Short easy day today. No early starts, a relaxed breakfast and then an 8.30 start for our 30 min drive to Tonle Sap where we catch a boat to view the famous floating fishing villages.
Tonle Sap is a large, shallow freshwater lake that is about 3000 sq kms in the dry season but swells up to about 12,000 in the wet. Interestingly, for the engineer in me anyway, the swelling of the lake is not fed from upstream but downstream. When the Mekong is in flood from the snow melt of the Himalayas the flow is so strong that it pushes water back upstream into its tributary the Tonle Sap river and in turn into the lake.
When we visit the floodwaters are in the process of receding.
We take a small boat from a tourist departure point and motor down to the floating villages. There’s no escaping noisy diesel motor boats in Asia so its not a peaceful trip but fascinating nonethess.
Unlike the floating fishing villages we have seen in Halong Bay these villages move with the changing of the water levels. But something in common with Halong Bay is that ethnically many of these people are Vietnamese who came over in 1979 when the Vietnamese Govt took control of Cambodia post Pol Pot.
We spend some time at a floating restaurant where our guide tells us a little more about the lives of the fishing families (who work hard to make maybe a $1 a day) but the conversation turns to learning about Bunthing and his family, the state of Buddhism in Cambodia (where it is clearly not taken as seriously as it is in Burma), the failings and gross corruption of the current government (which to our shame is supported by the Australian Government) and the most amazing life he has led.
Bunthing lost his mother and father to the genocide of Pol Pot and fled, aged 12, to camps on the Thai border where he then trained as a guerilla fighter in the civil war post the Khmer Rouge regime. He didn’t provide much detail but basically he was a soldier at age 13. He left the ‘army’ to seek an education at one of the Catholic missions in the refugee camps which in turn allowed him to escape the poverty cycle.
We know he has been a tour guide (and a very good one) for 14 years and prior to that worked in the hotel industry. He is an active campaigner for workers rights and has led a number of strikes to try and improve conditions.
No doubt we will learn more tomorrow as we have decided to take an additional tour to one of the newly discovered temple complexes that are still enveloped by the jungle and are totally unrestored.
Spent a relaxing afternoon walking around town, having a nice lunch and then spending too much money in the markets. Apparently silk scarves for $6 are a bargain.
This evening we went to the Phare circus. Phare is an NGO (one of the few non corrupt ones here) that provide training for young people from disadvantaged families in a number of artistic disciplines including painting, music and circus skills. Tonight we saw the music and circus skills combined in a very energetic, enthralling and funny show. Highly recommended if you ever come to Siem Reap.
Tomorrow the mysterious jungle temple!