By day eight we were running out of time in Cambodia – and I was running out of money to continue travelling at all. So we hurriedly (but not ignorantly) signed up for a tour with a company called Triple A Tours who had a reputation for taking guests out of the city limits and into unique settings which weren’t corrupt and scam-filled… so in other words, it was the type of tour company that was very hard to come by in Cambodia.. But once we found it, we were sold! – It was a stilted village and local countryside tour. And it was absolutely worth all of the research that went into it!
So our day went something like this…
We were driven out to a district just out side of the Siem Reap City district – where we disembarked from the van which had collected us from our hotel in the early hours of the morning. Then, in the rural countryside of Cambodia, we mounted bicycles. This would allow us a better, slower paced look at countryside life – Which is the type of life that the majority of Cambodians have to live.
On our way out of the city we made only one stop off – at an Angkor reservoir – to watch local woman fishing for their dinner and rowing fertiliser across the water in huge mounds, on basic rowboats.
And it was such an absolutely serene outlook… from the very first stop, we knew the tour we had chosen was exactly what we wanted.
But out of the city! on our bicycles.. It only got better.
We rode down hard, orange dirt roads to a school.
On our way we passed by locals riding carts pulled by huge work cows. We passed by simple wooden homes raised up above the earth on tall stilts. We passed by small children who waved and cried out for attention. We passed by green rice field, after green rice field, after green rice field. And it was all so darn beautiful.
When we arrived at the small country school we were allowed into one of the kindergarten level classrooms which the teacher had left unattended for a moment .. or a few moments… and it was incredible! I mean… I am definitely not a children kind of person. I am one of those rare types of females who sees children for the stinky, spitting, tantrum throwing, annoying, always faking with ‘crocodile tears’, completely unable to do anything for themselves kind of monsters that they are!.. I don’t coe over babies like most crazy females…
But these kids…. they were some thing special.
They were so full of life! They had so much energy! They had such a lust to show off to us.. All they wanted to do was slap our hands in ridiculously high energy games of hi-five and bounce and flip around the room they were in! They were amazing to watch. And they really, really did force us all to smile uncontrollably.
And while I would generally discourage the idea of using children as tourist objects.. This was just such a completely natural and unexpected component of the tour. The children aren’t sold as part of the package. We don’t interrupt their classes. We give them nothing which might encourage them to beg. Tour groups are kept very small (ours was only 4 people plus the guide). We didn’t force our presence upon them in any way… In fact they practically dragged us into their classroom so that they could include us in their play!
Everything about it was just so shockingly gorgeous…
AND they LOVED having their photos taken! As soon as a group spotted a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed in their direction, they would hurriedly surge together and beg for attention, each child independently vying for the front-most spot, so that they could afterward, admire themselves in the cameras display. It was so funny to watch. And they were obviously very taken by the magic of the foreigners cameras and the way in which the technology reproduced their tiny selves.. after all, cameras are luxuries that would never be found in their own homes..
But soon, and reluctantly we left the children. We cycled through the neighbouring high school on our way out. Stopping to admire a central flagpole, under which the students gathered to sing the national anthem and raise the flag each morning.
After this we continued cycling through beautiful countryside until we reached a ‘locals’ market. Which was, if anything, more crowded and hectic than the tourist markets we’d seen previously. There were pigs heads, odorant fish, fruits, spices and basic kitchen goods. All squeezed in under tarpaulins, laid out on mats and piled high on low wooden tables. We sampled fried sweet potato sticks and rehydrated. We soaked in the local atmosphere, and we accepted how out of place we must seem to all of the locals, who were so unaccustomed to seeing western faces this far from the city centre.
And then we were off again.
Our next stop was a very small pig farm. Where we saw all of about 4 pigs (only 4 months old, but absolutely huge) crammed in to a too small pen, lying in the sun.
Nearby, local men yelled at one another over a game of pool (on an outdoor table – who knows how flat it could have been sitting). While rice spirits were distilled nearby with a small fire and a series of wonky tubes, into a big plastic cylinder for later.
We didn’t stick around for too long. But it became clear as we continued our tour that the mid day heat signalled time for a drink and some play for most of the locals in the countryside. And that afternoon game of pool was unlikely a sober one.
Then we straddled our bikes once again..
And cycled off the dirt road and through some dense bush, along a narrow path to arrive at the most serene and private destination yet.. It was the small and forgotten remains of an old temple (of the Angkor style). Strewn haphazardly in a small clearing, covered in moss, and left alone to decay.
And we gained a couple of extra members for this part of the tour – two local girls from a near by house joined our cycling trail as we passed by their home, running behind our bikes in their bare feet. The temple remains were clearly a playground they were familiar with. And when we arrived they lay about lazily on the cool rocks, picked leaves, and stared at us foreigners from a safe distance.. And I couldn’t help but think the whole time, that these two young girls had the best play palace of all.. Their youth would be filled with all of the mystical adventures that they created here.. and in the countryside of Cambodia of all places. Where most families could not afford basic toys for their children, let alone play houses.. these two girls had surely won out.
And the tour wasn’t over yet! We soon got back on our cycles and rode on to the next destination – An old blacksmiths house.
Here we met an elderly local, who, in his old age was still labouring over hot coals, with heavy tools to earn money to keep himself and his family alive..
At over 70 years of age this small, fragile looking old man didn’t have the luxurious option to retire from work and laze away his last living days like those of us living in the Western world.. there’s no government pensions in Cambodia.. to be able to afford food, he would have to keep on working. And so that’s exactly what he was doing.
So we stopped and watched for a while as he hammered at scythes and poked at hot coals. And even with one blind eye.. he was still an amazing blacksmith.
At this stop we were also told the legend behind traditional Cambodian kite flying. And allowed to hear the bizarre noises that they make in the air.. It turns out the old blacksmith might have been more than just a blacksmith – he was likely an all round handy man. And he had 3 amazing examples of these traditional Cambodian kites leaning up against his house.
Then finally we cycled back to the van and cooled off with some fresh coconut milk – straight from the shell.
The rest of our tour was to be completed in a town even further from the city limits, on foot.
So, we re-settled into the van and began the drive to our final destination. And soon our slow ride over bumpy dirt roads culminated in a slow decent into a dried lake within which a whole village worth of people had made homes..
But, of course, this was no regular village. It was a stilted village!
And all of the homes within the lake were raised up and balancing on high wooden beams – A method of construction developed by the permanent residents of this area, to protect their homes, and keep them safe and dry, when the monsoon rains arrived to flood the lakes plains from September to February.
And what an amazing innovation it was!
In the dry season, occupants would have to climb several stairs to their front doors. In the wet season, they could simply float up to it.
And there are no concrete beams. No refined and treated woods. No gap filling glues or fillers. No glass filled windows… It was all so simple.. There’s no giant kitchens. There’s very little furniture… everything is purely in place for functionality.. It’s just raw wooden constructions, with basic layouts of wide open rooms and roughly aligned floorboards. Standing atop old tree trunks whose bases have been buried (who know how deep) in the lakes bed.
We sat down for lunch on the balcony of one of these stilted homes – a traditional, curry based meal prepared by the home owners mother (which was delicious) – and enjoyed the cool breeze, absorbed the lake side ambience and chatted slowly of the lure of this exotic lifestyle.. it was perhaps my favourite moment in Cambodia… It was so peaceful. So real. So easy..
But still our tour wasn’t over! To conclude the day we drove right down into the great lakes basin and boarded a small motorised long boat which took us out into the centre of what existed of the lake at this time of year. Two young boys (perhaps 12 and 16?) took the reigns for this part of the trip – an addition which intended to put some of our money into local hands and so was never pre-arranged, but rather shared between local boys depending on what days and times we turned up.. A nice touch I thought…
But anyway, we sailed out onto the lake under the calm but hard working attention of these two young boys. We sailed out past children swimming in the muddy water, passed home owners making repairs and preparing for the heavy rains to come, passed small row boats docked on the temporary shore, passed locals collecting rice stalks and passed the traditional floating homes of the Vietnamese people – an alternative take (from stilted housing) on how to deal with the annual floods in this part of the world. And we sailed right out into the lakes centre. And despite the fact that we were here only in the first month of the Cambodian ‘wet’ season (which brings enough monsoon rains to flood an entire village right up to their doorsteps every year) the lake was already vast enough that it was impossible to see the shore in any direction.. It was just flat, sparkling, fresh water as far as the eye could see…
And then, suddenly, above it all, the dark storm clouds of an approaching monsoon rolled in..
So without too much contemplation we sped back to shore on the roughening tide.. We slumped back into the cool air conditioning of our van.. And we bumped back along the red dirt roads, up the lakes basin.. And back into the noise and bustle of Siem Reap.
Then, on day nine, in a ‘rash’ and somewhat last minute decision… We decided to leave for a town which is increasingly becoming known as an “off the track, backpackers” kind of town. A town called Battambang.. And perhaps for the first time during this trip.. Our last minute decision making was… well, maybe it was a mistake..