Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Siem Reap, Artisans on the Water - 20-23 April 2011

Chantau working hard
Chantou smiles as she sweeps her brush across her next piece of art filling in the intricate design with brightly coloured paint. All day long foreigners pass through her workshop by their guides who inform us that she was one of the few lucky young people to have been invited to work and train at Artisans d'Angkor. Although the guide informs us that the project has been set up to reinstall traditional Khmer artistry back into the country following its destruction during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, Chantou cannot hear anything, she's smiling and fixated on her work behind her is a list of hand signals for communicating with her as she is deaf.

The Artisans d'Angkor not invite underprivileged people from rural communities to train, they pay them and provide families with health care. Once the training is complete, the person returns to their families and their villages to start their own trading, teach others and spread the traditional Khmer culture and art. It is these projects that help the Cambodian people return back to their past life before the war. I was so glad that our tour included this. It was a pleasure to walk around seeing young people painting, carving, moulding and selling their wares. The place felt alive with prosperity.
In the carving workshop.

The guide and I discussed the current political situation of Cambodia including the future of the King. He told me how the Cambodian People's Party have been the ruling party of Cambodia since 1981, although several political and social changes have been made and the name of the party has altered through time. The future of the King is also a mystery to the Cambodian's, he tells me that the people support the present King, Norodom Sihamoni, but when he dies je's not sure whether the royalty will continue.

Our main purpose for our trip was for the boat journey out onto the Tonle Sap Lake to visit the floating villages. Tom, Nicky, Kate and I had our private car, with perfect air-conditioning and even a pet gecko. During my trip, Gecko's have become my ultimate friend. Everyone should have one around munching up the flies and mosquitoes. This was the trip Kate had convinced me to do rather than taking the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap and I'm glad she did.

I wouldn't want to be on that boat....
The Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia that changes flow twice a year. During the dry season the water drains into the Mekong at Phnom Penh and during the wet season, the water flows back up and fills up like a reservoir. It's an extremely important feature to the Cambodians, it's a source of fish, it's a transport link between the capital, Battambang and Siem Reap and it's home to many ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people who live in the floating villages. The car weaved it's way through the streets of Siem Reap and headed out into the suburbs where the touristy buildings gave way to run down shacks clinging onto the sides of the road and standing tall upon stilts out of the water.

We arrived at the dock and was taken from the car by the guide to our boat that was to take us further down stream to the lake and Chon Kneas, the floating village. Carefully we hoped, one by one, across four boats to ours. The boat driver turned the engine on and negotiated it out of the impossible space it had got jammed into. We were soon out and steaming peacefully along the brown waters passing small villages and fishermen on the way. Overloaded boats passed by, listing crazily to one side very close to catastrophe.

Church in the water...
Finally we reached open water and the village appeared, out of nowhere, thrust out of the water. We passed the school, shop, church and many houses. People were going about their daily lives, climbing out of windows and getting into the tiny boats to pop to the shop. We pulled into a restaurant where we had some food and visited their bizarre crocodile farm hanging off the back. Although we were more interested in the tiny puppy that roamed around than what we were there for.
Houses on the water

To live in the middle of a lake is a crazy idea, how isolated would you feel if your boat broke down? It's not as though you can substitute it with your feet and grab a bus to the shop. Kids roam around in small tin boats selling bottles of drink to tourists with snakes wrapped around their necks. Some even jump aboard, run through the boat and try to sell you things. Our boat pulled away and headed back towards Siem Reap just as the sun was setting into the lake. The four of us sailed along in silence just watching the world go by and contemplating the lives of the people who live on the water. 
Kids getting around....
Tom with his new best friend!

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