23 March 2012

Déjà-vu moment with Kevin Costner

Traditional stilt houses
My first day trip in Siem Reap was not to the Khmer temples but to the traditional village of Kompong Pluk. I had made it very clear to my two tour guides that I did not want to do any "touristy" things, so I thought to myself this is gonna be an interesting one! Walking the fine line between touristy excursions on one side and experiencing local people and culture on the other side is very difficult in an area which sees as many tourists as Angkor Wat and Siem Reap does. 

Also I do not mind to support Eco Tourism activities and Kompong Pluk is such a place where you have to pay an entrance fee and the money goes to a large degree to the local community. 

Water levels were getting low during my trip to Angkor, so we chose to move this visit to the beginning of my time to ensure we can still travel by boat. My tour guide did surprisingly well in avoiding other tourists and we had the place almost to ourselves. 

A huge village on stilts
A short boat ride did soon reveal the first stilt houses along the river and I immediately thought of "Waterworld" the 1995 post-apocalyptic science fiction movie starring Kevin Costner.  However, this here was much better than the movie! I was really surprised because I did not expect the stilt houses to be sitting on 6 to 7 meters high poles. With the water level being so low it looked even more surreal. Only the children playing in the water and the fishermen trying their luck in the muddy river made the situation real. Immediately I decided that I had to come back here and see this place during the rainy season when the water flooded the entire area. Everything here was built on stilts, even the pig stalls.

Donating books and pencils to pupils in the village
My guide arranged for me to meet with people in the village, which was an awesome experience. I went to the local school and donated class room utensils, books and pencils, to the children. I handed them out one by one, because I usually want to see where my donations go to. Too much money ends up in the hands of people who merely administer, organize or simply with people who are corrupt. So, meeting each child in the classrooms gave me a much better feeling. 

Charging time!!
Walking through the village, we met a lot of children who were not in school because they simply lacked the funds to pay for an education. Living conditions were very poor, without electricity and running drinking water. One of the most stunning image for me was about 20 kids and adults standing together in a group watching something I could not make out. I just heard laughter and when I got closer I noticed they were holding a small phone on which they were showing a movie. The  device was run by a car battery!  Car batteries,  which have to be charged regularly are the only form of electricity in the village and there are "shops" where people bring their batteries to every few days to be charged against a fee. 

We did another stop at the local temple to make donations and talked with one of the monks about the village and the temple. My first temple in Cambodia, I thought to myself! What a great start!

Mangrove forests
There was plenty of nature, mangrove forests and a slow change from stilt houses to floating houses. We came closer to the lake Tonle Sap. Soon our small boat was dancing up and down on the water with no land in sight and I realized how large this sweet-water lake is. The water comes up from the mighty Mekong river during the rainy season and thus "flows backwards" while it runs with the flow of nature "downstream" during the dry season. Interesting!  The guy who drove our boat switched off the motor and started to fill a half dozen water containers with water from the lake. "Drinking water", I was told, for the village, because the muddy water from the river is not drinkable. 

Traditional market in the village
We started to go back the same way we came. Our option would have been to go out further on the lake and see the Vietnamese floating settlements, but I decided that would be on another trip.  Instead we went to a nearby village on land and strolled through their market. That was how I had remembered Siem Reap 12 years ago. Unspoiled and traditional. No tourists. Just what I wanted to see. 

My tour guide knew exactly what I wanted to do and experience and he presented it to me in just the right way. My initial doubts about him as being a "second choice" guide were all gone by the time we reached the Hotel!

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