Cambodia – Vietnamese Floating Village

Surprise surprise, we slept in. As much as sleeping till 9am can count as sleeping in! Puffy eyed and groggy from sleeping for what must have been around 11hours, we stumbled out of our room and saw a note on a door near ours: ‘Girls, don’t wake me up! Shaunt’. Well that solved that problem, we had the wrong room anyway. Utterly ashamed that the poor tuk tuk driver had been waiting outside for us for 4 hours, we agreed to let him take us instead to the floating village. We had a quick breakfast first at the hostel – a milkshake and some French toast – Sara also ordered a coffee and a plate of fruit. The waiter asked her 3 times if she was sure she wanted that much, and then laughed like a madman saying ‘you, two and you, FOUR’ to her. He then proceeded to tell any of his friends who went past how she ordered ‘so much’ and they all kept on laughing at us. This was just the first of many occasions where we served to amuse the locals. The drive to the floating village was perhaps better and more authentic than the floating village itself, so much so that Sara and I decided to rent some bikes in the next few days and explore the villages outside Siem Reap. So I won’t write about the villages yet – you will just have to wait. Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the boat stop where dozens of pretty long tail boats looked rather forlorn as they lingered idly. Either this was the wrong season for tourists (it was rainy season after all) or Cambodia was struggling. The Vietnamese floating village is situated on the Tonle Sap lake  – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. A curious fact from my guidebook – apparently the monsoon rains arrive just at the same time as the melt water from the Himalayas flows down. This causes the water levels to rise so rapidly that it reverses the direction of flow of the river! Definitely something i’d like to discuss in more detail with my father when I get home (he’s the ultimate authority on anything H20 related).

The floating village is inhabited by stateless ethnic Vietnamese, who despite having lived in Cambodia for decades, do not mix at all with the locals and in many instances are hated by the Khmer. It was weird floating into that little Vietnamese bubble – having just switched from Thai to Khmer I had no desire to try and assimilate another culture and language, so I pretended that they were Khmer. As uncultured as that makes me sound. The village was a little disappointing to be honest. Even though we knew that the people did indeed live there, it felt a little artificial – like a human zoo. Dozens of tourist boats circling around their houses, exposing their most intimate daily moments, creating large waves that reached their homes. They must both love and hate the tourists for they bring in so much money. Our poised cameras were largely met only with scowls.

At one point we stopped and disembarked on a little floating cafe clearly set up for tourists as it had a souvenir shop complete with crocodile hides. The minute we stepped off the boat, little children in nearby boats started paddling furiously towards us and on arrival stood before us with their hands out. No postcards for sale, no little bracelets, just an empty hand and a hard, unflinching stare. It was quite unsettling. A huge boat full of tourists stopped at the cafe a little after us, eager to sample to Tonle Sap shrimp. Boats gathered round the cafe, I wasn’t sure what for, as the women didn’t leave the boats. But the minute the tourists left, and leftover shrimp were handed out equally to the patient spectators. I found this rather curious considering that these people make us the majority of the local fishermen. I ordered a plate of fresh streamed fish served on a bed of shredded ginger. Yum! As I savoured the wonderful flavours, Sara snuck pieces of the fish to a hungry feline purring at our feet.

Another ploy for money was rather less palatable for me. Little children had caught a large snake and draped it round the necks of tourists charging them to take a photo. The whole time we sat there eating, I was terrified. I had to ask Sara every 5 seconds to check they weren’t approaching me from behind and I trembled, poised to leap up and sprint onto the boat. Obviously that was a major influencing factor in my lack of appreciation of the village. All in all we were quite happy to leave and our boat driver entertained us on the ride back by letting us take control of the boat. In my case, I suspect that this was a v. bad idea. The gas was just a string hanging in the air that you had to step on, and though I turned and turned the wheel, it seemed to make no difference. I scared myself and quickly handed the wheel back. We then sat on the prow of the boat, letting our legs dangle in the water as we sped across the lake. I was a little horrified to discover that these village people used unscreened holes in the floor as toilets. Everything went straight into the water they were fishing from, showering in and washing their clothes in.

Having overslept (11hours) the previous night, we were all set for the 4am wake up – take 2- and set two separate alarms, placing them on opposite sides of the room so that we would be forced to get up to turn them off. We set out for a quiet dinner and just ‘one’ drink. At the Temple Bar (our local watering hole) we were sat next to one of the most pretentious people I have ever overheard. We dubbed him Lord Notting Hill. He was alone but having a discussion with some English guys at the next table. I was rather horrified to discover that he was at LSE! What is it they say about the fact that LSE doesn’t interview? All sorts of weirdos are admitted. Anyway he droned on and on in his rah-rah voice, at one point I heard him say that he hadn’t bothered with halls as mummy and daddy had bought him a flat in Notting Hill. He then went on about how he didn’t like LSE students, preferring to mix with the UCL crowd. That didn’t surprise me as I couldn’t see him having anything in common with the Asian foreigners that LSE is famous for, nor the pseudo rudeboy Londoners that make up the English’ quota. They would have taken one look at him and laughed. He spent the whole conversation stroking his hair – I don’t think I have ever met anyone more in love with themselves, and I have met Jude Law…

When he left, I couldn’t help bursting into laughter and desperately trying to persuade Sara that not all English people are that ridiculous. She was skeptical. We actually ended up moving to the table with the poor victims of the aforementioned conversation – really nice, down to earth guys from Bristol  – Hassan and Jasper, and they kept us entertained till 1am

At one point Sara caught sight of Shaunt wandering down the street looking creepier than ever. Sara immediately told me not to look at the street and, paranoid from earlier on, I thought there was a snake somewhere. When I finally realised that the street was snake free, I was so relieved, I turned to look out, Shaunt immediately caught my eye and wandered over. Oh no! Sara and I were helpless with laughter at the whole situation, Jasper and Hassan a little confused. We quickly tried to clue them into the situation – he was our rather weird stalker etc. etc. but nothing could explain as well as Shaunt’s appearance on arrival. The long straggly beard, the moustache so long that it curled right into his mouth and a bag full of strange fruit that he proceeded to try and force us all to eat. The music at Temple was too loud to hold a conversation with the person next to you, let alone someone two people down. Shaunt just sat there staring at us all, and taking pity on him, I suggested that we leave. We only had 3 hours till we had to be up after all. We arranged to see the guys when we were back in Bangkok and set off home. Shaunt walked us back, then headed back into the city for a late night prowl. We said our goodbyes as he had decided to leave Siem Reap the following day. Sara and I happily snuggled down to sleep, but after what felt like just a few seconds, the alarm clock sounded!

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