I grabbed money, phone, camera, water bottles, 2 loaves of bread, a bunch of bananas, and our well-worn map of Phnom Penh. Then—the motherly reflex—we all need to go to the bathroom (I will be asking twenty years from now if everyone has been to the toilet recently). Of course, you will have to see what I mean about toilets to understand this fixation – it’s all-go or no-go around here, so you’d better get it out in the apartment, and then switch to rice and a salt-lick when you’re out there.
We took a tuk-tuk to the pier along the Tonle Sap by the bar district, where we were eagerly greeted by a young man who seemed ready to navigate anywhere we wanted. He showed me a line-up of posters and I pointed to Koh Dach, a silk-weaving village up the Mekong River. After counting the kids and looking at his watch, he suggested a price. After looking around the empty pier and his idle boatman, I made a counter-offer, and we agreed. Again we found ourselves skipping down a rickety plank to what Ernie calls ‘another adventure’.
With all of us aboard a rather large wood-and-iron sight-seeing boat, and appearing to be his only customers this lazy Sunday morning, the boatman hopped on, pulling a long plank behind him, and we set off noisily from the pier. Our trip would begin with a large U-turn. We chugged down the Tonle Sap River past the bars and massage parlors, past the Royal Palace, and the pricy Foreign Correspondents’ Club, nearing the Himawari and Cambodiana Hotels, where the Tonle Sap joins up with the Mekong River, and the brown silty water arcs out into the wide dark green of the Mekong. Turning left around a low peninsula, we could see the rebar and concrete work of a new high-rise going up at the point. Prime real estate, I guess, unless there is a flood. Judging by the tawdry palatial homes and apartments around it, this is likely considered a prime location for Phnom Penh’s elite. Along the shore of the peninsula between the two rivers are dozens of fishing boats, like long covered canoes with motors. These weave among each other and around sightseeing boats like ours and the larger green barges carrying trash and cargo along the rivers. About a hundred meters off the peninsula is a little island, no bigger than a schoolyard, with no structures whatsoever and whose only inhabitants are kids Puck’s size smacking grass with sticks and chasing each other in and out of the water. A spontaneous daycare, I guessed, for the mothers and fathers in the fishing boats moving around them. Bundled mercilessly by their mother into steamy lifejackets, Ernest, Yoshi, Tika and Puck eyed their fellow river-goers curiously as we rode by.
We picked up speed entering the Mekong River, and turning left again, headed north in the direction of Koh Dach, and if you were to keep going, into Laos. The breeze was stronger out there, that was a relief, as the little ones looked at me with injured expressions from their massive life vests. Moving farther north, the difference between the west bank of the Mekong—the Phnom Penh side, and the east bank—the countryside, becomes more pronounced. On the left, we saw the ostentatious multi-layer wedding-cake houses of Cambodia’s civil servants and men of business. On the right, we approached a group of boys who seemed the same age as Ernest and Yoshi, naked to the waist, dunking and splashing each other along the shore. Then there were two men and a group of water buffalo, surprisingly agile in the water despite their lumbering bodies. We saw more of the one-room wooden house on stilts with palm-leaf roof. Some have a water tower: a large aluminum cylinder of water on a frame five meters or so over several homes. We passed orchards of banana and coconut trees, an orchard of papaya trees alongside a pipe running down to the bank of the river, maybe an irrigation system. We saw a young man with two buckets on a stick over his shoulders making his slow, steady climb up the dirt bank back from the river, another irrigation system.
Travelling with kids is always a reminder that no matter how remote, how exotic the surroundings, we are creatures of ordinary needs. Ernest used to get embarrassed when we’d go out together, me carrying Puck, and after some little frustration, Puck would plant his open mouth on my breast and grunt at me. ‘Gimme!’ Now we are a little bigger, but the needs are just as basic. ‘I’m hungry!’ ‘Is that all you brought?’ ‘We ate that last time!’ I’m not sure how much of our conversation the boatman could understand, but with Yoshi’s insistent provocations, Tika’s coquettish invitations for more, the pinching and hair pulling, and my occasional outbursts, I guess he got the idea and put the boat in high gear.
Landing at Koh Dach, I could see the reason for the long plank. We had basically rammed the boat head-on into a steep dirt bank, and would need to walk up a 45 degree ascent on a narrow plank, then some makeshift dirt steps, to reach the path high above. Ernest and Yoshi quickly forgot their squabbles from the boat, and jumped at the opportunity for a good climb. Tika and Puck fell in behind. Sometimes, when I am two steps behind or else handicapped by the smallest child, I am amazed to see how sturdy and sure-footed the kids can be on their own. We climbed single-file up the plank, up the banks, and into a shady banana orchard leading to the silk village.
The silk village consists of an English/French/Khmer welcome sign, an inviting middle-aged hostess who offers each visitor a banana, a bottle of water, and a Kleenex, and an open area full of looms. Here you see young women weaving silk cloth from many-colored threads, adding intricate patterns on old-fashioned wooden looms using foot pedals and a hand-thrown mechanism (what is that thing called again?) that passes the thread beneath. Incidentally, there is also a low jackfruit tree as you walk into the yard, with thirty-dollar jackfruits practically bumping you in the head. Tika was impressed. There is also a panting, dust-colored dog laying near the jackfruit tree, who seems pretty agnostic about tourist children. Ernest and Yoshi walked all through the place, over-hearing someone else’s tour, while Tika and Puck raided the gift shop and played with all the toys. They also found the weaver’s hammock behind the looms, and climbed in with great celebration. What fun—and it really swings!
Sometimes these tourist-oriented culture-spots can feel more like a lens through which we examine our own behavior and foibles than any realistic view of how Khmer people are spending their time. Coming into the dirt bank right behind us was another boat with two American families that seemed to be on an educational vacation together with young kids the same age as our little ones. They spoke loudly, asked hundreds of questions and held their kids in front of them to ensure maximizing the learning opportunity. One of the fathers looked aghast when his daughter followed my kids into the gift shop to poke through toys and swing a bamboo whirly-gig at full force. He seemed to be looking around for another eager-beaver parent to step in and restore the order, and I think I was over by the hammock. The mother spoke to her American child with interjections of bad-accent French, to which her daughter looked nonchalant and didn’t reply. Behind them were approaching a leathery old Englishman with a safari hat and a young blonde woman with the most enormous telephoto lens I’d ever seen. Enough said. We were heading out of the silk village.
Having expected a little more for our excursion fare, I climbed back down the bank in search of our boatman. It took some signaling with hands and feet to convey that I didn’t want to go back, but rather to be taken around walking on this island and to see more. He shrugged and gave in, bringing his cell phone and I guess talking with friends along the way.
If there’s one pastime I really hope to share with my kids, it’s idly walking long distances in unknown places. It’s just about my favorite thing to do. In countries where the temperatures are roasting, and people work all day to make a living, the idea of idle walking seems pretty strange. It looks even more strange when done with two-hundred-dollar boots, quick-dry pants, and a walking stick. At least I’ve found that with a dusty blouse, skirt, and flip-flops, I can manage to walk along without looking too much like a recently-arrived extraterrestrial.
We made our way slowly and aimlessly down a dirt road, a few bicycles passing by, and had to step to the side to let some water buffalo pass. Yoshi and Tika find the rear-ends of most large animals to be very funny, and water buffalo are rectangular back there.
Coming upon a nicely-built gate leading into a garden, our boatman led us down a walkway lined with animal statues: elephants holding lotus flowers, a goose, and a Khmer solider riding on a giant rat. There were little shrines and a large pagoda with a lovely golden Buddha inside. In the center of the garden was a large rectangular open-air hall, and in the center, a group of monks were just sitting down to lunch. A young boy was carrying bowls of food from another building to the side, where we could see in the open kitchen the stoves and large pots. Waddling in between the buildings was a gaggle of geese and an obese pig snorting and rising up from the ground. Like the hammock, these were a marvelous find, and Tika ran toward them at once honking and waving her arms. I’m not sure why, but from a young age, she has had an aggressive attitude toward geese. And seeing them in action, I’m a little afraid that my daughter doesn’t realize how dangerous a pissed-off goose can be. We steered away, with the lumbering pig following behind, too heavy to really get herself going. As we were moving away from the monks at their dining hall, I could hear beyond the goose-honking and pig-snorting and kid-screaming that they were chanting something, probably some prayer before their meal. It occurred to me again that in our efforts to get close to the ‘real thing’ and see Khmer people in action, we are constantly disturbing them. We are catching only glimpses of a real life behind the messiness and chaos of our own behavior everywhere we go.
With a long dusty walk back to the river and down the plank to our boat, we headed back to Phnom Penh. Within minutes of setting out there was again some provocation. I think Tika has learned the art of little-sister annoyance and puts it to good use whenever we are confined to a space together—airplanes, elevators, boat rides. The three younger ones were a mass of squirming crocodile-children at each other’s throats when the boat pulled back into the pier at Sisowath Quay, and it was time to extricate themselves and climb off. It was a silent, sullen ride across the city to our apartment. Only after five warm showers, a fresh change of clothes, and about an hour of cartoons, was everyone ready to be friendly again.Oh the drama!