Up to now, most of my sightseeing has revolved around visiting some of the many temples in the Angkor Wat area. This morning, my journeys will take me to the largest lake in Cambodia, the Tongle Sap lake, the largest lake in South-East Asia which sits about an hour or two south of Siemp Riep. We’re off to tour a fishing village that literally floats on the lake.
On our way down, we stopped off at a little roadside stand where local women package and sell sticky rice. As we pulled off, I wondered what the big deal was with sticky rice - I get that all the time at the Chinese restaurant at home. But this rice isn’t just sticky, it’s also kind of sweet which makes for a great snack to munch on. The women first make the rice at home, then they bring out chopped bamboo sections which they stuff with rice and then cook over an open flame.
Afterward, they cut the outside of the bamboo down to leave just a thin sliver of bamboo as the outer covering. When it’s time to eat, the bamboo is easily peeled back to access the rice inside. It’s almost like a pushup popscicle (without the pushing though). Here a woman slices the bamboo down. The butterflied bamboo in the lower right of corner is one that’s been opened and the rice eaten.
Though the rice is actually tasty, it’s not that sweet. Well, not Snickers bar sweet. These women prepare the rice just a few feet from cars whizzing by on the highway.
From there it was off to a local market - what we refer to back home as a farmer’s market. Here, they’re all farmers market. They’re bustling, chaotic and raw. Lots of exotic vegetables sitting next to unrefrigerated meat. The health department back home would never approve. I tried out one seed-pod fruit that look almost like an exaggerated sunflower. It took a little digging, but the seeds were a little like edamame.
Although the market in this town felt similar in spirit to the one I went to in Phnom Pehn, it was much cleaner and thankfully lacked the putrescent smell. Still, you could get pretty much anything you wanted. From pots and pans to the local Cambodian music - I bought three pirated CD’s for a dollar.
I also felt more comfortable photographing people at this point. Knowing my few words of Cambodian - “hello” and “may I take your photo” - helped break the ice and made me feel more at ease- even if the subject was still a little nervous. Most smiled and even laughed at my earnest attempts to speak the language. I liked being out in the countryside so, as we drove away from the small town into the outlying countryside, I kept asking Kimleng to stop for photos. I was definitely in no rush since the journey here was definitely the destination.
Among my many stops was one to photograph this typical Cambodian house. The owner was home. He’s the uncle to this child and the woman is his sister-in-law.
The locals spread rice out on the ground to dry it. This all takes place on a narrow road that rises steeply above the surrounding flood plane. The dried rice is stuffed into the red bags and then straw is placed on top to keep the rice from falling out. After a day or two of drying, the rice is then picked up by big Hyundai trucks that rumble through the villages. Scenes like this take place in thousands of locations across the country.
All of the nearby houses sit on high stilts to accommodate the wet season floods. The Tonle Sap lake is about four to five feet deep in the dry season, but when the rainy season comes in June, it rises to 20 or more feet in depth.
There’s only one road into or out of the area and it’s built up about thirty feet up from the flood plane. All the houses hug this one road creating a thin, almost endless village.
Boys walking to the lake which is still a couple of miles away. I photographed these teens later riding a boat out on the river.
So this little puddle is actually a river - of sorts. It’s the dry season so it’s basically a fetid trickle. From the boat, passengers could view the backsides of the many houses lining the river. From many exited a pipe that dropped straight to the river. I asked if that was water going in or out. It goes out. Ah yes, waste water flowing directly into the river. Today’s special on the menu - our friend E. Coli.
The river was shallow and muddy. Definitely not a pretty site, but fantastic nonetheless.
Whatever the water quality might be, that doesn’t stop the fishermen from going out and doing their job. The poles and netting are fish pens into which the fishermen drive the fish to trap them.
The men here are all lean and cut from a lifetime of hard work and a low fat diet of fish and rice.
After a 30 minute boat ride up the river, we finally made it to the lake murky, shallow lake. What looks like the other side of the lake in the photo is actually a floating village. Those are all individual little boats whose owners live nearly their entire lives out on the water.
Look in the lower third corner of the photo. You’ll see a boy’s head bobbing as he swims to his neighbor’s house.
Here’s the crude motor compartment of our boat. Note the open bottle of fuel and exposed engine. It came to me as no great surprise when I heard a sudden clunk and the engine raced at maximum speed. The driver, maybe 15 years old, cut the engine off and went back to investigate. The first mate reported that the propeller fell off - so in he dove to look for it. After 15 minutes of bobbing about, we hitched a ride back with a passing boat.
Our first mate before the propeller went missing. At the end of the trip, I tipped him and the driver a few dollars. Another couple on board, Americans, tipped him with a couple of childish stickers. I felt embarrassed and pissed off. These kids don’t work for stupid stickers. That might be okay for handing out to kids in villages playing around, but you don’t tip the people who work for you with useless stickers - even if they are ten years old.
Next we took a walk through the village where lunch awaited us at a local home. I struggled with whether to use the word house or hut since it was a little of both.
Waiting for us inside was a traditional meal of fish, fish and more fish. It was all quite good and I especially enjoyed the salty fish sauce for dunking the fried fish. I have to admit though that I was quite leery when I sat down. There’s no running water here (nor anywhere around here) and the Cambodians have a habit of bringing out the silverware in a cup of water - water of dubious purity. As I began eating, I had this feeling of intestinal dread. But the feeling slowly passed as I began to enjoy the tasty meal accompanied by plenty of cheap, warm Tiger beer. (And I’m happy to report that I didn’t get sick from the meal. Yeah!)
The kids here are just precious. So friendly and alive with innocence and joy.
In the shot above, dad is actually sitting in his barber’s chair. Supercuts has yet to open a store in this area.
After walking around a bit, it was time to head off to another temple. I however was burnt out on temples. No mas! I just didn’t have the creative energy left to enjoy another set of jumbled blocks - no matter how sublime they might be. Instead, we just drove along and stopped at whatever sight caught my eye.
The photo of this boy is one of my favorites from the trip. He saw me taking photos of the old boats and bridge so he walked down from the road. Without saying a word, he began posing for my camera. I’d love to go back and give him a print of this image. He became my silent but curious companion as I snapped photos of the surroundings.
In a way, this image reminds me of the famous Steven McCurry photo of the wide-eyed afghani girl that appeared in National Geographic. Twenty years after he shot the image, he returned to find the now grown woman, her face displaying the ravages of a hard life. I wonder how time will affect this boy as he becomes a man and then likely a father over the coming decades.
As we bounced along the dirt road, I spied a Buddhist temple and graveyard. Loud Cambodian pop music, remnants of the week long Khmer New Year holiday, filled the air as I took photos and did my best to avoid the unavoidable midday heat. I much preferred the sound and feel of the place to yet another temple.
I asked what this pot was for. It reminded me of a pinata hanging there, but I was still surprised to hear that it was part of a gambling game. Basically, it’s a clay pinata and people bet how many swings it will take to break the pot. Imagine mom and dad betting with the parents how many swings it will take Johnny to get the candy to fly. That’d make for a heck of a lot more interesting birthday party.
Here the students at the school figure out what songs to play over the loudspeakers.
And with that, we jumped back into the car and headed back to town - my trip pretty much over. I’m going to go out tonight and shoot some night time scenes of Siem Riep. I’ve wanted to do it all week long, but I’ve been too tired (or sick). It feels so good to be back to normal. Though I finally feel as though I’m finally getting into the rhythm of the country and the people, I do miss home and my beautiful Southern California weather.
Before coming here, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew of a war-torn country, alternately bombed to shreds during the American bombing campaign of the Vietnam war and then then held in terrifying hostage by a vicious killer, Pol Pot. Much of my previous knowledge of the country had come from photographs. At the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, I’d seen an exhibit of the victims of Pol Pot’s torture prisons. Also at MOPA, I’d seen an exhibit of fantastic platinum prints from Angkor Wat and some of the other temples. This latter exhibit from over ten years ago was the first time I, and most other Americans, had ever heard of this other-worldly place. Those photos first planted the seed of traveling to this sub-tropical land.
As I ready to leave Cambodia, I think now of a country that’s growing. It’s open to tourists and adventurers. There’s still remnants of the past violence - land mines abound in some areas, though none anywhere around any of places that I visited. And it’s still “developing” as third world countries are now called. But when I think of poverty, I think of unhappiness. Cambodia has reminded me that there’s a difference between poverty of wealth and poverty of spirit. Though the people here are poor by American standards, I didn’t really feel it because the people here possess such a wonderful, happy, vibrant spirit - a “joie de vivre” as the French might say.
Hopefully, I can take some of that wonderful spirit home with me and, through my words, photos and actions, share it with all of you.