A five hour bus ride from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham provided us with a look at how rural Cambodians live. Some of the houses on stilts displayed a pink cloth above the door which advertised an eligible woman 18 or older available for marriage. A few homes had rice drying on plastic mats. Our guide stopped in the midst of a rubber tree plantation and showed us how rubber is harvested. When we arrived in Kampong Cham, the sixth largest city in Cambodia, we embarked on the River Orchid. Our compact room has a large bathroom and plenty of storage. We were gifted with the Future of Cambodian Children bathrobes embroidered with our initials. Two sets of entry doors allow for viewing the scenery through windows while the outer door is open. We were treated to a brief, colorful sunset.

For our morning excursion, our vessel traveled up the Mekong River. A throng of village children awaited us on disembarking. We visited a house on stilts, unannounced. The interior was immaculate. The pots in the kitchen were shining clean even though there is no running water. Rain water is collected on the roof. Containers mounted on the wall ingeniously hold utensils. The main living area had two beds that could be divided for privacy. Framed collections of photos were mounted throughout.

Our guide showed us the many ways a scarf can be used by a Cambodian. There are several possible folds for covering the head. The scarf can be used to carry items. If one places stones at the ends, it can be used as a weapon. It can be worn as a skirt, and women can cover themselves if there is no private restroom. The scarf can be used atop the head or on the shoulder to carry heavy loads.

Wat Hanchey Monk

Wat Hanchey Monk

Wat Hanchey is a beautifully situated temple complex and monastery with panoramic views of the Mekong River. Pre-Angkor and Angkor aged temples mingle with contemporary Buddhist structures, giving a sense of Cambodia’s past and present religious life. We received a blessing from two monks, one was 14, the other 9. Our visit coincided with the lunch meal of the Buddhist monks. Interestingly, one of the village girls attached herself to me. She held my hand during the walk to and from the temple complex. Cambodians are open to being photographed, and appreciate being shown the picture.

We visited Phnom Pros, the Man Hill, from where we could see the corresponding Phnom Srey, the Woman Hill, on a nearby hilltop. In the Phnom Pros temple several older men, who are supported in their old age by the Buddhist monks, were sitting. As we descended a staircase, monkeys were frolicking in the woods. We walked along a series of statues illustrating the life story of the Buddha before seeing a massive Buddha statue teaching his disciples. A building housing the library was nearby. Behind it lays a massive reclining Buddha. A stupa erected to honor the dead from a nearby Khmer Rouge killing field holds a lotus-shaped container filled with human skulls. An 85-year-old who lost all relatives sat inside soliciting donations. He wanted to end his life, but suicide in Buddhism is unacceptable as it would necessitate 100 reincarnations. After dinner we saw a documentary about Pol Pot, the architect for the genocide of one-fourth of all Cambodians, especially intellectuals. Wearing glasses was a death warrant from 1975 until 1979. Today half the population of Cambodia is under the age of 25.

Our final temple for the day was the Nokor Bachey Temple, built at the same time as the Angkor temples. It boasts intricate wall carvings and ancient Buddha statues. As we exited some us took pictures of water buffaloes in a nearby yard. One of our group was charged by a protective mother water buffalo. That was scary. We completed our day with an excellent sunset.

Floating Village

Floating Village

Our morning cruise along the Tonle Sap River gave us a first hand look at village life. We observed fishing with sampans in a straight line connected with one another by planks. One of our guides gave an informative discussion about Cambodian geography along the Mekong River. He introduced us to the likely repercussions if more dams are built along this river which is the lifeblood of Cambodia. In the afternoon we boarded an excursion boat to view hundreds of floating homes of Kampong Chhnang. Most of these residents are from Vietnam. The Tonlé  Sap, “Large Fresh Water River”, but more commonly translated as “Great Lake”) is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. The Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and an ecological hot spot designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997. The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year’s heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake, five times its size during the dry season. Another good sunset as we headed for Phnom Penh.

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