Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Day 4: A Day on the Tonle Sap

6.00 a.m. I was at the foyer of Shinta Mani, waiting for the guide from Osmose to pick me up. This day trip, to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, hadn't been the easiest to arrange. I had emailed Osmose, but for some reason, I had not received a reply. This wasn't the only email to Cambodia that had gone astray, so I wasn't too worried at first. Once in Siem Reap, I tried calling them, but each time, it was an answering machine and one in Khmer too. At this point, the trip looked increasingly unlikely to happen.

Soryar and Narin offered to make alternative arrangements for me, but I was reluctant. I wanted to hold out for Osmose, an eco-conservation organisation that aimed to protect the Prek Toal biosphere and its people, because these tours funded its projects and served as an additional source of income for the residents of Prek Toal, one of the poorest communities in Cambodia. Finally, it was through the good work of the Shinta Mani receptionists that Osmose and I successfully made contact - US$95 for everything, the guide, the driver, the boat, the entrance fees, and meals.

6.05 a.m. A Toyota Camry pulled up and an enthusiastic young man bounded out, introduced himself as Piep (that's what his name sounded like), and bundled me into the back seat of the car where my fellow day-trippers were already seated. (I never did find out their names, but they were ethnic French from Mauritius. That much I knew so I shall call them Philippe and Marie for easy reference.)


Cambodian gas station

It was a short ride, punctuated by two pit stops, one to take photos of the sunrise and one to top up fuel at a friendly neighbourhood petrol kiosk. We were headed to Chong Kneas Village where our boat awaited. Before boarding, Piep showed us around an exhibition on the Tonle Sap. We peered through the dim light as Piep told us about the different types of birds we would see (including the endangered Greater Adjutant and the Lesser Adjutant), the two types of fish that were harvested ("black" fish and "white" fish) and the many types of people who lived on the Tonle Sap ("People think that everyone who lives in the floating village is Vietnamese, but that is not true. Only 30% are.") And then we were off.

leaving Chong Kneas Village

heading out through the marshland

The boat was comfortable, covered by a shelter and with rattan chairs that we could recline in. More importantly, it was reassuring to find life jackets within easy reach.

crossing the Tonle Sap

The ride across the Tonle Sap was an exhilarating one, with many a seafaring bird flying overhead. The sight kept us glued to our binoculars, following one flock of birds after another. Even so, we managed to partake of a simple breakfast, served to us by Piep - banana cake (from the Blue Pumpkin), coffee in tupperware tumblers, and bananas.

As we reached the other side, our first encounter was with a grey-headed bald eagle.

our first sighting

The boatman brought the boat to a halt as we snapped away. Bobbing up and down though wasn't so good for my head and my stomach. As much as I enjoyed watching the eagle, I was glad when we pulled away, headed to Prek Toal Village.

coming into Prek Toal Village

collecting firewood

a family affair

floating home

an itinerant hawker?

We stopped at the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary's office before proceeding back out to the sanctuary itself.

greyheaded fish eagle keeping watch at a fish farm

Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary

trees submerged

oriental darters drying their wings

The boat took us around the sanctuary. Unfortunately, my camera zoom was not powerful enough to capture much of what we saw. The highlight was stopping at the ranger's station where we climbed up to a viewing platform. From there, we took turns to look at the Greater Adjutant and the Lesser Adjutant through the ranger's telescope.

ranger's post - note the platform on top

We finished up with a tour of the nesting grounds for various birds such as the oriental darters.

Then it was time for lunch.

heading back to Prek Toal Village

heading to school

floating hardware store

Lunch at a Local Home

Before lunch, we "toured" the local home and the family's crocodile farm. Piep explained that Prek Toal Village, like most of the Tonle Sap community, was one of the poorest in the country. Already there were fears that the Tonle Sap ecological system might be under threat and fish stocks were running low. To supplement their income, it was traditional for many families to run their own crocodile farm. Sadly, even this could potentially have a negative impact on the ecosystem; the lake's water snakes were being harvested in large numbers to feed their reptilian relatives, so much so that water snake stocks were also being depleted.

the family's crocodile farm

the family's store of firewood

from this kitchen came a great meal

Without the luxury of money, life on the lake was as traditional as it got. Then again, for the ordinary Cambodian, life anywhere in Cambodia was pretty basic. Under the circumstances, a little help from above didn't hurt.

the family altar

Over lunch, Piep explained that the Osmose project, like many run by the numerous NGOs in the country, attempted to remedy the situation by helping the poor, the destitute and the disabled learn new skills and new trades, and/or discover new opportunities provided by the burgeoning tourist market. Our lunch was one such opportunity - Osmose paid the host families to cook meals for ecotourists like us. At another floating village nearby, host families provided accommodation for overnighters. Osmose would buy spring mattresses - a small "luxury" these poor families would never be able to afford on their own - for the ecotourists and leave these behind for the families.



Lunch itself was a tasty homecooked meal, made with fresh fish (black or white, I wasn't sure). There was deepfried fish with mango salad, stirfried vegetables, khmer fish soup, all eaten with rice. Then it was time to sit back, belch gently, pick one's teeth and watch the world go by.

the neighbourhood "car pool"

the view from the house

Just before we sank completely into a post-lunch stupor, Piep rounded us up for a tour of the village.

Prek Toal Village Tour

off on our village tour

For this part of the itinerary, Piep had us climb gingerly into small wooden boats, similar to the sampans common throughout Southeast Asia, and handed us homemade wooden parasols. Not without a little irony, I noted that we well-meaning tourists were being ferried around by "boatmen" who looked barely 16.

Our first stop was Osmose's water hyacinth project. This project aimed to kill two birds with one stone: rid the Tonle Sap of the overprolific weed threatening to choke rivers and waterways, and then turn these into handicrafts that can be sold.

harvesting water hyacinth

water hyacinth, before and after

flattening the dried stems

making baskets

After that, we moved on to other Osmose projects - providing start-up funds and skills for villagers to set up floating fish farms and vegetable gardens.

fish farm

floating vegetable farm

floating husbandry

floating gas station

a good day for laundry

you gotta build them high

And indeed being able to float ensured that the villagers could move to where the fish were, depending on the season. We saw a floating home being towed to a new location.

And then it was off to the rest of the village, to visit local "celebrities" and find out what life on the Tonle Sap was like.

the village hero

We stopped to say hello to a man whom Piep and the girls called the village hero. A strong swimmer since young, he had been responsible for saving the lives of those who fell into the water. According to Piep, this man would respond to the villagers' cries for help. In his words, if the man arrived at the scene in time, he would save a life. If he did not, he would retrieve the body. Either way, the grateful villagers would give him a token of appreciation. Hard times seem to have befallen this man though; he did not have kith or kin and seemed sick. At this point, we were asked if we would like to see him retrieve something from the water, a watch perhaps, keys or a pair of sunglasses. An awkward moment ensued - clearly the man was destitute but no one was comfortable commissioning what would essentially be a grotesque sideshow. We stayed there for a while, Piep and the girls engaging the man in what looked like affectionate conversation, before Piep finally moved us on, sparing us further discomfort.

the village "hospital"

One of the places we passed by was the village "hospital". This was run by a private organisation and the extent of the medical help was the presence of two nurses. From our boats, we could see patients in hospital beds on the porch, complete with drips.

scion of the village faith healer

Then we stopped by the village faith healer's house. Piep told us how the faith healer had been an ordinary joe until he fell ill as a young man and was "cured" by a spirit. Since then he was passing on the blessing by healing others. We met him briefly much later, and in the meantime we made the acquaintance of his young son.

the village church

young believers

It was interesting to note the way in which this particular sector of Cambodian society was multicultural. On the one hand, minorities seemed well assimilated. It was difficult for our foreign eyes to differentiate between, say, the ethnic Khmers and the Vietnamese. (Piep did let on that, unlike the ethnic Vietnamese women who would choose to wear printed tops with plain bottoms or vice versa, the Khmer women often wore clashing prints.) On the other hand, a certain amount of religious diversity was evident.

heading back

All too soon, it was time to head back. We crossed the Tonle Sap in dismal weather. The rain was intermittent but heavy enough to slowly but steadily soak us. The lifejackets finally came in handy as rain shields!

no running water

All too soon the ride came to an end. We were back in Chong Kneas Village. The day had been a real eye-opener.

Apsara Dance at Angkor Village

Back at Shinta Mani, HM who had spent the day relaxing by the pool and reading was all ready to go. I had just enough time to shower and get dressed before heading out with HM to Angkor Village Hotel for a night of Apsara dance.

With no idea which Apsara dance was the best in town, we opted for the dinner and dance at Angkor Village Hotel (coincidentally where Philippe and Marie were staying at and indeed we saw them having drinks in the foyer that night) on the basis of its signature wooden theatre building.

The space was certainly atmospheric with an old world ambience. We were seated in the traditional way, on the floor at low tables. The night started with dinner.

chicken lemongrass soup

samosas, popiahs (spring rolls) and prawn fritters

pork curry

coconut pudding with fruit

Once we had been served, the orchestra struck up and the evening's performance began.

the orchestra and the audience

welcome dance

fisherman's dance

good vs evil

coconut dance

Rama and Bro

the battle between Rama and Ravana

the ring


curtain call

Sadly, the dancing was rather amateurish. It was spectacle, but was it dance? Only two of the dancers looked like they had had any form of training. Accustomed as we were to the high standards of even the community dance troupes elsewhere in Southeast Asia, we could not but feel a little let down. In any other context, we would have condemned it as a scam for ignorant tourists. However, given that Cambodia had all but seen its dance traditions and an entire generation of dancers decimated in the Pol Pot years, we wondered if this was evidence of that loss. At least we had had an entertaining evening and, as HM was wont to add, a pretty good meal, albeit a somewhat expensive one at US$49 in total.

That night we returned to Shinta Mani to pack for the next phase of our journey through Cambodia.

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