Cambodia, part 2: Floating recommended

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Early in the morning of the third day we started our round-trip around the Tonlé Sap lake. In Cambodia you’ve got pretty much a single choice when you want to cover larger distances — take a bus. Fortunately traveling is quite easy and comfortable. You can buy tickets directly from the bus company, but it’s more convenient to order them in your guesthouse. You pay $0.50 extra per person, but you get picked up directly from the guesthouse. Those long-distance buses are not the most modern ones, but they all have AC and each passenger is guaranteed a seat. Every two hours the bus makes a break for buying something to drink or eat and to go to the bathroom. By the way, I’ve never seen such clean public toilets anywhere else in the world! All buses are equipped with video players and powerful sound systems, which are on the entire time and blast either some 1980’s action movie or karaoke-type music videos.

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On our 8-day round trip we visited many villages – some closer to Tonlé Sap, others further away. We usually asked the tuk-tuk drivers to show us around and when we got to an interesting village we jumped out and asked him to wait for us a kilometer or so further down the road. We then walked and looked left and right, and everywhere we experienced the same friendly, curious and welcoming attitude towards us. We were greeted by smiling faces and big eyes staring back at us. The small kids never got tired of waving and shouting “hello” or “goodbye” or wanting to be photographed. Some even accompanied us as we were walking or cycling through their villages and spoke to us in sometimes surprisingly good English.

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As you might guess, this is a great way to get in touch with the locals. Sometimes without an English-speaking person nearby we had no idea what the villagers were saying, but as soon as we smiled and showed interest in their way of living, their homes and their work, their smiles grew bigger and bigger and they us proudly showed us around.

For me all that was so fulfilling and much, much better than 995 ancient temples!

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Surprisingly often we saw teenagers playing volleyball! Wow — not soccer, but volleyball!

Located in the city or in villages, on mountain tops or on small islands we visited beautiful and richly decorated pagodas that were a heavy contrast to the simple wooden houses around them. The number of pagodas in great condition was astounding. Even more so, there was rarely just one pagoda standing. Mostly there are 2 or 3 which are then surrounded by up to 20 stupas. Most are actively used by up to 40 monks living, studying and teaching there. Many of the younger ones were quite interested in us and asked us lots of questions. One even offered us ice-cold Coca Cola from his personal cooler, and in the 35°C heat we gratefully accepted his offer!

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One tuk-tuk driver told us earlier that almost every Cambodian man spends at least a part of his life as a monk, sometimes only a couple of months. It’s a free decision, but a great honor for their family. Besides spirituality, several named getting an education as reason to become a monk. One monk told us that he teaches younger monks and children who come to him in addition to going to their regular school as well as teaching adults about the dangers of AIDS. Then his phone rang and returned back to resume his lecture.

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If you visit Cambodia one day don’t miss out on Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Luong or Kampong Pluk. Like the names indicate, these are floating villages, and if you’ve never seen one of those before, you should! This is the other solution to the rising water during the monsoon season. Instead of building the houses on very high stilts, the villages build them on boats. This way when the water rises, the houses rise with it.

In Kampong Luong we spent one night at a homestay: in a very small room with a bed (a table with a very thin mattress), a table-fan and a lamp, with a shared bathroom outside. But it was still fabulous and we quickly had the feeling of being in the middle of everyday life.

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At dusk a diesel generator was turned on and we could charge our batteries and sort pictures while the locals watched TV, listened to music, played pool or simply socialized.

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On the next morning we were woken up around 6 a.m. by the hustle and bustle outside. It was a bit like Venice, but in Asia and much livelier. Everything here happens on the water. Instead of going by bus, kids are picked up by a school boat; youngsters don’t ride around on their loud motorbikes, instead they dart around with their boats; instead of you going to the market, mobile merchants dock at your “doorstep,” you choose the the fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, drinks or textiles you want, pay for them and they paddle off to the next house.

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What I liked very much was that most boathouses had “porches” open to all sides, so we could observe the neighbors without disturbing them. They were sitting around with friends and family, having a meal or playing games, and there are no doors to knock on or door-bells to ring, everyone is welcome. This is so different from home and from all the other countries I’ve visited before.

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