We met our driver for the day at 8 am, after having another full breakfast and a good nights sleep. Today we were planning on visiting Tonle Sap, which is Cambodia’s largest lake. At present it is the dry season, great for visiting Temples but probably not for visiting any water feature. We had been informed that the lake was at present just a fraction of its normal Rainy Season capacity, but as we thought we had seen the best of the myriad of temples in the area we wanted a change. Quad biking was out as the children weren’t with us and waterfall bashing was out as the children weren’t with us, so a dried up lake bed seemed attractive.
It was a half hour drive along bumpy roads into the countryside, passing a few hot and uncomfortable tourists in their rattling tuctucs. The comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle is the preferred mode of transport at our age, we have sweated, choked and bounced in tuctucs in the past and that’s where they will remain, a memory.
We stopped briefly on route for our driver to buy our boat tickets before arriving at the riverside quay where we were to board. We could see that across the river there was quite some major development work going on. A large marina and a surrounding of plush villas seemed to be in the planning. In the near future the many straw huts and little shops and restaurants that were dotted along our bank, I guess will eventually make way for the developers too.
As with our mode of transport from the city we were the only passengers on our boat. We had a crew of 3 and life jackets, but we shunned the latter as these were more comfortable to sit on rather than the cane seats on offer. One of the crew spoke decent English so there would be someone to understand our cries for help in a sinking.
The lake was 3 km up the river and we set off rather gingerly, being passed at speed by local, slimmer craft that were obviously going somewhere in a hurry. There was other tourists on the river, some caught us up and others that had got up earlier than ourselves were making their return. The water was a muddy brown and according to our guide, 8m below its peak flood level, as evidence he pointed to the water marks on pylons that we occasionally passed along the bank. Grounding was a constant worry to the pilot as the river was only around a metre deep, as demonstrated by our guide, this time plunging an oar into the water and pointing to the mud dredged up. Still, the fishermen were still going about their work and spinning their cast nets into the shallows. They seemed to be catching fish, after wading to the shore just a few steps aways they could be seen pulling little fish from the entanglements.
When we eventually entered the lake the water was a muddy green, though had no smell. We could see in the distance, structures that eventually turned out to be little villages of rather basic house boats anchored in this now radically reduced body of water. Yet the lake just stretched out beyond the horizon. It was explained to us that the villages moved six times during the year. In the rainy season they anchored their homes to the tops of the trees that were flooded by the expanding lake. At this time of year they drove dozens of poles into the mud, much like a stooks of corn and tied onto these. Shops, churches and schools etc. all floating were to be seen as we chugged our way long.
It was explained to us that the schools were supported by the locals themselves and that some of the orphaned children lived and slept there. Not surprisingly many would die from drowning or water borne disease. It was explained we could help them by buying some rice to help feed them, so we did. We chugged over to a village and bought a sack of rice for $30, and then chugged our way over to the school where our guide had been educated and we handed our rice over to the cooks who were busy preparing a meal of rice and fish for the children at the stern/back of the building. We were given a bowl of fish by the women for ourselves, though tasty, it was chewy and probably made from dry rather than fresh fish. We nibbled a bit and returned the bowls, thinking of the children.
There was four classrooms in the school, separated into two platforms. the teachers were volunteers and none of them spoke English. Each class had a vey wide mix of ages and I guess inclusion in a class was dependent on ability rather than age. We looked in their books and the writing they contained, even by the 5 year olds was brilliant. However, the only teaching seen to be going on was copying text from the white board. The children were lovely, smiling and despite an obvious lack of interesting things going on in their education, were attentive. We came across a class of children with no teacher, they were quietly waiting for something. I couldn’t resist it. Opening the teacher’s desk I got out a board maker, but it didn’t work. A child helped me out by finding one that did. So for a while I attempted to teach some English to the class. Some of them had a smattering of phonics as they tried to interpret my writing. I would have loved to stay longer, but the OFSTED boat could be seen making waves towards us and we left.
Next stop was a floating crocodile farm where the locals sold the meat and dried their skins. Sue tried on a blouse in the small shop while upstairs I took photos of the lake and buildings. As we sat on the boat ready to leave, our guide politely asked if we would help out some tourists who were in trouble. No, we were not going to buy another sack of rice, but their boat had broken down and they had no way of getting back. We let them accompany us back to the river quay. They were a family of four from the Philippines and very grateful to be rescued. We passed their broken boat on the way back and a rather sad-looking skipper who was pushing it long, in the metre deep lake.
Back on land, Sue bought another trinket in one of the local huts, they foolishly tried to short change her and obviously didn’t know Sue Afterwards, we found a restaurant to have drinks and met our driver and asked him to take us to a nice restaurant where we could eat. Half an hour later we were seated and dining in a more sophisticated environment.
We instructed our driver next to take us to the National Museum in Siem Reap, principally because it was getting very hot, and it was the one museum that had air-con. Half an hour later we were suitably cool and our minds being expanded by the history and culture of Cambodia. We spent an hour and half wandering through the various rooms looking at the exhibits before finding our driver asleep at the entrance. It was raining outside. When we got back to the hotel there was a full blown thunderstorm rattling around the sky.
After the rain had stopped we had a brief walk down one of the side streets next to the hotel to explore the locality, but it was quite unimpressive from a tourists point of interest, so we returned and had our evening meal in the bar. Afterwards we sat with a couple from Cardiff who had just flown in from Ho Chi Minh City and picked their brains on what to expect and to do. Being Welsh, the conversation centred on the noble game of rugby for quite a while before we moved on to other issues of less importance. It was nearly 11pm before we returned to our room.