Putting it all in perspective

Day 69
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The FCC is a beautiful hotel and the dinner we had at Hotel de la Paix was one of the best I’ve had this entire trip. But $135USD rooms and $70USD prix-fix meals are not the norm in Siem Reap. This morning, we set out to see the real Cambodia, and it was an eye-opener unlike any other.

After a breakfast of toasted granola with a baked Nashi pear, house-made yogurt and a cup of Illy coffee, we met our driver for the short ride to Chong Khneas, a floating village about 20 minutes from Siem Reap that sits at the mouth of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Every year during the wet season, the Mekong River backs up and reverses it flow; as a result, Tonle Sap — or simply, Great Lake — floods, swelling from 2 meters deep and 2,500 sq kilometers to 10 meters deep and 13,000 sq kilometers.

The people who live on the banks of this flood plain have adapted their lives accordingly: homes sit on stilts, although most everything — from schools to basketball courts to stores — have been placed on boats.

Cruising down the river and guided by a 17-year-old boy with broken English, we witnessed the daily life of the 300 families who call this area home.

There was a woman gutting a fish while a hungry cat looked on and a young girl carrying her infant sister. An older man swung in a hammock while his wife cleaned the dishes.

Watching boats of gawking tourists pass, it all felt a little voyeuristic. At the same time, it was fascinating to see how these Cambodians live, how little they have — and yet how much dignity and self-respect they maintain. These people are poor, but they do not beg. You can see in their eyes that they are proud of who they are.

A rain started falling and our guide told us that we had to return to the launch point as there was a possibility that our car might get stuck in the mud. Back inside the air conditioning, we passed smiling kids sitting in ramshackle huts who waved goodbye.

We were back at the hotel by 11 a.m. and realized that we likely could have spent just one full day here in Siem Reap — a morning at Angkor Wat and afternoon at Tonlé Sap. While we were tempted to switch our flight to Luang Prabang from tomorrow, the hassle didn’t seem worth it. So, after Andy left for Hoi Ann, we reentered the tourist bubble and got complimentary foot massages at the spa, had cheeseburgers for lunch and relaxed at the pool.

Still, it was hard to escape the images of poverty and squalor that we saw this morning. You never fully appreciate how much you have until you see the way in which much of the world lives.

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