The below article is a contribution from my daughter-in-law, on her expreiences and musing from a trip to Cambodia and Laos:
The last couple of days were some of the most beautiful days of my life. Cambodia, like some parts of India presents life to you in its most raw form. Siem reap is bustling with life, the second biggest province in the Kingdom of Cambodia, is still reeling from the horror of its past and is desperate to make its future better. You can see it mainly in the children on the streets of Cambodia. To an extent that these kids have learnt to manipulate tourists with their innocent faces in order to earn a living. It makes me wonder what life must have thrown to make them such manipulative business monkeys without a Harvard degree!
A 30 minute tuk tuk ride will take you from the busy streets of Siem reap to Tonle Sap lake on which several floating villages are formed. Tonle sap is a fresh water lake which joins the Mekong river. 5 different provinces are situated around the lake with a population of 3 million. The main form of income is fishing and agriculture. I visited the Chang kneas village and as I passed in a boat, I saw houses, clinics, temples, schools, fish farms, restaurants, markets, pigsty – all floating on this lake.
Life is in its most simple form- they draw water from the lake for use, they go to the jungle for toilet, they grow or catch everything they eat. Some houses have electricity only from 6pm to 11pm. Houses here take 2-3 months to build and are build mostly with wood. 15-20 people live together in these houses. The average income per day is 2$ in this village. 2$ is all we humans need to survive and live a beautiful life, one with nature. Most importantly, they have a very low impact on the environment compared to the city dwellers living the “good life”. We come from different circumstances but our necessities are all the same.
When you ride through this village in a dingy motor boat, you will see people pulling fish out of their nets, kids playing in the lake, men bathing, women gardening, kids running down the stairs in school uniform, pigs being cleaned and more. I imagine what life must be like and make up stories in my head. They seem very happy in their small world with no luxury and assets in their name.
Your happiness is defined by your surrounding and your experience in life. The smallest of things make the villagers happy in Tonle sap. Our local guide told us that everyone’s in good mood if they chop a chicken or pork for their meal since the staple diet is usually just sticky rice and fish. The kids were extremely excited to see and touch my bangles. I saw tourists giving candies and money to these kids too. I hope people realize that it’s a bad practice. It encourages begging, discourages innovative initiatives while rotting their teeth. Give them books, that’s the only way to make a difference or better even, sponsor a kids education.
Coming back to Tonle sap, this place is a quaint little chaotic heaven in the middle of Cambodia. It took me back to where I come from because the sense of belonging to a particular community is a dominating feeling in us. We leave homes in search of better and bigger things. As I explore this expansive world, my own culture, similar to Lao culture of worshipping and respecting the land, river and forest makes the most sense to me.
I travel not only because I always have wanted to see the world, but also, it gives me a perspective in life. I and my worries seem small in the universe of things. I have learnt to respect and be thankful for the small things in life. Tonle sap in particular makes you respect nature for it vastness, kindness and for all it can offer.
Our boat ride ended in the mekong river just outside the floating village and the flooded forest. We stopped the boat to soak in the bright sky, slow breeze and calm water surrounding us. As the sun set over the red sky, the peace and calm of that moment could be rivaled only by a mother’s womb.