Cambodia’s other empire

by Pramod Kanakath
A Lake
tuk-tuk

Kampung Phluk known for its elongated, stilted houses by the side of a lake providing it a rustic charm that is Cambodia’s fishing empire. I tuk-tucked to Phluk from Siem Reap in an erroneous, one and half hour hither and thither movement. A sedan would have got me there in 40 minutes. But Vanna was on standby 24/7 in front of My Home Cambodia. Short, dusky and wearing dishevelled tees and trousers, the curly-haired Vanna always propelled his two front teeth whether or not he was smiling. His thin and long face is disproportionate to his height. His tuk-tuk slightly swerved left and right while moving fast. It jerked and bumped. However, the velvet-brown cushioned seat with embroidered frills gave me a royal feel. We were cruising along until deviating to the right to roll on a dusty road. Vanna kept accelerating and at each spotting of pond-like patches, I persisted, “Vanna, are we there?” “More, more go.” Vanna uttered his elementary repertoire of English words.” Are we still in Siem Reap?” “Yes, Siem Reap. Kampung Phluk, Siem Reap”. No sunglasses.

Boats

I wanted to see the red earth and the chocolate ponds they were. Finally, Vanna’s tuk-tuk made a panting tuktukktukkk! We booked a boat to Tonle Sap at an office.30US$. Dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia. “You go, this man. I wait here.” Vanna left me with a Khmer-only speaking boatman. The boatman smiled at me. Thrusting the oar hard into the earth he reversed his boat. Away from the jetty, the canal widened and the boatman started the engine. We cruised along mangroves which heralded the greenery. Green woods and the chocolate canal! A spin of silence! Anyone really here? Trrrrrrr… another boat. Two men on board waved hands to me. Then a curiously netted boat with wooden logs on the deck meandered past us. A smaller, faster one wound its way between us and the netted one, leaving chocolate ripples. I watched the stern of the netted boat vanish into the lush vegetation. The boat took a sharp turn to the right. The canal narrowed down again and there could be a jetty? Yes! We saw more boats and spotted the first of an array of stilted houses. Huge ones, tall and straight, most of them, 8-10 metres in height and 3-5 metres wide. Long ladders lead up to every house.

Tonle sap

Boats of different kinds and sizes floated in front of the houses. The houses were painted red, green, blue; some showed thatched facades. The walls were made of different materials – thatch, asbestos or wood. Some have more than two windows and some, none, but with an open entrance. At one bend, there’s a ladder connecting two houses. Foul smells. The boatman pointed towards pig pens and chicken coops underneath the stilts. There’s more to animal farming than just fish. Fishing nets were everywhere. During monsoon you couldn’t see the bottom of the stilts. People moved upstairs for months together. That is when Tonle Sap rises in majesty. It was July, only the beginning of the season. I could see the houses top to toe. Children’s playful voices. Three boys and two girls, looked 3-4 years old, half naked, engaged in childish revelry, splashing water. They smiled and waved to us. We slowly entered the vast and endless Tonle Sap. An imposing spread that rivals the sea in its appearance. Its length conceals its other end; stretching to 2,700km and up to 16,000km during monsoon! Here’s a floating restaurant. Its stilts were under water.

floating restaurant

We ventured along the lake. It was chocolate all over; but something floating in the middle. A beautiful house. My boatman’s Khmer explanation probably meant a guest house. He formed five and zero with his fingers and uttered “Dollaaa(r), dollaaa(r)”. The boat gyrated the house and headed to the restaurant. A young lady greeted me. Dressed in jeans and a purple-coloured t-shirt she gave me the menu. The menu offered amok, fried rice and pancakes. Amok and rice. Amok is a bright yellow Cambodian-style chicken curry with plenty of gravy mixed with carrots, potatoes, beans, and onions. Watching Tonle Sap, I savoured my first Cambodian lunch. The boatman smiled again. We got back to the jetty faster than expected. The boatman looked at me for a goodbye smile. Sorry, I haven’t learnt ‘awkunh’ (thank you) yet. I felt guilty waking up a slumbering Vanna, but he quickly got dutiful. Tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk back to hotel! Sunglasses on.

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