At first Kampong Chhnang doesn’t seem like much. It’s dusty and quiet. We walk past a prison on our way to our guesthouse. Hmm. But the guesthouse is lovely with friendly staff. Our room set in a garden with a bench out the front and cold aircon inside. Right on dusk we head out to explore the town and find some food. The hour out of the heat has given us a second wind (the bus had aircon but it was old and ineffective).
We eat diner at a Chinese restaurant where two meals and drinks cost us $US5.50 (everything is cheaper once you leave Phnom Penh and Siem Riep). We are charged in Cambodian Riel for the first time in this trip and the staff don’t look happy to be handed dollars (the unofficial official currency of Cambodia). We haven’t needed Riel until now so have given our small money as donations at temples along the way. It’s okay though because we will collect a few dollars worth here in town.
We sit in a big park eating coconut cake for desert watching people. There’s teenagers kicking a small soccer ball around. A group of men play hackey sack. Some children let off fire crackers. Groups of young people hang out on the grass talking or playing guitar. Children run around. Families eat picnic dinners on colourful straw mats. And we are asked whether we can be in peoples’ photos (or they just snap a shot if they think we’re not looking).
What we don’t know yet is that we’ve arrived in the middle of a big festival. On our way home we come across it and stop off. We will later learn it’s a Cambodia-Thailand friendship festival. It lasts a full week. I play a side show game (and lose). We try a sausage that ends up being randomly filled with some sort of mince and rice noodle mix that tastes awesome. And we watch the concert. People walk past us gawking as though we are aliens. Street urchins beg for money (no we do not cave in even when they stand batting their eyes at us for half an hour). It’s funny how we always seem to find festivals when we travel. And always in the places where we least expect it. Kampong Chhnang is so local. The contrast with foreign-owned Siem Riep is vast, even this evening. I think I will like this town a lot.
Tonle Sap River
We rent a boat to visit the floating villages of the Tonle Sap River for $23 for two hours. Some might haggle a harder bargain but, as my father says, we give money to beggars easily but when someone is actually working for their income we haggle down to the last cent. Where’s the incentive to work then? Do we value the beggar more highly than the working person?
Our skipper motors the boat upriver for half an hour against the wind and tide. The engine splutters away behind us as we pass a workshop building composite plastic river boats, houses on stilts and mechanic workshops lining the banks of Tonle Sap, which is no longer a lake; it’s now a river. Floating villages come into view and the engine is cut. Poverty surrounds us at every turn. Tin shacks, huts made of bamboo and leaves, children who should be in school and hardworking people. That’s what comprises the floating villages. Like all communities some people have done better than others. But modern floating houses are the exception not the rule. That said, smiles abound. Children wave and call “hello”. It’s the only English word they know (except “one dollar”). Young men wearing nothing but underwear seem to be having a swimming race, diving from one boat and stroking quickly towards another. A boy rows from one house to another down a watery “street”. It’s not idylic but humans are resilient and this is home to them.
Back on dry land we travel out of town to a pottery village. It’s interesting enough to see the pottery being made but it’s the landscape I enjoy most. Rice fields are dotted with tall sugar palms. Skinny cattle graze on what grass is available in the cultivated landscape. Gravel roads stretch into the distance creating a contrast of orange and green.
We visit a mountain temple with yet more steps to annoy Paul. It’s peaceful at the top, though perhaps we were meant to walk further than we did. The instructions about what we were to expect were lacking. We are happy though to experience the temple and walk back down.
Sunset over the rice field
It’s 3pm by the time we return to town. We eat lunch then take a rest in the aircon. Our chariot departs again at 5pm. Sunset over the rice fields is the icing on our Cambodian cake. Channy knows a place. He enjoys taking photos there. Words are unnecessary.