One of our hosts from Golden Gecko Villa needs to walk into town for supplies so we walk together. Keith is from Brisbane but now lives here in Siem Riep and he shows us around the small city centre. There’s many businesses here owned by Australians, including cafes, bars, hair dressing salons and tourist operations. The walk fixes us a good lay of the land. It’s thanks to Keith that I learn there’s a Singaporean dentist in town who charges just $US8 for a clean and scale – a procedure that will require you to withdraw about $AU200 from your bank account at home. So guess where I’m going tomorrow afternoon.
We part ways at the old market. You can buy all the usual touristy items here. Buddhas, t-shirts, sarongs, prints of paintings and jewellery. And, as with the rest of South East Asia, the vendors aren’t shy about encouraging you to buy. The t-shirt vendors all proudly announced that they had shirts in our sizes. The Buddha statue sellers all insisted their statues were the best price. The jewellery shops all tried to persuade us everything was the genuine article. We wanted to buy some paintings so used this visit as a recce. Prices would start at $US50 or $US35 depending on the size of the piece. Showing interest the promising to return tomorrow would instantly bring the price down to $US30 or $US20. Walking away made it cheaper again ($US25 and $US15 respectively). I’m sure we could have haggled a price but we weren’t yet sure of what we wanted to choose so no purchases were made (later they will be though).
There’s also a smallish food section at the Old Market. Animals in all states of butchery sit on benches waiting for a buyer. Pork, chicken and still twitching fish seem to be the staple here. Fruit and vegetables abound, providing colour to the meat market. You can even buy fresh honecomb, complete with buzzing bees.
Later in the day, after we’ve paid $US12 each for a 2 hour massage, we are picked up from our guesthouse by a minibus that will take us on a grand adventure.
Lake Tonle Sap is only a short drive from Siem Riep. A small ten-seater long boat will take us from the edge of a canal all the way into the lake and onto a bigger boat (the Tara) for sunset dinner and drinks. It sounds all very contrived but the execution of this adventure is quite good.
I’m the first to sit on the front of the boat but am soon joined by most of my traveling companions. There’s a cool wind blowing in my face and the sights of floating villages all around.
These villages are home to stateless Vietnamese people. There’s a history on Wikipedia that explains the circumstances of how this group of people ended up on the lake. So I’m not going to focus on that. There are also Khmer villages on the lake but we don’t go to those on this trip.
What I can tell you is that everything we do on land, they do on the water. From growing vegetables and chickens to going to school. From playing pool or snooker in a bar to selling goods in shops. You name it, the residents of the floating village do it.
The children even paddle their boats home from school. Some day dreaming. Some taking responsibility for younger siblings. And others bouncing their boats in the waves.
Out on the lake proper we take in the first colours of sunset. It’s always stunning to watch the lowering of the sun reflect on a large body of water. And it’s so peaceful to sit here after the hustle and bustle of Siem Riep town.
Drinks and food are provided on the big boat. It’s nestled between the tree tops with a stunning view to the west and south. Our small group sit together sharing a meal, talking about our various experiences. What more could anyone ask for.
With the setting of the sun light bulbs start to turn on at the houses around us. Bare yellow bulbs both attract bugs and shimmer prettily on the black water. I feel sad to leave the big boat (but happy to get a reprieve from the mosquitoes).
Slowly and in darkness we return to the bus. I dangle my legs over the side (but not into the water), wishing we could just do this all night long – potter around the black lake with stars shining above.
Back in Siem Riep the Pub Street is an assault on our senses. Particularly after the lake. Bars compete to play their music the loudest. Stalls line the street selling cocktails and beer. Tuk tuk drivers offer lifts. And Westerners give the locals a terrible idea of what our countries and cultures are like. This is travel at its worst. And it happens here every night. If you’ve not been here you can’t imagine it. Nightmares are preferable to time spent on Siem Riep’s Pub Street; possibly one of the most culturally damaging experiences. Not to the culture of local people but to the reputation and culture of all Caucasian people. I mean, this is all some Cambodian people will ever experience of our cultures so no wonder the more conservative might believe our cultures are depraved or immoral.