Am presently falling in love with river cruising. With none of the pitching of open water sailing, and still the convenience of unpacking once and waking up in a different location every morning, it’s terribly civilised! Having amazing service from all crew, with their cheeky smiles and wonderful personalities, is a bonus!
This morning we visited Koh Chen, a small village situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap River (35km north of Phnom Penh in the Kompong Luong Province). The villagers here are silversmiths, and we walked around different homes watching them work, making bowls and plates. When we arrived, several young Khmer people of various ages greeted us with ‘cigarette trays’ of silver jewellery to sell, pretty much all of which is not made in the village, though. Walking around the community, we greeted every smiling face with a ‘sues day’, and we received big toothy grins and wildly flapping arms in return. We popped our heads into a school room with no teacher in attendance to find every child sitting at their desks giggling and smiling and waving at us, patiently waiting for their teacher to show up, who came in just as we were leaving, looking a bit harried and frazzled like so many of us at the start of our day! School is not compulsory in Cambodia, but the government does provide free education for grades 1-6 (no kindergarten). Students attend either in the morning or afternoon, 6 days a week. With government teachers earning only $100 per month, they are one of the better paid professions in the country.
It was fascinating to watch a group of adults cart their musical instruments from shrine to shrine, singing, playing music and worshipping. This ritual was not for our benefit – we happened upon them finishing at one and moving to the next. The toddlers ‘bopping’ away to the music in that universal bouncing way of the very young was terribly cute. One little guy thought he was on Australia’s Got Talent, honing his microphone skills!
The kids and adults know to make a connection with you the second you get off the boat, striking up a conversation and trying to sell you their silver. I had a gorgeous boy of about 14, who looked about 10 years old, with a huge smile and gregarious personality follow me around, chattering away like a little monkey and continuously flashing his pearly whites and giggling. So, naturally, I chose to buy from him – and walked away with a very nice pair of silver earrings.
Back on board after our buffet lunch in the dining room, we had an information session about the traditional Kampuchean dress – John made a lovely model in their demonstration! We also had a small language lesson that helped us with some basics in greeting the locals in the villages (did you know that Khmer has 33 consonants? – And we could hardly distinguish between most of them!).
After lunch we explored a small lively town on the bank of the river called Kampong Chhang. To get there we had to take a motorboat through the floating village and wetlands of the region before docking. We then took a bus through the farms outside of town to look at the making of Khmer pottery. This entailed actually going into people’s yards and watching them make a variety of items and then doing a bit of shopping. Nowhere near as intense as the silver village hard sell experience. These people were incredibly sweet and polite. In the first house we went to, there was a woman of 60 or so making a clay pot by hand, not even using a wheel, just walking around a stump, moulding and shaping with her tiny, strong, agile hands, always with a big grin on her face, beaming at us – so very ‘look, Ma, look at me!’ Very cute! The amazing thing about this woman was her spirit. She had lost her husband to the Khmer Rouge and was a farmer supplementing her income with her pottery, and she had such a light within, it was contagious.
We popped into the place next door to cheeky-grin lady, and visited giggle-pot man – a guy of about 61-62 (who had the joie de vive of a 5 year old boy) who climbs palm trees to get the palm sugar liquid that he turns into 40% alcoholic whiskey or palm sugar – both very nice. We watched him climb one of his trees, showing off the whole time leaning away and sticking arms and legs in the air, then walk across a “bridge” in the palm fronded tops of the trees (a branch of about 10 cm wide), where he hacked into the next tree. He was such a charmer, a real hoot.
The family at the next property were making mini clay cooking ovens, of a very smart and compact design. It would cost a local about $2 to buy and it would last them about 3-4 years. Very efficient and practical, especially when these homes have no electricity and do all their cooking with charcoal and wood.
We got a lot out of the day, but the highlight for me was watching the woman shuffling around the tree stump making her pot and making us all feel light of heart watching her.
The Jahan is a Heritage Line ship (this cruise began in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam and we joined it in Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Our travel agent on this cruise was Kelvin Do at Indochina Treks. We were very impressed with his efficiency, helpfulness, excellent advice, friendliness and price! His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org