During the dry season, when rice was scarce, to thin the excess population, people were routinely murdered. Tek survived by managing to get a job cutting wood in a distant forest during three dry seasons. The forest, which was terrifying to him at first, became his “friend,” as he lived alongside boa constrictors, boars, and other wild creatures.

Eventually, Tek saw that married men had a better chance of staying in the village and not getting killed than single men. So he and his wife married, along with nine other couples in a ceremony conducted by their “group leader.” When the regime was overthrown in 1979, many of the couples went their separate ways. Tek, a city dweller, offered his wife, a country person, the chance to return to her village with one of their two daughters, but she said, “You are my husband, I’ll stay with you.” They have since had four other children, all boys. Tek is another survivor of one of the grimmest periods in recorded history.

Our day ended with cocktails and a festive dinner on the Apsara Terrace of our hotel. A striking troupe of Cambodian dancers (male and female and dressed much like Thai dancers with large, spiked golden helmets) entertained us. No pictures since I left the camera in my room.

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