After viewing some more of the Angkor Thom complex we had a delicious lunch in a local Cambodian restaurant - a clear chicken broth soup with local vegetables mildly seasoned, followed by sautéed eel in a green peppercorn sauce accompanied by rice - dished onto your plate by male and female servers who stood nearby. Because of the comfortable 80 degree temperatures the restaurant had no walls, but definitely had a ceiling. As we were eating the Sky opened up dumping his moisture upon the Earth. Like clockwork there were wet monsoon rains that occurred every afternoon. This was refreshing, as it broke the oppressive humidity.
After lunch back to the hotel for a swim in the their swimming pool - a growing family tradition that we were to relish as this rest period allowed us to assimilate our experiences and recharge our life force. Practically it allowed us to escape the heat of midday and the monsoon rains.
At 3PM Sopheap showed up with a driver for the next leg of the tour - the Floating Village. From our hotel we normally drove northwest away from the city of Siem Riep to get to Angkor’s temple complex. This afternoon we drove southeast into the city. As mentioned it was an odd mix of modern and ancient. Ox carts mixed with motor scooters traveling across roads pot-holed by the sporadically constant rain. Local restaurants without walls were combined with Internet Cafes. Lots of construction was going on everywhere. But it had just begun. After all Cambodia had just been opened to tourism after over 20 years of civil war.
In my normal tactful way: “Were you involved in the fighting at all?”
Sopheap: “I was not part of either army but I have been caught in a cross fire twice. I was not injured but one of my friends was killed. And I know many who were maimed or killed. One army would hide in a village and the other would shell it or attack. Many innocent people were victims. Over near that bridge I was on my bicycle when someone yelled at me to get down. I dived down. Gunshots erupted around me and then faded away.”
Me: “Are there any more problems?”
Sopheap: “Not really. Just in isolated areas.”
We drove through the city. While there were brown-skinned people everywhere it was not very crowded. Not much high rise, except the new hotels and those under construction.
We went over a small bridge into a residential area. The same pot-holed streets which seem to accompany the tropics, but the houses, which were built on stilts, had very interesting architecture that you might see in any upscale neighborhood anywhere, i.e. wood, cement, glass windows. There were late model cars in their garages with the fluorescent blue of TV screens emanating from some of the houses. While not crowded, the structures were fairly close - like an intimate neighborhood.
Sopheap: “This is the more prosperous section of town. Many make their money selling fish sauce. But the rich and poor live together. They are not separated from one another. The rich man might have a nicer house and nicer car, but doesn’t have his own neighborhood. We are all equal here. The Khmer Rouge, while brutal, took care of that.”
Sure enough there were some houses which were more basic mixed in with the fancier dwellings. But they were all built on stilts.
Me: “Stilts because of flooding?”
Sopheap: “Houses have been built on stilts in Cambodia as long as there have been people. Every year the Tonle Sap overflows. It is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. We are going there now. The Floating Village is on one of the lake’s inlets. The residents live on their boats to avoid problems with the regular rise and fall of the lake.”
Me: “Flooding caused by heavy rains?”
Sopheap: “Not really. Every year in spring the snows from the surrounding mountains, which are extensions of the Himalayas, melt. The banks of the Mekong River can’t handle the flow. The waters back up, reversing the flow of the river coming from the Tonle Sap. Because the water flows into the lake rather than flowing out of it, the water level of the lake rises by five to ten feet every year.”
Me: “The river flows backwards?”
Sopheap: “Just in spring. That’s why everyone who lives near the lake has houses built on stilts or live on boats.”
Me: “The Mekong River backs up because of so much snow melt from the Himalayas?”
Me: “Doesn’t the Mekong River flow through Vietnam?”
Sopheap: “The Mekong River delta is South Vietnam. It used to be part of Cambodia until they conquered it from us.”
Me: “Let me get this straight. The Vietnamese conquered what is now called South Vietnam from the Cambodians. Then they fought to throw the Americans out?”
Me: “One thief protecting his loot from another.”
Sopheap: “After the Americans left, Vietnam tried to conquer Cambodia from the east and Thailand tried to conquer us from the west. Luckily France intervened, as she has before, to preserve our autonomy.”
Me: “Wow! My idols have clay feet. Peaceful Thailand and poor defenseless Vietnam turn aggressor, when they have the chance. I guess humans are the same everywhere. One culture will always exploit another culture if the opportunity presents itself.”
Sopheap: “Actually we, Cambodians, don’t like to fight. When the Vietnamese move in, we just simply leave, and find somewhere else to live.
Me: “What if there is nowhere else to go?”
Sopheap: “Then there’s a problem. In Cambodia the lots are shaped like triangles. The houses all congregate in a neighborhood and their lots fan out in the back.”
Me: “Mandala Agriculture.”
Laurie: “That’s why we saw all those agricultural circles when we flew into Cambodia.”
Sopheap: “Right. Most Cambodians are farmers - growing their own rice and other vegetables. Plus there is plenty of fish in our rivers and lakes. There is even some small game to be hunted. Over all there is an abundance of food for we Cambodians. Life is good. When there is no war.”
The road, which was just dirt now, had become rougher and rougher. As we approached the river the open walled houses with thatched roofs that sat on stilts became higher and higher off the ground. We now saw a growing number of people at all stages of life. They seemed to be interacting vigorously. There were naked children, nursing mothers, men walking with loads on their backs, and gray haired elders sitting quietly.
We finally reached the river and got on a small outboard motor boat. Lining both sides of the river were dwellings of all types. No housing tracts here. There were permanent structures on floats, large boats turned into dwellings, and smaller boats with improvised buildings on top. Many of them were open on the sides, while all had roofs, which was necessitated by irregular downpours of rain. Extended families seemed to live in a small dwelling, cooking food in wok looking metal containers over an open fire.
Some homes were so primitive, that only a picture suffices. No words can convey what we saw. Even our memory is inadequate to the task.
Although there were people in the water, pulling boats or securing lines, the river was filthy and stunk.
Sopheap: “The river people throw everything into the river. It is always washed away in the spring when the waters rise. However they have shorter life span because of diseases spawned by the stagnant water. The government has tried to clean things up and introduce sanitary measures, but the river people are very resistant to change. They have been doing things the same way for thousands of years.”
Miranda: “If they are happy, what’s wrong with that?”
Laurie: “It’s too dirty for me.”
Me: “Are they connected to the outside world in any way?”
Sopheap: “Not really. They are totally self sufficient. The government has tried to introduce education but they resist. Most of them can’t even read and write.”
Serena: “But everyone seems so happy. They are all very friendly with no stress or hostility.”
Me: “A little different from Berkeley?”
Serena: “Totally. There everyone is stressed out and busily generating more stress. No one has any time. Professors and students always rushing around trying to finish their very important projects.”
We could look into people’s houses as we cruised down the narrow inlet into Tonle Sap, as they were mostly open.
Me: “What is the average annual income of the residents of the Floating Village?”
Sopheap: “Very low, because they barter and trade between themselves. And they fish and hunt for food. If they get tired of one place they set sale for another. People are constantly moving around. Just for variety. Look over on the right. There is a house boat that is moving.”
Me: “What is the literacy rate?”
Sopheap: “Although the government has made attempts, that rate is also very low. Reading and writing is unnecessary in their society without private property and without a need for laws. They work at getting along because it is necessary for survival. They must cooperate. They enforce their own justice according to traditional rules.”
Me: “So a virtually non-existent annual income, no health care, and very low literacy.”
Serena: “And yet they seem more happy and relaxed than almost anyone in the academic society at Berkeley. Everyone pumped up with their own self importance and yet stressed out by deadlines.”
We stopped at a little restaurant on the water for refreshments and possibly some souvenirs. My wife, ever open to mementos, bought 2 high quality woven baskets for the relatively high price of $4 each. They had many animals, including skinny generic dogs which were running wild and a monkey on a chain. One of the puppies jumped up on me, scratching my leg enough to draw blood. The owners beat the dog and put him in a cage. They showed us some portable cages, which contained pigs, a variety of birds and fish.
Miranda: “What a raw place to live.”
Laurie: “It seems like this is the way things have always been here - with little variation. We are taking a step back in time. They seem just as curious about us as we are of them.”
There were constant showers in this muggy hot primitive environment. We continued on to Tonle Sap. It was enormous. We could not even see the other side. It reminded me of an inland ocean.
Sopheap: “Tonle Sap provides an endless supply of seafood to the inhabitants here.”
Me: “Can we go onto the lake?”
Sopheap: “Not today. It is too dangerous because of the growing winds.”
On our way back, some stared curiously as us, who were obvious outsiders, but most were too busy living to pay any attention to us.
Serena: “Look at all those naked children playing merrily in the mud. They seem to be having such a good time. Just playing and laughing. I wish I were them.”
Me: “School stressing you out?”
Serena: “Yes. Here life seems so carefree. I wish I could bottle the attitude and take it home.”
Returning to the hotel through the city, we saw children walking home from school with books in their arms, just like you might see anywhere. There were many people on the streets, walking, biking, and mopeding.
Me: “These people from the Floating Village - what happens to them during the wars?”
Sopheap: “Not much. Everyone leaves them alone. They don’t have anything that anyone wants.”
Me: “What about during the time of Angkor Wat?”
Sopheap: “No one knows for sure. But it is suspected that they were required to supply the temple builders and the Empire with food.”
Me: “The city people need the country people, but the country people don’t need the city people. So the city people enslave the country people to supply their needs.”
Sopheap: “Yes, some scholars think that the farmers were forced to participate in the Empire of the Khmers. I prefer to think that they were proud to be part of such a grand undertaking.”