AmaDara inaugural cruise: Day 5

ABOARD AMADARA- Villages Afloat and on Land
There are 173 floating villages in Cambodia with some 1.2 million people living in them. From AmaDara we boarded a very comfortable touk tor boat to visit one, Kampong Chhnang, on Tonle Sap Lake.

As we motored along the liquid main street a fascinating floating lifestyle passed by. Grocery stores, sundry stores, clothes shops, karaoke bars, even discos afloat. Machine shops, bamboo stock for rebuilding the houses (each lasts four to five years), large blue plastic barrels, more efficient for keeping the houses afloat than bamboo, for those who could afford them, and sellers of car batteries to power TVs and cell phones made up the thriving floating retail establishment. Then there were stores on boats that visited floating residents away from the core.

Women cleaned house or store, prepared meals and minded the fish traps below their houses. Men puttered by in a variety of boats. Children swam in the muddy water, adults and youngsters swung in hammocks and one kid even pedaled a bicycle around the small square floor of his house.

Ashore were temples and mosques for the mostly Vietnamese population, who are known for their skills at catching and raising fish and eels.

After lunch we listened to a presentation on life along the Mekong, which we will finally reach midday tomorrow in Phnom Penh. I loved the description of the different nationalities that live along its banks. As they themselves describe it, Vietnamese like to grow rice, Cambodians like to watch rice grow and Laotians like to listen to the wind blow through the rice as it grows. No word on the Thais.

Ashore
This afternoon we pulled to the shore in the village of Koh Chen, known for its silver and copper work. As usual, we were greeted by youngsters imploring us to buy their wares.

Most carried plastic trays of silver bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, even serving spoons. We had been advised to at least wait until the end of our tour to buy. The sad fact is that instead of letting the children continue on in school, their parents send them out as peddlers to augment the family income. Naturally, it is harder to tell a winsome child no than an adult, but with each sale a child is discouraged from getting a higher education and moving beyond a lifetime at a subsistence level.

We visited and encouraged a classroom of 10 to 13-year-olds, then began a tour of the village. By lucky circumstance, we encountered a private tutor, Om Son Ton, with a remarkable story of years’ worth of eluding the Khmer Rouge soldiers hunting him down. In 1950-’60, he had been a well-paid professor of mathematics, but after the Khmer Rouge took over, the only thing that allowed him to pose as a lowly worker were the callouses that years of weightlifting had left on his hands.

Finally, when the regime was overthrown, he returned home with one shirt and one pair of pants to his name. Now in his 80s, he tutors those students who wish to progress beyond an elementary education.

No matter how much you have read about the Killing Fields, which we will eventually visit, nothing brings the reality home like meeting someone who lived through it.

I could have talked to the venerable man much longer, but the dark clouds and wind of a coming monsoon rain loomed overhead and we hurried through the phalanx of silver sellers to sanctuary on AmaDara.

Despite having heard horror stories of the torrents during this season, we have not actually experienced the afternoon rains yet. Whenever they do hit it is like a tempest in a teapot, intense for a moment then over, leaving behind cooler temperatures, a welcome breeze and the rest of a dry evening to enjoy.

All of the locals prefer this to the dry, high season. Good news for travelers looking for a bargain.

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