I had always been taught that the Aztec king Montezuma never left Mexico. Well, I now have plenty of proof that the history books are wrong. He clearly made it to Cambodia… or at least his revenge has… Evelyn says that I have always had an iron stomach, but it appears to be developing some rust spots.
Friday we visited Tonle Sap Lake, which has a floating village. It seemed strange to see a floating village flooded, but the flood was pretty severe. They have electric wires going down their “main street” which is in the large lake. We were not able to go down most streets because the water was so high that the power lines were within a few feet of the water surface, and our boat would have surely electrocuted us and killed the power to the town.
Most of the homes are actually on poles rather than floating. Their floors are normally several meters above the water surface, but the floods had risen into their homes. They coped by simply raising the floor higher and higher to keep their belongings out of the water. The flood was so high though, that their floors were now within 4 or 5 feet of the roof, so they could not even stand up inside. We had initially planned on having lunch at a restaurant there, but it was flooded to the point where they could not serve food.
We had also originally planned to go out onto the main lake to watch the fisherman, but the winds were too high and we were told it was too dangerous, so we had to abort that portion of the tour.
The children in Cambodia all have free elementary school. However, there are so many people that the schools cannot handle them all, so they each get only half a day education, going to either a morning or afternoon session. On the lake, we saw boat after boat leaving the school with kids in their starched white uniforms rowing home, usually 3 to 5 kids per boat.
Driving towards Phnom Phen, we stopped for quick snack — of roasted tarantula.
They barely look like the spiders you think of when the word tarantula is spoken. They are black, shriveled, and piled high. Hundreds in a single vendor’s pan. You have to choose which of three varieties you want, as each has a different texture and taste. I let our guide choose mine. When you order one, they roast it again so you can eat it warm. Yum… not… Tasted like burned toast. One of those things I am glad to say I tried once, so I can politely decline next time… 🙂 I was also offered roasted cricket and roasted cockroach, but I decided I really wasn’t all that hungry…
Traveling on, we took a small detour to a historic bridge, where we found half a dozen teenage boys jumping into the river. Seeing our cameras, they turned into instant hams and jumped over and over from the bridge, each trying to outdo the other in their comic jumps. As hot as it was, I was sorely tempted to ditch the camera and join them, but we had to get moving again.
Saturday morning we visited the central market in Phnom Phen. It was just the kind of local food market we like to visit around the world. Mountains of chickens, beef, fish, fruits and vegetables all being sold to the locals for their daily meals. Some of the food was unique to Asia, with fish squirming on the ground, being picked up, then beheaded when a customer chose one to assure fresh fish.
And then there were the frogs. Something we had never seen before. One vendor had three large piles of skinned frogs, sorted by size. He had to keep grabbing them and putting them back because they were still hopping around! They reminded me of cutting off the head of a chicken on the farm as a kid and watching the body run around the yard until it finally fell over. These were skinned, and their heads completely cut off, but the bodies were still hopping like they were running from my net (I used to go down to the creek as a kid and catch frogs — much to the dismay of my mother at the time).
We were there in the morning when piles of everything were high. I asked our guide what the vendors did with any leftover food, and he assured us there is almost never any food at the end of the day. As the market closing nears, the vendors start bargaining fiercely to sell the last of their product at whatever they can get. People that want the best choice and are willing to pay “top dollar” (meaning $1 for more food that you could possibly eat in a meal) would come in the morning. Those that wanted to save money and were willing to take the leftovers came later in the day.
80% of Cambodians live below the poverty line and are living hand-to-mouth, so saving 50 cents really is important to many of them. While you can see the poverty everywhere you look, it is still sometimes hard to remember that fact, because the Cambodians we met were so universally friendly and seemed happy to all outward appearances. Of course, we don’t speak Cambodian, and weren’t able to interact with very many more than polite exchanges when the camera was pointed, but we certainly never saw any indication of the hopelessness that seems prevalent among the poor in American cities.
We then visited S21, which was an interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge. We have been to Dachau in Poland, but this was far more depressing. It is almost amazing just how depraved people can become and reminds us that we are but a short history from our violent animal past. There were 7 million Cambodians when the Khmer Rouge came to power. When Vietnam finally invaded and liberated the country (the term every Cambodian we talked to used), the population had dropped to 4 million less than 4 years later (197
5 to 1979). The Khmer Rouge had killed 40% of the entire population in their short reign. They made the Nazis look like amateurs both in the volume of killing and level of sadism. I ended up asking the tour to be terminated halfway through, as it was simply too distressing.
Warren — our favorite vagabond guide — took us out to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Phen for drinks and then out to dinner at a local restaurant, Empire, owned by an English expat friend of his for spicy pasta and his favorite red curry noodles.
Though the floods have caused several of our original planned tours to be cancelled, Peace of Angkor (the company we used to organize this trip) has been instantly responsive to setting up replacements. Anyone wanting a personal tour of Cambodia and/or Vietnam will be happy with this group.