After spending 2 full days climbing amongst the rubble of the lost city of Angkor we were all temple'd out so on the third morning in Siem Reap we jumped in the tuk-tuk and headed for the countryside. Our driver was very enthusiastic about showing us the floating village on the Tonle Sap river, which flows into the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest lake. During the rainy season (June to Oct) the water flows northwest into the Tonle Sap. As the Mekong river falls during the dry season (Nov to May) , the Tonle Sap river reverses it's direction of flow. This unique process makes the Tonle Sap one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish, hence why thousands of people live on the river.
As we drove into the countryside we were aware of the poverty becoming more apparent - children ran alongside the tuk-tuk begging for money in dirty clothes, smiling and singing "hello, hello" over and over again, whilst their elders sat at the side of the road offering us small cooking pots to put our spare riels into.
The homes of these people were small wooden huts built on stilts over the paddy fields. Some of them looked at though they were about to keel over at any moment (the people as well as their homes), yet they still managed to support large extended families. As we drove by the locals gawped at us and then smiled or waved and we waved and attempted to smile back without ingesting mouthfulls of the red dirt which was flying up from the dusty road.
Eventually we came to a steep riverbank and were directed to a long boat, or "sampan". I immediately regretted wearing a dress as I clambered awkwardly onto the boat. We bought our tickets and met our driver and guide, who explained that the people who lived on the river were Vietnamese fishermen and their families who had fled Vietnam during the war. We cruised along the river, where thousands of people live in little huts on stilts. As the average family in Cambodia has 7 or more children, there were children everywhere, swimming in the river (which was filthy-looking), playing with their siblings and generally swinging about like monkeys from hut to hut. Even the toddlers were climbing on and off boats and playing over the water, narrowly missing falling in yet their parents showed little concern.
As we passed by, we saw a floating pigpen, a floating orphanage, floating vegetable markets, schools, basketball pitches - everything you'd expect to find in an ordinary village, only floating on the river. I wondered how they felt about the boatloads of tourists like us who pass by every day, snapping away and staring at them llike animals in the zoo.
Our driver stopped to show us the floating fish farm and then the crocodile farm, where lots of angry crocs were snapping about on top of each other.
We stopped for a cold drink at a floating restaurant and a little girl came up to us with a huge python wrapped around her neck, offering it to me to hold. I don't know what I was thinking but I took it from her wrapped it around my neck and posed for a couple of wide-eyed pics before passing it onto Liam, who bravely did the same before handing it back as it started constricting around him. There was pandomonium later in the little gift shop when a snake escaped from a hessian bag and bit a child, before zigzagging off across the floor. We bought some pencils and exercise books for the children in the orphanage (for an extortionate amount) and continued on the river to the orphanage, where we found a teacher barely controlling a small classroom full of young children. As I climbed back on the boat I almost fell into the murky water, (much to the amusement of our guide), just managing to grab hold of a wooden post in time, skinning my shins in the process.
Although Cambodia is cheap, everyone expects to be tipped, for you to give them money or to buy products at greatly inflated prices. Westerners are seen as millionaires, cash cows to be milked until their metaphical udders run dry.
Other travellers have told us that in the last 3 years prices for foreigners have increased greatly due to increased tourism - for example the guide who told us about the floating village charged 10 US dollars (about 7 pounds at the moment) for an hour's work. What we've saved in room rates and food we've made up for in tips, guides and paying over the odds for drinks etc. Whilst you accept that this is how it is and you do want to help the people it can get a little wearing at times, particularly when someone has sidled up and started offering you information that you didn't want or request then demanded money for it.
After the floating village tour it was off to a few last temples called the Roluos Group before dinner and returning to our hostel to pack our bags and catch an early night, ready for the early-morning bus to the capital, Phnom Penh. If this journey was anything like the last we'd need all the strength we could muster...