Saturday, February 6, 2010

Floating Village and a wonderful restaurant

The car driver picked us up at the hotel at 0900 and we were off to see the floating village. This is another popular tourist destination in the Siem Reap area. It is possible to do this trip via tuk-tuk because the roads are paved and well-maintained. We would have been willing to use the tuk-tuk, but the trip via car was included in the hotel room rate and it would be quicker and more comfortable. There was very little walking involved, just from the car down the ramp to the boat and back up when finished. Figured I could hobble that far on the sprained ankle since it was now tightly wrapped for good stabilization.

We had been advised that going to the floating village would use one day's admittance on our 3-day pass for Angkor Wat. First day was used for the Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea trip. Day 2 had been used for Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm temples. The floating village would be day 3. Except the entrance road guards did not clip our passes for admittance to the floating village after all. There is a separate charge for admittance to the floating village area which is paid when you reach the boat boarding area. That left us with one last day on our admittance passes to again visit the main temple area if my ankle would be better the next day, our last full day in Cambodia.

February is part of the dry season in Cambodia. During the wet season from June to October the water level is much, much higher. The snow in the mountains melts each year and drains to the Mekong River. The Mekong River normally flows southerly through Vietnam. But the snow melt combined with torrential rainfall each year cause the Mekong River to briefly stop flowing and then reverse to a northerly flow during the wet season. Then the Mekong river flows northward and eventually dumps into the Tongle Sap, the great lake in Cambodia. This river flow reversal assisted in the development of trade centruies ago. Other rivers also flow southward from Laos with tributaries from Thailand, all ending into the Tongle Sap. Transport on this extensive river network between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand has been happening for well over a thousand years.

The Tongle Sap is the most productive fishing fresh water lake in the world. There are numerous floating villages around the edges of the Tongle Sap. This great lake is also surrounded by some of the more productive rice lands in the world. The annual flooding brings new nutrient rich soil to the rice fields. When the floods recede the exposed rice fields are ready to produce heavily with no need for fertilization or irrigation. There are fields of rice at various encircling ranges around the Tongle Sap grown year round. The field locations are constantly moved about as the water level of the lake changes.

This is not an attractive lake. The water is very muddy and brown. There are plenty of small crocodiles. Since we were visiting during dry season, the tributary down which the boats bring tourists to the floating village on the lake were unusually shallow and muddy. The boats are constructed with very shallow draft in order to be usable during the shallow times. And it smelled to high heaven. Whether sewage or fish remains or drying nets, the smell in places was barely tolerable. Other places there was no noticeable odor. Very, very glad I was not born to be a villager here!

Boats carrying tourists continuously plied up and down the tributary to the lake. These are called speed boats but ours did not go very fast. Other, bigger boats did barrel along fast causing much rocking of smaller boats like ours. There were 'no wake' signs posted but absolutely no one paid any attention to those signs. Forget things like COLREGS. It was just like the motor vehicle traffic on the streets; everyone drives very defensively and accidents are rare even though the traffic goes willy-nilly in every direction.

Bill and I were the only passengers in our particular boat out to the village. The uncovered engine was so loud that I soon moved to the forwardmost seat. That poor driver must be half-deaf from doing this daily. The seats were rattan chairs just sitting in the boat in rows with nothing holding the chairs in place. Very different than the way we restrain everything in our sailboat to keep things from flying around when at sea. Each rattan chair had a lifevest on its back so there was at least some semblance of safety requirements.

Along the banks of the tributary to the lake there were at least a dozen boats under construction. Some of these new boats will be quite large to be maneuvering on this shallow water path during the dry season. The boats were being built by hand and the craftsmanship was apparent in the construction. Guess when a culture does something for centuries they learn to do it right. The local lumber yard leaves a lot to be desired but they do very well with what materials they have available.

The trip to the lake was about 20 minutes. All the tourist boats took turns tying off to a blue building on the lake interior outskirts of the floating village. The tourists disembarked and purchased souvenirs or snacks (not us, brother; not there unless it was an unopened can like a Coke). They had about a dozen crocodiles trapped in a floating pit attached to the wooden walking platform for those tourists who had never seen this creature. We were not impressed with these tiny things after seeing the big ones in Australia. By the way, people eat crocodiles here. Just like alligator in southern Louisiana. One can buy croc burgers at several places on Pub Street in Siem Reap. We have eaten alligator in Texas so passed on eating crocodile in Cambodia. Figure it tastes the fishy chicken.

There were a several small canoes of women and small children who were trying to sell things to the tourists as the speed boats arrived at the floating tourist building...mostly selling bananas. Several of the small boys had boa constrictors wrapped around their shoulders. Their mothers were offering "take a picture, one dollar." Bill refused because he felt like they are just exploiting the kids.

On the way to this tourist building we passed floating grocery stores and floating hardware/general merchandise stores. Also saw the floating school filled with little kids in school uniforms. What an unusual way of life. Everything any land village would have, only all floating on a big lake. As noted in a previous posting, these villagers traditionally have been a tribe of Cambodians but today almost all of the residents of the floating villages on Tongle Sap are Vietnamese Cham, who were the traditional enemies of the Khmer for centuries. The Cham left Vietnam because life is much better for them here in Cambodia than in present day Vietnam in their traditional lands.

We did not hang around the tourist building long. It took only 10 minutes for us to see all we wanted to see of the floating village. We reboarded the speed boat and the driver took a different route out of the Tongle Sap through another tributary which intersected with the waterway that had delivered us to the lake.

One thing we did find interesting was the way small children visited their friends. They would sit in large pans, like industrial sized shallow food preparation bowls or shallow metal laundry tubs. The rims of these large pans barely stayed above water as the kid paddled with his or her hands. A slow method of transport but you gotta do what you gotta do and obviously the little kids did not each have their own boat. "Hey Billy, want to come over and play?" "Can't right now, Mom's soaking the laundry."

The boat ride back was just like the boat ride out. Soon we were back in the car; soon back in the hotel, passing many motorbikes loaded with various goods and animals on their way to the town markets. Climbed into the tuk-tuk and returned to Pub Street for lunch again. Then back to the hotel and I had a great Khmer traditional massage. Wish I had found time to do that every day of this vacation. Felt wonderful.

For dinner we went to a fabulous French-Vietnamese restaurant called Paris-Saigon Restaurant, located in the Wat Bo area of Siem Reap. The staff at the Pavillon d'Orient was not familiar with the restaurant when we requested they make the reservation. We had driven past in the tuk-tuk during our return to the hotel from lunch. We had stopped and perused the menu and decided to splurge for a nice evening. The Paris Saigon is a very small upscale restaurant owned by a Frenchman. It is managed by his friend, another Frenchman, who is married to a Vietnamese woman. She handles the kitchen. They offer an excellent selection of French wines. The restaurant is cozy with less than 10 tables. We listened to Chopin playing quietly in the background as we enjoyed two of the best meals we have eaten in the last 10 years. This restaurant is expensive by Cambodian standards; a true bargain by American standards.

Only French dishes and Vietnamese dishes are offered on the menu. Bill opted for a French meal and I opted for the Vietnamese. Each dish was superb. We decided to switch plates several times. The nems were delightful and the Ca Loc Quay Muoc Dua was a dish to die for! This is something I definitely want to try again when we are in Vietnam if the opportunity presents itself. Everything about this meal was perfect and both Bill and I would highly recommend splurging for an evening at the Paris-Saigon Restaurant if anyone plans to visit the area.

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