Friday, August 13, 2010

Keeping Afloat

Flying into Phnom Penh in the late rainy season had been like descending upon an aquatic planet. There didn't seem to be any land. Only water. Here and there a high road would cut across the surface. Apart from that there was only a silvery, glistening expanse.

A lot of Cambodian life takes place on or beside the lake and rivers. Many people actually live on houseboats, gathered together in floating villages with shops, post offices, temples and churches. Children take the boat to the floating school. Men drink beer in the floating bar. Even animals, usually pigs and chickens, are kept in floating stalls.

By Kampong Chhnang there is such a floating village. Its inhabitants, like many of the fisherfolk, are Vietnamese, living in uneasy proximity to their Cambodian neighbours who often don't like and distrust them. When I reached the waterside, I was at once surrounded: "Madame! Madame" - "Come with me, Madame! Three dollar!" -"Madame, two dollar!" The woman who got to me first held tightly onto my right arm. Another grabbed my left, but was pushed away by a pimply, obnoxious youth: "You come with me!" - Two other girls started pulling at my shirt, but Woman No. 1 was having none of it. Meanwhile, Pimpleface and Woman No. 2 were almost coming to blows. - Woman No. 1 led her prize ($ 2) down to the boats, holding my arm in a vice-like grip to prevent me from getting away at the last minute. Pimpleface scowled and hurled what could only be obscenities at us.

At this point I might as well admit it: I have a totally unfounded fear of sitting in small, wobbly boats. (Yet again and again on my travels, I find myself crouched, petrified with terror, in small, wobbly boats.) My victorious boat-woman poled her tiny craft, along with its panic-stricken passenger, past the homes of people going about their regular business, and I could look into what was basically their living-rooms and stare at them cook, clean, repair nets, do their homework, watch TV. Children waved at me. There were some pigs in a floating pigpen.

My relief at getting out of the boat at the end was worth a lot more than the two dollars it had cost me to get in. Back at my guesthouse, I saw that not only was the sleeve of my shirt half-torn-out, but my arms and shoulders were covered in bruises.

The Tonlé Sap is one of the great wonders of the natural world. Each year, during the monsoon and swelled by the waters of the Mekong, it turns from a shallow, brackish body of water into South-East Asia's largest freshwater lake and river system, actually reversing its flow and providing the people of Cambodia with an abundance of fish. Or so it has always been. From what I've heard, the fishermen are catching less and less.

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