Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Siem Reap and the City of Floating Children

The next morning we travelled to Siem Reap. Arriving at our impressive hotel early, our rooms were not ready. With nothing better to do (well, actually there was quite a lot of better things we could have done,m but we didn't), we dove in the pool. Nice.

Lunch found us in The Red Piano Bar, a place steeped in the mystic lore of Angelina Jolie. Apparently there is a scene in 'Tomb Raider' that was filmed in Angkor Wat, and, while filming in Siem Reap, Angelina had 'invented' a cocktail (an uninteresting mix of gin, citrus and something else) in this very bar. Incongruously beside images of the Muppet Show's Waldorf and Statler, pictures of Jolie graced the wall and made an appetising accompaniment to our meal. However, Aunty Sian, well versed in the movie business in many ways, assured us that Angelina's cellulite had to be digitally removed in post-production. Ah, well.

In the afternoon we visited the Floating Village, a place that was to take us into the heart of Cambodian poverty. Situated on Cambodia's largest lake, this community of fishermen and merchants, live entirely on the water, many growing plants and vegetables in makeshift floating gardens. To get there though, we had to pass some more extreme poverty. Along the road we passed the traditional Cambodian wooden huts on stilts. Naked children ran around while mothers cooked on crude clay mounds. This was a stereotypical Third World image, and one which threw the concept of tourist into a cauldron of debate. After all what right had we with our travellers cheques and digital cameras, our comfortable homes to fly home to, what right had we to be here staring as Cambodians picked the nits out of each other's hair? Of course it was our dollars that were meant to be going towards alleviating this poverty, but to me it seemed an unreal economic connection. Certainly it seemed hard to imagine a future life for the many children there other than the one of their parents.

We arrived at our boat, a barge, one of many tens of boats, resting in a filthy, foul-smelling creek of black water. I was distressed to see fishing lines and nets cast into this mess. Setting off we soon came to more healthily brown, muddy water. Men swam around fixing nets and narrowly missing the many barges that powered up and down the creek. It was a scene straight from Conrad. I was struck by the genius of Coppola in transposing 'Heart of Darkness' from the Belgian Congo to Vietnam and his 'Apocalypse Now'. Each place a colonial nightmare, the mix of environment and politics seemed to me far closer together than the many miles that separated them would suggest.

The lake, still muddy, opened out before us with a gift of relief. The village, such as it was, was dotted across the horizon and, as we powered ahead, we passed homes, gardens, workshops and people. Besides the standard canoes we were used to, many moved around in makeshift coracles, round tubs, while the children floated by quite easily in basins. It wasn't long before a canoe of young girls drew up alongside us selling soft drinks and fruit (mostly bananas). I have been able to resist such sorties in the past, but this time I bought a can of drink from a persuasive mite. When she had gone, I stared at the can uncertainly, not really wanting to bring my lips close to it. Thankfully another boat soon came alongside and rather than target me with more goods, one child asked to take the can off my hands. She put it away, no doubt intending to sell it later.

Passing a church, we pulled up at a crocodile farm, a crocodile farm and fish museum, and souvenir shop, and lookout point. A shallow, fish-filled pit of water constituted the fish museum, and every so often a young girl would shovel a plate of whitebait in. The fish would lash up in a frenzy showering anyone (such as yours truly) in the vicinity. I made my way up to the lookout instead. All around the lake stretched while around this floating superstore, more shop/boats and basins were fighting to pull alongside in search of a few dollars more. Naturally we were not the only tourists there and the pickings were great. Once we got back in our boat, we ourselves were targeted once more. I argued merrily with one little child and her friends laughed and waved as we pulled away. She, I am afraid to say, scowled. Six and already a professional marketeer, she was angry at the lost sale. What was in store for her? The world is full of children.


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