A World on Stilts

We journeyed out into the Cambodian countryside today, trusting our tuk-tuk driver to take us, per our request, “to someplace on the lake, not too crowded.”  Siem Reap, where we are staying, sits very close to Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia.  The lake is known for its enormous fish and bird populations, its floating villages, and its enormous size fluctuations depending on where you are in the rainy/dry season cycle.

We drove out on big city roads, which are crowded with motorcycles, cars, trucks, tuk-tuks, and the occasional bicycle all trying to share the same space. In effect, a wide two lane road becomes four lanes (and sometimes five) through necessity. We looked out as muddy side roads (it rained last night) and fruit stands and makeshift roadside cafes whizzed by.

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And if you look up, this area has the amazing cloud formations that seem to come with expansive, flat places.

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I continue to be amazed at the things you see people carting around on their various vehicles.

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Our driver, Long, stopped to get gas here (no Captain Morgan bottle this time, sadly — these looked more like soda bottles):

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At some unsigned point, we turned onto a dirt road and started seeing very different kinds of scenery.

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A long, low row of houses in the trees soon gave way to rice paddies, which were stunning in the morning light.

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Then we started seeing houses on stilts – some thatch, some made of corrugated tin – and evidence of boats in the small river that paralleled the road.

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Eventually, the river widened and grew deeper. Our driver explained that it’s much larger and higher (and more accessible) during the rainy season, which would explain why all of the buildings – including this government building and school – are so high up on stilts.

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After navigating a very muddy, bumpy section of the road, our tuk-tuk driver pulled up alongside a large cluster of tourist boats and indicated that we should get tickets (there was no signage or indication of how this might work). We approached a man at a table who sold us tickets, said “follow him,” and left us in the charge of a young man who appeared to be no older than fourteen. It turned out that this boy would be our captain for the day – which seemed startling before we saw kids barely out of primary school in charge of their own small vessels.

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Our boat could have seated about twelve people, but there were only four of us on board: J and I, the captain, and Long. It turned out that Long had never made this trip before, so he was pretty excited. And it wasn’t long before we saw what the fuss was all about for boats leaving from this particular port: Kampong Phluk, a river village made up entirely of houses up on giant stilts.

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This is a fishing village, and it is enormous (and in the rainy season, it would look very, very different). The houses go on and on and on like this. We saw lots of people out starting their days: preparing their fishing nets, washing up from breakfast, going out in their boats.

During the dry season, there is a little bit of land in this village; during the rainy season, there is absolutely none. So the pigs float:

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And the gardens float:

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And lots of fishing gear floats:

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We took a short trip to go from our small boat to a smaller, hand-oared boat to travel through a small swamp.

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This was an excursion clearly designed for tourists – first you go around the swamp in a tiny boat; then people on other tiny boats try to sell you refreshments; then you get dropped off at a floating restaurant where you’re plied with more food and drink. But it’s all pretty nice nonetheless.

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We sat at the restaurant and talked with Long for a while. He told us about himself and went into great detail about the economic struggles of a young guy from the country in Cambodia. It’s not easy here – farmers can’t make much money, and it’s hard to get ahead in the city if you have no capital and no starting place. Fascinating conversation – and a good example of the problems of hand-to-mouth living in southeast Asia in general and Cambodia (which is still recovering from years of economic devastation under the Khmer Rouge) in specific.

Our young, prematurely surly captain next took us out onto Tonle Sap itself. It’s enormous – you look out and feel like you’re on the ocean rather than on a lake.

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We spent more time on the tuk-tuk trip on the ride home looking out over the rice paddies. There were a few people out harvesting rice, and we saw evidence of the harvest in the fields …

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… and on the roads…

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… and in people’s front yards:

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We also saw kids getting out of school for lunch:

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Once back in Siem Reap, we went to Fresh Fruit Factory, where we had amazing mango-passion fruit shave ice (made with sweetened condensed milk). It was so, so good (but rest assured that the complexities of eating a $5 shave ice after hearing a very nice young man talk about the complications of paying $65 for rent and utilities on an $80 hotel worker’s salary — all while trying to save money for his kids — was not lost on me).

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The very enthusiastic owners gave us markers so we could draw on the wall.

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We returned to our hotel for an afternoon by the pool, which feels very luxurious.

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