Our first stop of the day was at Wat Hanchey. We were given the choice of walking the ‘easy walking way’ to the top of this hill via a path that was a cross between a ramp and stairs, or alternatively a ride on the back of a motorbike. Of course, we opted for the walk – SOMETHING has to combat all the food we are consuming (and I know I am not going into much detail, but it’s mainly been buffet style dining, perfectly tasty, but nothing extraordinary).
We had miniature escorts in the form of the local children, wanting to hold hands as we walked, which gave them ample opportunity to try and see what was in our pockets in a very obvious way! We made it unscathed to the hill top which houses a complex of temples (some pre-Angkorian, some contemporary) and a monastery and gave us great views over the river.
Our afternoon excursion was to Kampong Cham, where a group of school children were waiting to perform for us. They were a pretty talented bunch – especially a little girl playing an instrument similar to a dulcimer, who didn’t even need to look down as she played. She and 3 or 4 others were the musical accompaniment to some sweet voices and traditional dancers. There were a couple of young boys who acted out, in mask and costume, a traditional story of an old man and a cheeky monkey – the physicality and comic timing were excellent! This is a non-government school whose students are selected from their village school because of their intelligence and aptitude. The students don’t have to pay to attend, but the school is always in need of funds to keep providing for these kids. It costs $1.81 per day to pay a teacher, so any donations help a great deal. Chatting to the teacher, it was very clear how much he loved his job, and was proud of his kids. It was incredibly easy to pop some notes in the donation box!
After the entertainment, we boarded a mini bus and headed to Wat Nokor – a colourful monastery that was built within the ruins of 11th century Angkorian-era temples. After the Khmer Rouge period, the monks gathered the remains from the local ‘killing field’ (between Phnom Proh and Phnom Sray) and interred them here. Wat Nokor is a fascinating temple, with the ‘new’ nestled in amongst the ‘old’ – even sharing walls at some points. This country is thoroughly dotted with the most spectacular temples. I suppose viewing so many of them could get a little like being ‘cathedraled out’ in Europe, but I’m not over them, yet!
We drove back to town to meet the children in the Kampong Cham Orphanage Centre. On the way to the centre we stopped at the local markets to purchase gifts for the children and their “mothers” – there are 6 women who take care of 92 kids. We all pitched in for a variety of things, from the practical stuff like washing powder, tooth brushes and thongs (flip flops to some readers), to the fun things like soccer balls, biscuits and sweets. Once again we were greeted with traditional songs and smiling faces, and their excitement and gratitude at the gifts were particularly touching. The children had displays set up for us of their artworks and craft pieces to view and buy, and the quality of the work was impressive.
Their dormitories were incredibly sparse – raised wooden platforms for beds with no pillows or bedding in sight, and very few personal belongings. The rooms of the ‘mothers’ were also pretty bleak – the same style of beds, just in a double form rather than single. And no absolute privacy as each hut that housed 2 rooms actually only had a waist high wall dividing the space in half. These spaces were also where they cooked for the children and washed their clothes.
Even in this environment the children were generally happy and energetic, showing affection for and taking care of each other – there were hugs and fair distribution of the biscuits by the older ones! There were some amazing volleyball players amongst them, and when some of our party got a soccer game started, there were many eager volunteers.
However, there were some kids who were troubled in some deep and profound way. When we were leaving, there were two in particular with haunted eyes, who stood beside the bus like ghosts. None of these children will be adopted due to the bureaucratic hurdles that are currently almost impossible to overcome, from both countries involved in the process. Most of them have also passed the cute baby stage, so even if it were easier to adopt, most would still spend their childhood in the orphanage. But it’s not all bad news. One of the many success stories was the 20 year old English teacher who grew up there. He was very intelligent and articulate, passionate about his job and proud of his students; a lovely sweet young man. The children he teaches are in very capable hands.
There was much conversation and deep thought on our way back to the ship, and a walk along the bamboo bridge provided the perfect spot to do that. This bridge, which joins an island to the mainland, is made entirely of bamboo, and is rebuilt every year after the rains have washed the previous bridge away in the wet season. The whole thing bounced as we walked, and was strong enough for cars and trucks to cross, although it was a little freaky when they did!
Our evening began with cocktails on the terrace deck and the official presentation of the entire crew of the Jahan. With nearly 30 crew members, I was impressed that the applause did not wane as we got to the bottom of the ‘pecking order.’ There were only 23 passengers aboard, so the ratio of crew to passenger was very high! The plans for a dance party (before dinner?!) were aborted due to the heat and the crazy insect population on deck. We all receded indoors and enjoyed the airconditioning. Our evening finished with a slide show of pictures taken by crew members of the passengers – much laughter and finger pointing ensued!
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