*Amphibious villages and amphibious landings*
12.12.2011 - 18.12.2011 20 °C
My mother does not eat breakfast. What’s more, she can go an entire day without eating, right up until she gets a migraine. After a week of traveling with her, I fear I am losing weight. Our first day in Siem Reap, I notice our guesthouse has an appealing breakfast menu and bring this to her attention. Our tour tomorrow starts at 8am, so I suggest we breakfast at 7am. Ema is unenthused. I proceed to lecture her on the importance of the first meal of the day. She remains unimpressed. I finally say that I for one plan to start my day with proper nourishment, fill out the little card requesting one “Khmer style noodles” noodles and a Vietnamese coffee, and we tuck into bed.
I have been taking breaks from my break, so to speak, to work on PhD applications. I wanted to finish them before I left Chicago, but, well, this is me. Deadlines are now looming large, so here I am churning out a personal statement over breakfast. Be that as it may. The “Khmer style noodles” noodles have a delicate, savory flavor with an underlying sweetness, and the sauce on the side carries a substantial kick. The Vietnamese coffee is stupendous, and if I had access to it on a regular basis I would surely develop a coffee habit. Not a bad way to coax myself through this application business.
Apart from the Khmer food, which I really enjoy, our three days in Siem Reap comprise multiple highlights. Beyond the merits of its breakfast, our guesthouse is associated with a nonprofit called the Ponheary Ly Foundation which works to help children attend school who otherwise would not be able to. Our first act is to visit a school that the foundation supports with volunteer teachers and supplies. State education in Cambodia is free, but uniforms and books are not. Moreover, most children have a primary school within walking distance but their secondary school may be a few kilometers away and if the child has no bicycle (s)he may not attend. One of the foundation’s strategies is thus to provide bicycles, a simple step that can make a huge difference. As we stand there in the hot sun discussing all this, we see children ‘commuting’ to school, some by bicycle and some on foot, ducking under barbed wire and walking across the dry rice paddies.
After the school, we visit a floating village. Our excellent guide, Rithy, explains that there are two floating villages accessible from Siem Reap. The closer of the two has basically been bought by a Korean company which runs the boat tours and keeps the profits. The other is farther, but is run by a village cooperative and profits are shared among the residents. Not a difficult choice.
The floating village sits on a lake, naturally. But we do not just drive up to the shore, walk out onto a dock and board a boat. The lake expands and contracts depending on the wet/dry season, so it begins rather gradually. At first we are driving along an elevated road surrounded dry land, but the houses are on stilts. Then there is water on either side of the road, proving that the houses are on stilts with good reason. The water continues to rise. Eventually the road ends and we board a boat. But we are not yet in the floating village, rather still in what I term in my mind an ‘amphibious village.’ A unique product of the wet/dry season cycle, these villages are basically set up to function half the year on dry land and half the year under several meters of water. During the dry season they grow rice, have regular streets and trees, and people travel via the usual mix of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and foot. During the wet season they fish for a living and get around by boat, navigating around the treetops.
In this second picture, note the roof of a market stall that is mostly submerged now. In a few months people will be doing their shopping on foot along the street (which in a weird reversal of ‘up’ and ‘down’ presently sits 2m below our boat). Rithy next points out a little flag sticking out of the water which he explains marks another, shorter market stall so people do not inadvertently run over the roof and damage it with their boats. This is a moment of wonder for me: How perfectly, down to the last detail, these ‘amphibious villages’ adapt to what most places in the world would be viewed as a catastrophic annual flood.
Then, so subtly I barely notice, the houses are no longer anchored and we are in the floating village. The small rafts/homes generally house 6-10 occupants, and as we motor slowly through the ‘streets,’ we see that the water serves every imaginable function – washing, swimming, transportation, waste disposal, cooking, drinking. This is an existence so different from anything I could have ever imagined.
Meanwhile, I am struck by an odd random thought. Know those days when you just need to get out for a walk? Maybe you need a study break, are fed up with your roommates, or simply need a breath of fresh air and some physical movement, but whatever it is you just need to get out and clear your head… You cannot do that here. Unless you own a boat or fancy a swim, you are stuck in that house with the other 5-9 inhabitants. For some reason, of all the things one might pick to marvel over in this otherworldly world, that hits me the hardest and stays with me the most.
Ema was in Thailand for a week, I was there for a month, and we each acquired corresponding degrees of familiarity and comfort with the country. At the end of our first day in Cambodia, we concur that we may still be in “Asia,” but Cambodia feels utterly foreign. I pick up a book in our guesthouse called “Same Same but Different,” just because it is about Cambodia and is written in German which I need to practice. It turns out to be a great book. True story by a German journalist, Benjamin Pruefer, of how he met and married a Cambodian woman, written with a keen eye for detail and a saucy but tasteful sense of humor. A few pages in, I come across this passage that resonates perfectly with our first sense of Cambodia (and the translation is my own, so - you know the drill - any errors or omissions…):
Cambodia. I had traveled two months through Asia and would now spend the third and last month here. It was supposed to be the end and the high point of my journey. When you enter this country, you leave everything behind. It is totally different from Thailand. There you step out of the airport, and yes it is different from Europe, but you know that at any moment your cell phone may ring and Grandma is on the line and you can get on an airplane back to Germany. But once you have crossed the border into Cambodia, it is different. You are not only in a different country, but rather on another planet. You feel far away from everything. Not only because Cambodia has no McDonald’s, no ATM’s and no Seven-Eleven stores. It seems to challenge everything that you believe you know about the world and yourself. You feel like Alice in Wonderland behind the looking glass. Everything is inexplicable.
Our second day in Siem Reap is devoted to Angkor Wat. I don’t really know what to write, especially since the site is so famous and volumes have been written on it. I will therefore take the easy way out and use pictures, which are supposed to be worth some nice round number of words…
(Guess who does not like heights!)
For our third and final day in Siem Reap, a friend of Ema’s has recommended we visit a silk factory. Not the sort of thing I would normally go for, but come to think of it, Ema would probably enjoy it. So here we are at the silk factory. Actually, factory is probably the wrong word. It is a complex where they first breed moths, then feed the resulting larvae/worms mulberry leaves so they grow.
Once the worms are mature enough to start making cocoons, it takes five days for them to spin their cocoons. The outer layer of the cocoon becomes ‘raw silk’ and the inner part is ‘fine silk.’
They put the cocoons into boiling water to separate out the threads. A worker sits there with a wooden spoon slowly coaxing the thread out in a straight line, constantly untangling it.
There are about five more smoothing/untangling/refining steps to create the thread used to actually weave the silk fabric. For color, they use either natural dyes (for example, from sorghum tree or purple flowers or banana leaf) or chemical dyes, which are of course cheaper and easier. But that is all that is easy about this process. Patterns are made by tie-dying bundles of thread before it is woven into fabric. This entails tying many little pieces of plastic around the bundles of thread, dipping them in color, and removing the plastic; note that this tying and untying, which may be done in several iterations depending how complex the pattern, could take a couple days. Then they arrange the spools on a loom. We watch in wonder as workers adeptly operate looms with their hands and feet, sending the shuttle back and forth across the threads to make the pattern.
It might take several days to make a complex scarf, and if one thread is in the wrong place, or one bar of the loom is set wrong, the pattern will be off. Suffice it to say, it is an ingenious and labor-intensive process, and actually quite fascinating.
After the one-hour tour, there is a gift shop. I normally dislike shopping, but after seeing how this stuff is made, I wander around fingering even the plain-colored, un-patterned scarves with a good deal of wonder. Ema is into it, too, of course. Our tour ends at 2pm… and we are there closing the store at 5pm, doing our part to support fair trade and the Cambodian artisans.
After hitting Bangkok, Erawan, Kanchanaburi and Siem Reap, our last stop is Railay Beach in southern Thailand’s beautiful Krabi province. But before we can relax on the beach, we first have to get there. This means we fly Siem Reap - Bangkok - Krabi, take a bus from Krabi airport to Ao Nang port, catch a boat to Railay, and hike some 20 minutes across the peninsula and up about 50 stairs to our hotel. It is an entire day traveling, but we have plenty to talk about and it passes pleasantly. As we are on the bus to Ao Nang and nearing the end of our odyssey, I turn to Ema and say, “So, I saved the best news for last… On the boat to Railay, there may not be a dock. So, um, we may have to walk in the tide a little.” She takes the news pretty well. The feat itself is another story. The ocean floor is alternately wickedly slippery, alternately muck that sucks at your feet so hard you have to use all your strength to extricate your foot and any shoe that you might like to keep. The ‘amphibious landing’ is probably one of my favorite moments of her visit, even better than the squat toilets:
Railay is technically a peninsula, but land access is nonexistent due to mountains cutting it off from the mainland. Hence it functions like an island, accessible only by boat. More interestingly, the east side of the beach has a swampy, mangrove-lined coast while the west side has the idyllic white sands and aquamarine waters of a ‘Thailand’s Best Beaches’ calendar. This has resulted in the east side generally having the cheaper accommodation, along with the accompanying backpackers, Tiki bars and tattoo bars. The west side has the luxury resorts and upscale restaurants, and is actually quiet at night. East side/west side – walk 20 minutes and you are in a place with a dramatically different vibe. I am fascinated by this Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon.
What’s more, Railay is clearly in transition. The path joining the two sides used to cut through jungle, but you can see land being cleared for hotels and restaurants; a logical next step given the constant foot traffic along this route. And the new lodging is trending towards the upscale. There are also a couple resorts on the east side which are bulldozing segments of the mangrove swamp to create that pretty beach where God clearly had a moment of absentmindedness and forgot to put it there. And – this is key – they have lofted trailers with large wheels which can drive out into the tide so guests can step from the long-tail boat right onto the truck bed and arrive perfectly dry. As it currently stands, visiting Railay requires one to walk through some water and some muck. I think eliminating the amphibious landing will bring a more snooty clientele. Ema points out that it is more ADA friendly. She is right. Still.
Anyway. Here we are in paradise, albeit paradise fraught with fast-moving tourism-driven changes, and what does Ema do but fall asleep without dinner again. I walk down to the strip of restaurants, return with some Thai food and Diet Coke, and wake her up to eat. I am keeping us both alive here. Though to be fair, it was a long day of traveling. Accordingly, our next couple days are basically spent lazing around Railay and some of the nearby islands. Ergo, I will do the lazy thing and post pictures again. In honor of being lazy. Because that is just what you are supposed to do sometimes.