CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Relaxing on the Great Lake
As a half-day diversion from my exploration of the Angkor site, the trip out to Tonle Sap, the 'Great Lake', began early at 7.30am. Accompanied by Soydy, my guide and Panna, our driver, we made our way out of town and along the bumpy road running parallel to the Siem Reap River. Just past the foot of the Phnom Krom hill, we joined a raised, potholed track that took us the last few hundred metres to the busy dock area. The frenetic early morning activity was in full swing with men, up to their waists in water, unloading crates full of fish from small boats onto pickups and traders haggling loudly for the best prices for the day's catch. It was a typical scene common all over Cambodia and the pungent smell of dried fish hung heavy in the air.
I left Soydy to negotiate an hour's boat ride for a few dollars and we clambered unsteadily across a few boats to get to ours, a blue-painted tour boat, seating six with a roof to shield us from the scorching sun. Our boatman, Souern kicked the engine into life at the third attempt and we chugged along the channel leading to the lake, past a few locals with their small craft laden with fish and others, up to their neck in water, armed with their bamboo nets and lying in wait for shoals of fish. Our first sight of the lake was obscurred by a floating police station at the mouth of the channel. A spate of Khmer Rouge attacks on the Vietnamese families living in the floating village, known as Chrong Kneash, has brought about tighter security in the last few years. Moving slowly in and around the rest of the settlement, we came across a collection of different shop-boats including an open-sided hairdresser's with a couple of waiting customers (left) and a grocer's brimming with imported goods where business was brisk but the doors and windows of a hospital and a boat boasting a karaoke bar were closed.
The day begins early for the families on the lake, much as it has done for centuries. Living in harmony with the changing cycles of the Mekong which demands they move their homes when the water level rises every year, their lifestyle has remained largely unaltered for many years. The men fish and sell their catch to local traders whilst the women mend nets, cook and dry the catch from the previous day. Their boathouses contain sleeping quarters and a kitchen area whilst the education of their children is sporadic and seasonal. We stopped at one of the houseboats that double up as a cigarette and drinks shop. I climbed aboard and squeezed past an assortment of pets, including the family dog, a pig in its pen and a chained monkey to meet Sary, who was spending her time fixing a fishing net and keeping a close eye on her two infant children. I bought a Pepsi for a dollar and she explained that her husband had yet to return from his early morning fishing duties. She opened up a trap door to show us her fish farm underneath the boat and dropped some food scraps into the hole, causing the fish below to burst into a thrashing, foaming frenzy. Returning to our boat, we moved onto what Soydy explained was the Khmer section of the village, where a two-roomed school boat was moored, with a dozen or so canoes tied up alongside. Inside the classroom, the children, each dressed in a white shirt and navy blue skirt or trousers, sat quietly receiving tuition, whilst the younger children remained close to their mothers, appearing completely at ease swimming in and around their houseboats nearby.
At the end of a relaxing hour on the lake, we returned to the boat dock, thanked the boat owner Souern and retrieved Panna, our driver, from a drinks stall, where he had taken refuge from the sun. A few minutes later, we pulled up at the foot of Phnom Krom to pay a visit to the ninth century temple on the summit of the hill. The climb up the steep stairs and along the curved rocky path to the top was exhausting. On the way, Soydy and myself stopped to enjoy the gorgeous views across the pancake flat landscape, south towards the Great Lake and northwards Siem Reap and Angkor, some twelve kilometres away. Keeping a watchful eye on the main route below was a collection of abandoned military hardware used by the Cambodian army when the area was less secure, including an ack-ack artillery gun and a rusting mortar. Phnom Krom was one of three temples built by King Yasovarman I on hills dominating the Angkor region. The others were the better known Phnom Bakheng and Phnom Bok. Perched on the summit of the 140 metre high hill, the friable sandstone used in the construction of the temple has had most of its carvings eroded by the elements. Only faint traces remain on the three central towers, surrounded by a laterite wall and four smaller library buildings, made of brick and stone. The main towers are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma but have not withstood the test of time as well as other temples of a similar age (above). The lack of decoration though is more than compensated by the dramatic views across the countryside in all directions. The Angkorean temple is set some fifty metres above the grounds of a modern Buddhist wat, where we rested from our exertions in the cool shade and chatted to a couple of women preparing food for the orange-robed monks and novices, who were at prayer. After taking a few photographs of the freshly-painted frescoes from the life of Buddha that adorned the inside walls of the pagoda, we retraced our steps down the hill to rejoin Panna for the drive back to Siem Reap.
On the way, we stopped in the vicinity of a village called Banteay Chey and I opted to walk for a couple of kilometres on the far side of the river to get a taste of village life at close quarters. The absence of traffic immediately created a more tranquil atmosphere, broken only by barking dogs present as I walked past each house in turn. The river itself was slow-moving and the bright blue waterwheels, erected to transfer water to the stilt houses nearby were creaking slowly round, if at all. As I passed a school, a crowd of young boys appeared in time for an impromptu game of football, which lasted nearly half an hour and left me out of breath and sweating profusely. Approaching mid-day under a clear Cambodian sky is not the best time for physical exercise I quickly found out. As we finished, a few of the boys wasted little time in stripping off, racing down the riverbank and plunging into the refreshing water to cool off. We returned to our car for the short hop back into town. After a quick bite to eat at the Greenhouse Kitchen restaurant, I returned in time for a shower and lie down at my hotel, in preparation for an afternoon's exploration of the Roluos group of temples, a few miles east of Siem Reap.
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