Monday, January 18, 2010

The Floating Village of Chong Khneas

A few miles outside of Siem Reap floats the Vietnamese village of Chong Khneas.

It's a short tuk-tuk ride through the more inhabited, less marketed, part of the city to the docks. On the way you'll pass house after raised house. I've often wondered why some of the houses are on stilts. I assumed that it was for when the rainy season brings the water levels up, significantly. But you soon notice that while some houses are elevated, their neighbours are not. This is reason enough to give pause.

Villagers pass through the morning motions, hanging laundry to dry, and setting out for their daily grind, whatever it may be. Dogs lay with their heads on the pavement, for reasons that are beyond me. The move not even at passing vehicles. They would appear dead, if not for the slow rhythmic movements from their breathing. And their still-three-dimensionality.

Buildings fade away, replaced by farms where men toil in the fields, often bending down behind the tall grasses for stretches of time, before returning – seemingly victorious. Then the farms give way, as waters overcome and a fishing village begins to enter into view.

It is there that the tuk-tuk will stop, and you will get out and head down to the docks.

Let us just say, that it is a good thing I have given up my penny pinching ways here in Cambodia. Were this Bangkok I may have argued, pretended to walk away, been huffy, and eventually refused to buy a ticket, were I met with the price I was met with here. But, what is an extra seven dollars, really? Here it's three days worth of meals, but honestly, what is it to me? So I handed over my ridiculous fee to hire a boat, and climbed on board, hopping from concrete dock, to floating tire, then from the front of one boat onto the next, until I had come to the brightly painted monstrosity that would be my ride for the morning.

A wooden shell, with chairs set on the floor inside. I was offered to drive for a moment, but I looked at the steering wheel, connected to ropes, which eventually connected to dragged out coat hangers, which controlled the directionality of our movement. I wondered if this was one of the tourist scams – let them drive, have it break, and then they must pay to fix it. So while I would have liked to, I stayed away. I had been warned about this village so close to the tourist centre.

Some people will tell you that you're not getting the full experience at Chong Khneas, but I think that they're just elitist snobs, and not worth paying much attention to. It would be like saying you didn't see Victoria Falls unless you saw them from Zimbabwe. True, they are lesser in Zimbabwe, but you're still seeing the same waters cascading over the same rock. You're just not being splashed.

So, while there are other floating villages with less tourists, you need only wake up earlier and beat the rush. 7:00 put me there just as the light was filling the sky, and just as the other hotel dwellers were setting up for their morning shower, still an hour from reaching this location.

We boated out of the harbour to the village's beginning. Not very clad men were fishing with nets at the water's edge. Then the floating houses came into view. From the water you can see just through their doorway, in what will turn out to be over an hour of slightly distressing voyeurism. It's said that your boat ticket price feeds into the local economy and gets distributed through the village, but...

The houses have electricity either from generators, or from lines. This electricity is used to power their tvs that the locals watch while lounging in their hammocks. Clearly life is not all that different floating on the water. Some people will be out on the edge of their dock, property, or what have you, going through the same motions as those on dry land. Still – the act of hanging clothes to dry, while precariously positioned on a foot wide plank of wood is slightly more interesting than the same actions anywhere else.

The tour continued, as we past floating pigs (“look, look,” my guide said, smacking my arm – an action that would happen far too many times, and become slightly off putting, and potentially bruising, “floating pig! Floating pig!”) His excitement was genuine, and as he pointed out every one we past, with an arm smack, I assume these are his favourite things to see on the water. A floating pig is very much what you'd expect – a pig floating on the water. Not swimming, mind you, but kept afloat in its very own floating pig pen. It will be, not long, before he's turned into some delicious floating sausage. I can say, without a doubt, that Cambodia has had the best sausage I've ever had anywhere in the world. Sorry Italy.

This very much is a floating village. Everything here floats – there is a floating Korean restaurant, a floating basketball court, floating markets, floating schools.

We headed to one of the floating markets where a little girl was paddling around in a bucket with a three foot long water snake. It is official, little Asian girls can be far more terrifying than little Caucasian girls (wearing white dresses or not.) And when they're paddling around in buckets with snakes, not talking, only staring... Well I'm glad it was dawn and not dusk. That's all I can say.

Crocodiles were being farmed on this floating market, “they make great boots, and bags! You want to buy one?” It also housed some pythons, for similar purposes, I'm sure, and had detailed explanations about the fishing industry. I bought an overpriced soda to compensate for this floating experience. And then we carried on.

The place we reached next was the only scam that I came across on this trip. The mysterious boat breakdown that doesn't get fixed until you buy something from the nearby shops never occurred, but here was most definitely a scam. Before heading to the floating school, you stop at another floating market which sells school supplies – the idea being that you buy some and give them to the teacher.

Here's the thing – I saw a bundle of twenty notebooks, and when I asked how much it was to buy them, I was told it was fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars for twenty notebooks. I laughed, I couldn't help it. And how much for the pencils? Five dollars for ten, indeed? So I emptied out my Cambodian currency – which equated for about two dollars and fifty cents. It bought me five pens. What I want to know is how this scam works:

When the school gets the goods, do they only get what you buy them, or do they return the objects for a cut of the profits? Or is this one market getting rich off of tourists thinking they're helping a school? Because here's the thing – I could have bought those notebooks for a third of the price back home. I could have bought the pencils at a significantly reduced price, and the pens for much cheaper as well.

When I'm in South East Asia paying more for something than I would back home, I try to discover what's going on. My driver was encouraging me to, “just buy one pack of books, and twenty pencils. Would bring much joy, I think.” Yeah – no kidding. To the shop keepers that would get twenty five dollars of my money. Twenty five dollars is enough money to feed someone for a month here, if not longer. It's long enough to feed me for two weeks, eating at restaurants.

So the scam – I would really like to know what is going on. It pains me to think that the school only gets what they are given, and that this shop is making more money than anyone in this part of the world has any right to make off of such false pretenses. It's worse, I think, than the children who are rented out by orphanages here... Not as bad as the special needs babies that are rented in China though to help with begging. That's the worst I've heard about.

But I moved the ball to their court. “Ten thousand, that's all I have. What can I get for ten thousand?” I asked, holding out the bills, and then adding the words that were passed my way so often during these last few moments, “after all, it's for the children.”

But the shop keeper would not budge. I received five pens.

And then off to the floating school. There I presented my five pens to the teacher who got up to receive them, and took two pictures of the students. Some dove out of the way. And I wondered just what school must be like for these children, constantly interrupted. Still – it must become part of their concept of school, not knowing anything other.

I also did a quick glance around the room for the notebooks that where for sale at the shop. They existed nowhere. Now there will be boats of ten people each coming to this shop and then this classroom. There will be dozens of them a day. People will fall for the trap and buy the notebooks. But they were nowhere to be seen. Which makes me think, hope, that the goods are returned, profits are shared, and the same items are sold and resold constantly.

But I do not know.

If one was just to say to me, “look, we need money for the school, and here's how it works,” I'd be a lot more likely to give. But I assume this is the best method, otherwise they wouldn't do it. And like I sad – two dollars and fifty cents is quite a lot in this part of the world, so... hopefully the children see something from it, aside from five pens.

And then we made our way back, my arm stinging with reminders of how many more floating pigs we came across.

The way back would also give insight into how the village moves with the seasons. When the water level is down, houses make their way further out into the lake, and when the water is up, they come closer to shore - to avoid the rough seas that can cause havoc to their living space. On the way back four houses were being pulled by boats to a new location. And two more were on the move just past them. It makes you wonder if they keep their neighbours, or keep their plots when they move back and forth with the rains? Their life... It's different than mine.

And with that coming to an end Boidna took me back to the hostel. Ten in the morning, and my day was at an end. Internetting would occupy me until three in the afternoon when I would head out for lunch and then off to the Blue Pumpkin for some further internetting. And then back to the hostel to grab a Balcony Pack, and read some more of the Hobbit adventures.

All in all? Not a bad relaxing day.

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