by Sissy Mallard
After riding through quiet villages that seem surreal and transport you back in time, walking through the fresh market that lights all of your senses on fire and zooming over the red clay trails out to boats that will take us to Lake Tonle Sap, you are keenly aware of how amazingly different this part of Cambodia will be. Our group is large but we move along with ease as our drivers expertly navigate the way, dropping us off then picking us up at just the right spots. After a stroll through the always-exciting booths of the outdoor market, we walk through one of the oldest villages in Siem Reap that dates back to the 18th century. We are amid ruins and meet local characters that remind me how little has changed for the people here but that is, of course, purely by design and desire.
We are then off the Vespas again as we board our skiffs and begin our journey through the muddy waterways that are lined with many long, skinny boats, houses on tall stilts, crops growing and smiling faces of the locals casting their nets and working the land as they have for centuries. This is their water and their very survival depends on the rise and fall of it but I can easily see that they have discovered what does and doesn’t work here. To imagine that the water actually rises 10 to 15 meters is mind-boggling, even more interesting is that some houses, docks and the fishing systems are designed to move as the water ascends and recedes with the season.
The colors of the boats and houses are fascinating while sitting in contrast to the orange, muddy water and green grass. We enjoy cold beers on our river cruise, slowly maneuvering the narrow channel, going under hand-made bridges, being careful to avoid children playing in the water, men fishing and hundreds of other boats until we reach the Lake. This body of water is huge, it feels more like an ocean, we cannot see to the other side but spy a few nearby restaurants to host the newly found tourism industry and visitors that have recently discovered this hidden gem, as well as fishing traps and nets and the occasional steaming cargo ship. We stop to float along while we wait for our other party to arrive before moving on to our next stop.
We disembark to walk through part of the village passing so many interesting and different things that I can barely keep up with my group. I’m intrigued by the vibrant colors of these statuesque dwellings with their very steep staircases and all of the tools and equipment carefully hung beneath each one. I always wonder where the locals find and buy such bright paint! There are loads of tiny shrimp drying on a mat, men and women crouched under houses weaving fishing nets and children running around laughing and playing.
We approach one house with the steepest of staircases where we will take a break and eat lunch, everyone is hungry but feeling lucky to have been part of such a wonderful day as we anticipate what is next. The women are welcoming and kind, show us around their humble home with breathtaking views of the waterway and Lake, offering us hammocks to relax in with cold drinks at the ready and then they begin to prepare our meal. The table is beautifully set, obviously we will have a feast fit for kings and queens, each delicious delight is followed by another, including my personal favorite of scrumptious fried shrimp, many Khmer specialty dishes and mouth-watering fruit for dessert. As we leave this haven of happiness with contentment in our hearts and bellies to continue our excursion, the women wave goodbye and I am sad to be leaving them and the comfort they have given.
We continue through the village where some women have school supplies and ask for donations to help the local children with their studies. I imagine that it is very difficult to have the extra money for a teacher and school supplies so we gladly oblige and appreciate the emphasis placed on giving these children any type of education. We then cross over the creek over one of the many small bamboo bridges that have been built along the waterway. Our transport boats are waiting and we board for the quiet, slow cruise back to our Vespas. This adventure has been amazing and I immediately plan in my mind when I will return to see how much the water will rise for myself because I must see for myself how far the water rises, as I said it is almost unimaginable to me that the level reaches up to the houses. The ride home is a chance to relive the day and it’s incredible memories in my mind, this place and the people are indelibly etched on my heart forever.