The last few days have been pretty busy. We saw the palace and museum at Phnom Penh before spending a day learning about the atrocities performed by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields and S21 prison. I’m ashamed to say I barely knew anything about them before. What I’ve written about it is not suitable for any kids reading (I know there might be a few) so I won’t put it in this blog. Ask me about it when we get home if you’re interested though. It was certainly a worthwhile day, if not enjoyable, as it puts Cambodia and its people into context.
Before we leave Cambodia this afternoon (heading for Laos contrary to our itinerary for anyone keeping track!), I thought I would do a quick post about our time in the countryside which is obviously very different to the bustle of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (the capital).
Kratie is a very small town on the Mekong river which doesn’t seem to have much going on. We stopped here to break up our long journey from Phnom Penh to Laos and it was refreshing to be able to walk around without being offered a tuk tuk every couple of paces! We decided to fill our day with two of the usual tourist activities for the area. Most of the day was spent with Tanja from Slovenia and Irish Denise who we met on the bus te day before.
First we got a small ‘ferry’ across the river to an island. It was a long wooden boat with a motor at the back, covered partially by a tarpaulin for a roof, and it filled up gradually with local people with their polythene bags of cockles, bolts, cigarettes, meat, garlic, rice pudding and an array of fruits and vegetables. When the boat was full enough, a motorbike was brought on at the front and we departed. It cost 1000 Riel each (about 15p).
On the other side we disembarked along almost enough planks of wood lying across mud and made our way to a wooden building to hire bikes. They were caked in mud and not guaranteed to work; $1 without gears, $2 with, although they were entirely unnecessary as the island is flat and, in any case, didn’t work!
We set off in high spirits along an unexpectedly good path, witnessing true rural Cambodian life which was very peaceful and simple. The children in their white and blue uniforms ran around freely in and outside the school boundary walls until the noise of (what sounded like) a pan being hit brought them running back inside for class. I still haven’t worked out which children go to school and which don’t (maybe they have to pay) and when they go (they seem to go early and finish mid-morning).
Each wooden house on the island had its own little plot of land, typically containing a few tethered, grazing cows, a cluster of chicks trying to keep up with their mother, fruit trees, several barky dogs, a few colourful flowers and sometimes a fence made from cacti!
Almost every house we passed had people outside it or visible through their open doorway. Most seem to be doing nothing but sitting or lying in the dark and relative cool of their houses, although from time to time we saw someone cooking or planing wood or cleaning. More or less every child waved and shouted, ‘Hello’ as we cycled past, some extending to, ‘How are you?’ or, ‘What is your name?’ To a lesser degree, this is something we have become accustomed to, but on this tranquil island, even many of the adults smiled or greeted us.
The bike riding experience itself was not quite so idyllic: the nice concrete path didn’t last long and the rainy season meant that we had to keep dismounting to squelch our way through deep mud. There were also several stubborn cows who insisted on blocking our progress! Eventually, after persevering for about 4km, the path became impassable so we turned back. Covered in mud, we returned our bikes and Denise and Tanja decided to go back to the mainland.
Dean and I bought some coldish cans to drink and set off for a wander the other way round the island. It was much the same as what we had seen before. For some while we followed an old lady casually carrying a swinging stack of tiffin tins in one hand, perhaps returning from taking lunch to her husband.
Further on a man in just his boxers appeared from the trees concealing the river; he had with him a few fish he’d just caught and a slightly sheepish grin. Best of all, we spotted three little boys monkeying around up a fruit tree! We stopped to take their picture and they were delighted to see themselves on the screen. It’s moments like these that are my favourite part of travelling.
Continuing to the southern tip of the island, we looked down the bank to see a floating village, basically wooden floating houses with yet more people doing very little!
After this, we headed back to Kratie for a much needed shower and some lunch before reconvening with Tanja and Denise for our second activity of the day. A 15km tuk tuk ride through lots more rural village life took us to an area of the Mekong where it’s possible to get a dolphin-watching boat. By this time it was about 4pm so our wooden boat’s tarpaulin didn’t give us much protection from the sinking sun. The boat owner motored us over the perfectly still river for a while, passing fishermen and kids playing, until he got his first glimpse of the small pod of dolphins.
He then continued upstream, switched off the engine, and rowed us back towards them. We (fairly unsuccessfully) snapped away at them as they emerged fleetingly above the water then disappeared just as quickly. This whole process was repeated several times during an hour or so. It was exciting to see them but there were about five other boats doing the same as us so I couldnt help but feel that we were haranguing them more than we should. Here are my best (believe it or not!) attempts!
We returned to land and to Kratie with the sun setting over the river flickering in and out of view between the almost silhouettes of the stilted houses.
We’re currently sitting around waiting for a bus to take us to Laos, specifically a place called Don Det in the 4000 islands. We are expecting to encounter plenty of corruption and bribes on the boarder so we’ll see how that goes!
Realistic estimation of children who complete primary education: 43%
Number of teachers who survived Pol Pot’s regime: 1 in 10
Percentage of current teachers who received education beyond high school: 40%