(written by Nancy)
We had a lazy morning starting with brekkie at Smile Cafe and then a coffee at the place virtually next door. While we were walking to brekkie and walking from brekkie to coffee, we were greeted by a friendly local who just happened to have a tuk-tuk scooter and offered local tours. We wanted to see more than HBO today but were not able to spot any of the normal tour offices that you see in most of these towns so we decided over coffee to give the nice gentleman a go given how hard he had worked to befriend us. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, he was parked just outside the coffee shop when we went out looking for him (there are not so many tourist here and when you have a potential client, I guess you hang on).
Meet Mr. Bao (not sure of the spelling). He is a 42-year-old who lives in Kampong Cham, is married and has 4 children (ages 15, 11, 9 and 7). He was 5 years old and lived in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over. More on that later…
We did our best to negotiate with him but ended up just going for the price he offered to begin with. When you consider that he drove us around for 4 hours, paid for gas and was basically our private tour guide, he was really a bargain at $12. It meant that we didn’t have to ride our bikes, get all sweaty, get lost, not know what we were looking at and come away a whole lit less informed. And he was a super nice guy as well.
Our first stop was to check out the progress of construction on a bamboo bridge that runs from this side of the Mekong out to an island in the middle. Amazingly, this bamboo bridge is rebuilt every year during December and January to give the islanders access to the mainland – in other times they must catch a boat. The bridge is built on bamboo stilts set into the muddy river bottom and is washed away during the high waters that occur in the rainy season. The bridge isn’t quite finished yet so we could not go on it – not too sure I would trust it to walk out on it but Mr Dao says they take tuk tuks on it (though apparently they do ask the passengers to walk).
Our next stop was Wat Nokor, about 2k out of town. This is a smallish wat that pre-dates the famous Angkor Wat. It has been built and re-built many times. The latest rebuild was after the Khmer Rouge, when they built a new interior temple to sit inside the original ruins. Overall, the site was in better shape than Champasak, where we visited last week. Mr. Bao gave us a private tour, telling us stories about what rooms would have been used for and various other historical facts. Much of the original surface carved stones are intact and are actually in pretty good shape. The contrast of new and old at this wat were quite interesting. Some 1000 year old arches and roofs are still standing where the 1991 new building roof has leaked quite badly. The newer parts were quite ostentatious relative to the older style – lots of colours and pictures, including a series of panels depicting Buddha’s life through various stages.
Next stop was a local village, Cheung Kok, where we got to see more of the story that we’d read about at the Smile Cafe last night. The village was quite poor and was struggling to feed the population with the small rice holdings that people farmed. An NGO called Amica has worked with the village to carefully introduce eco tourism as a way of drawing in tourist revenue and additional resources while still preserving their way of life. We first visited a weaver who was making krama. This colourful checked scarf is worm by Khmer and has many uses beyond that of a scarf, including mini sarong, drying towel, baby carrier, bed pillow, broken down scooter tow rope, etc, etc. The woman can make two scarves per day and sells them onsite for $3 per scarf. In the market they sell for $2, the extra dollar charge onsite is a completely open way which the village asks for more support.
We wanted to purchase a scarf or two but the village store was closed due to the rice harvest being in full swing. Everyone has to pitch in during harvest. For us this was not so bad as we got to walk the rice paddocks with Mr. Bao and learned more about the harvest. Here we once again learned about how hard doing things the old-fashionedhand way can be. If planting and transplanting were not hard enough, cutting and tying the rice in the field is equally difficult. Imagine a field that is still very muddy or even wet, the temperature over 30, you in bare feet, pulling, cutting and tying up small bundles of rice grains. They have a special knife to do all this and I’m sure that with time, you would build special skills, but it is hard yakka. Just standing in the sun watching it was hard work. Then you look up and notice that the fields go on for about as far as you can see and are full of hundreds of other villagers doing the same thing. We’ll both certainly look different at a bowl of rice after this trip.
From the village we headed for the Man Hill and Woman Hill (Phnom Pres and Phnom Srei). Legend has it two hills were built, one by men and one by women, as a contest to see who could build the taller hill in 24 hours as a way to settle a dispute about a proposed marriage. The women won after building a bonfire in the middle of the night to trick the men into thinking that dawn was coming so that they put down their tools early. The temples are relatively new as these did not survive the Khmer Rouge. There were quite a few monkeys at the site, the first we’d seen since Thailand.
Mr. Bao then took us to a small killing fields memorial in the valley between the hills. Until now, Mr. Bao had been a guide, separated from the actual events that he was describing. Here he was not only a witness but also active participant. He told us how many people had been killed and kept saying that he did not understand why the government had done this. We asked about his family and he said that his uncle, auntie and cousins all died. He was visibly moved discussing it. He purchased joss sticks for all three of us to make an offering so we followed his lead. The walk back to the tuk-tuk was quiet as we considered what had happened. We’ll see more of this in Phnom Penh next week. It really is quite an amazing story of some people going completely mad.
Mr. Bao then brought us back to town for lunch at the Mekong Crossing restaurant. We really did enjoy his company and local knowledge. He’s offered to show us more tomorrow but we may just lay low here and relax. This being a proper tourist is hard word. At any rate, as planned, we’ll be here for one more day before moving onto Phnom Penh on Sunday.