OK, I’m going straight to hell for that one . . .
Cambodia is filled with undiscovered land mines left over from the war in the 70s (and minor local skirmishes since). They’ve progressed nicely in finding and getting rid of lots, but still most guide books warn you against straying off the beaten path to avoid being blown to pits. Unfortunately the locals don’t read guide books. You see vast numbers missing appendages from playing with mines. Which has turned into a local cottage industry.
The streets of Siem Reap are overrun with amputees selling books about Cambodia from carts they wheel about. Begging is rough in Siem Reap if you are not missing at least one hand, arm, or leg. On the walk into the ancient wat Ta Prohm, there is a small clearing with a local band made up of land mine victims . . . donations accepted and CD’s for sale (I’d make a joke out of the skill level of the drum players missing arms, but too many of y’all would get pissed). There are dozens of variations of land mine danger T shirts for sale, as well as cups and mouse pads. OK, sometimes they local folk just don’t quite hit the mark in touri offerings.
Which brings us to my journey to Tonle Sap and a river cruise. Tonle Sap is a large lake fed by the Mekong River about a half hour outside of Siem Reap. My tuk tuk driver, Tony, suggested going for a cruise as a touri must-do event. Seemed like a good break from touring wats, so I agreed. Off we sped down dusty bumpy roads to the embarkation point; a narrow river meandering through piles of garbage and smelly areas of mud and debris. Quite picturesque!
Tony negotiated a price for the trip up the river with a boatman, and then renegotiated when I suggested he come along. Cost was under $20 for both of us on a boat with seating for about 25 (missing the other 23 passengers). Ten minutes out, the banks cleared up and waterborne housing appeared. Houses, schools, stores, churches . . . all built on floats tethered to the shore. Nowadays the floating village is mostly made up of families from Viet Nam who fled here after the war. They are allowed to stay, I think, because the Cambodians make money off of taking touri out to see the village. The villagers make money by fishing. For fish and for cash from the visiting touri. As your boat strategically slows at certain spots, the locals come paddling out, racing their fellow villagers to sell refreshments, usually bananas. I don’t know why they decided the proper bait for catching touri is bananas. But that’s what they all use. It must work. After the first vendor attack, and in preparation for slowing for the second, via Tony’s translation skills, I convinced our boat driver to just keep on going. No bananas for me. No bucks for them. Disappointment all around.
After cruising to the middle of the lake, we headed back. But had to stop at one of the local crocodile farm / restaurant / fruit stand/ trinket places that line the banks at the mouth of the lake. I tried to get the driver to pass on, but both he and Tony felt I really needed to see one of these places and were quite encouraging about my doing so. Figuring that meant they both would make a buck from the stop, I agreed.
Stopping at one of these places is a signal for all the locals to swarm to the large floating emporium to sell you more bananas (which are also offered for sale on the boat). And paddling like crazy off starboard are the picture taking opportunity bathtub brigade kids. I’d heard about this scam incredibly delightful slice of daily floating village life before, and thought it’d be a good photo op regardless of its commercialization. Seems a decade or so ago some local kid paddled by in a wash tub and got his picture taken by a touri and earned a tip. Now there are dozens of youngsters floating about, doing what Cambodians do best: begging for money. I climbed to the top deck of the barge to shoot down upon one energetic little fellow (thinking I’d get the shot and be far enough away to not have to pay him for it – not that I’m cheap, I just hate to encourage such brash commercialism. Okay. I’m cheap). Wasn’t until I zoomed in on the boy waving from his wash tub that I discovered he was yet another victim of a land mine.
I’m not sure if it was his friendly attitude, the effort of one-hand rowing, or just plain guilt on my part, but this kid’s plight touched me. So after taking his picture I climbed back down to water level and gave him the pocketful of riel that had been pawned off on me over the last day. Major coup for the kid. Then, my feeling of compassion and love for my fellow man dissolved as dozens of his brethren came swarming over with their hands out, figuring they’d found a gullible touri to fleece.
So while in Cambodia, watch out for land mines, and watch out for locals bearing bananas – both can be equally hazardous!
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