The International Writers Magazine: ASIA TRAVEL
on the Tonle Sap Lake
Kines is a small fishing village built on the Tonle Sap Lake,
not far from Siem Reap. On the periphery of the lake there are
a few traditional Khmer houses, on stilts. But most of the houses
are floating on the water.
The homes range
from elaborate rafts and barges to simple, covered fishing boats. Apart
from the fact that the 6,000 villagers use small rowboats to do their
shopping and make their daily rounds, most lived a normal, Khmer lifestyle,
the same as in any landlocked village. There are schools, shops, restaurants,
temples, and even a hospital, all built on boats.
In Chong Kines,
my guides, Samban, Thavrin, and I rented a powerboat to
us approximately 12 nautical Km across the lake, to the bird sanctuary.
By the time we began
this boat trip we were several long, hectic days
our adventure tour of Cambodia. We were all exhausted, and just wanted
sleep on the boat. Summoning up all of my internal reserves of power,
fought off the fatigue and in an adrenaline burst of optimism asked
if there was an interesting story or some ancient legend associated
Samban was half
dosing. But through the thick fog of sleep he answered. Yes, there
I opened my notebook and prepared to write the story. I waited a long
time, finally, I decided that Samban thought I was asking a yes or no
you.? I said. This will make good reading for the folks at home?"
professional travelers can get tired of traveling.
The views along
the river were breathtaking. The blue water spread out like an ocean
reaching all the way to the horizon. The sun had only risen a half-hour
before, and splashes of gold bobbed upon the wind driven waves. Fishermen
toiled, bringing in their nets, among a virtual jungle of greenery,
which floated on the surface of the water. Our
first stop was at the wildlife conservation office, which was a houseboat,
next to a floating restaurant. The office was merely an empty wooden
shell built upon a floating barge. There were two occupants in the dank
enclosure, neither of which seemed particularly knowledgeable or happy
to see us. The older one was clearly in charge, and the younger one
was clearly in the dark, not that the older one knew anything, but he
was clearly in charge.
We asked what birds
we could see in the sanctuary, and they took us to
wall chart, which looked like a 1960s era public school poster from
United States. Most of the birds were large, aquatic fowl with long
and bills suitable for fishing. Inexplicably, the bird poster, which
dogeared and falling down, was hanging beside a picture of the Yokohama
Admiral Bird, Oriental Darter" Said the older one, reading off
the names. The poster was in English, so, I could have read it myself,
but I humored him. The only bird whose name I recognized was stork.
And now, I would finally get to ask the question that had plagued me
do babies come from"
Silver Darter, Asian Turn, Eastern Woodland Cock".
At first I thought he had answered my question. But then I realized
that he was ignoring me, and just continued reading the chart. Of course,
it was my own fault that he was so fixated on reading the chart. When
we arrived we told him I was a writer, not a reader.
I was burning sponsor dollars for this opportunity to write a story,
I snapped back into business mode. And
which of these birds will I see when we go into the sanctuary."
Backed King Fisher, Shuttle Cock, Passenger Pigeon, Do-Do Bird."
Bird! But they are extinct. I think you are just babbling the names
of birds." I told him. Then, I looked at the list again, Some
of these arent even birds."
Ominus Nipitus, Sanctimonious"
When he switched
to Latin I washed my hands of the guy.
try and get some information out of this guy or I will have to resort
to more unpleasant measures." I warned.
Samban was a true
peacemaker. Khmers have an uncanny ability to pretend not to see what
is going on in front of them, if by doing so they can help someone else
to save face or help to avoid conflict. Admittedly
I am too hard on people in Asia, and just a tad bit judgmental. But
that is the luxury I have, being from Brooklyn, being Italian, being
big and strong, and knowing that when the book is finished I would leave.
But for my translators life was never so simple. Saving face was such
an incredibly important aspect of Khmer society. A man would much rather
die than lose face. So, looked at from another angle, causing another
person to lose face was akin to murder.
Saving face constantly
frustrates my work. Fifty percent of the Khmer
population is under the age of 25. So, by way of statistics, at
thirty-eight, I am probably older than 70% of the population. This
that I am in the position of higher authority in the Khmer hierarchy.
this becomes difficult is when I dont know something, and I ask
help. Since a younger person can never admit that he knows something
older person doesnt, they may just play dumb, and say they dont
they may not answer at all. Assuming that they didnt hear me,
the question louder. This frightens a younger person, and he retreats
more. Finally, I find myself screaming and becoming threatening. And
course, once you do that in Khmer society, you may have destroyed that
relationship forever. At the very least, you arent going to get
information you needed.
I have been on tours
where the guide refused to go first because I was older. But since I
didnt know the way, we kept getting lost. At every fork in the
path I would ask, Do we need to go left or right."
And the answer would always be Up to you" Before I could
speak Khmer it was even worse. I would go in a restaurant with my assistant,
my driver, and my translator and they would want me to order for everyone.
I didnt know the Khmer dishes. I couldnt read the menu.
And I couldnt communicate with the waitress. Still, they would
insist that I should order. Please order something," I begged,
handing them the menu. We are not hungry." They answered.
When a Khmer person
asks me a question, they will never accept I dont know"
as an answer. In Khmer society, an older person would never admit to
a younger person that there is anything he doesnt know. One of
my students brought me some kind of Asian tropical fruit and asked me
what it was called in English. I dont know." I answered.
We dont have this fruit in Brooklyn."
I mean what is the English name." She said, repeating the question.
I dont know the English name of this fruit." I answered,
getting a bit angry. I have never seen one of these before."
She said. But in Khmer, yes is just a polite particle. It doesnt
signal agreement. And how is it called in English?" I
DONT KNOW." I shouted. We dont have this fruit
in Brooklyn. Probably we dont have this fruit anywhere in America.
In fact, I would bet money that there isnt even an English word
for this fruit."
The student backed
down, not because she finally accepted that I didnt know. Once
you get angry, the Khmers understand your emotion, but stop listening
to what you say. Since the Khmer goal is always to make peace, they
will always stop questioning you at that point. But dont be fooled
into believing that anything has been resolved.
You are busy now." She said, walking back to her seat. Maybe
you can tell me tomorrow."
know tomorrow either." I began, but then I dropped it.
Because I speak
Khmer now, translators are more or less obligated to
try on my own, and fail. And even when they see that I am hopelessly
to communicate, they still cant jump in and save me, or I will
So, I have to beg them fifty times to help me. And even then, although
have been watching and listening, they cant just jump in where
They have to ask me a thousand questions about what exactly I want to
It was the same
thing here. When I had given up on this conversation and turned the
mike over to Samban, he went through an entire interrogation before
he would begin translating. What did you want to ask him? What
did you want to know? Why are you asking?" The pre-interview questioning
went on so long I wondered if he had completely missed the point of
the last five days we had spent together. Did I really need to start
right from the beginning and say, Samban, my name is Antonio.
And I am here doing a book about adventure tours in Cambodia. Now, I
need you to ask this momo what birds I will see if I go in the sanctuary."
In easy, comfortable
Khmer, Samban asked the man which of these birds would be present in
man answered. Then he answered again. Then Samban repeated the question.
Then the man babbled. Thirty minutes later, Samban was ready to translate
the answer. I eagerly gripped my pen. None."
N-O-N-E I dutifully
wrote in my book.
with a completely incomprehensible explanation as to why I couldnt
see any birds. If the answer was because it was too late in the day
or it was the wrong season, I wasnt sure. And actually, I didnt
care. I had heard no once. I didnt see any point in wasting more
are no birds in the sanctuary, and no expert to tell us about the birds,
I see no point I going." I told Samban. I could learn more
from a book back in the hotel."
He repeated, and to my horror, he translated.
old guy and the young guy had a long discussion. Then the young guy
riffled through a disorganized jumble of crates in the corner of the
room, and came back with a mildewed bird watchers book, which was missing
They held up the
moldy old book as if it were the Bible. The old man cracked it open
and thumbed through the English pages, as incomprehensible to him as
Latin, Greek or Hebrew to a novice Catholic. A small boy ran through
the village announcing The book! The Book! Villagers herded their
children in doors. Priests prepared sacrifices. There was so much ceremony
tied in with the opening of the book, that I was reminded of the cult
in the film, Return to the Planet of the Apes which worshipped
an unexploded nuclear warhead.This
book is all we have." Said the old man, with gravity.
it is." I agreed. And all youll ever have. I wanted to add.
can look at it here, but the precious words can never leave this shack."
Pronounced the old man. A hush fell over the assembled crowd of worshipers.
I had been given a great honor. Or had I? Perhaps he meant that once
I had looked at the book I would not be allowed to leave. I
declined, thanking the man profusely. I placed my hands in the prayer
position, high up on my forehead, and backed out of the room in supplication,
but also, a little on guard.
Our trip to
the floating village had gotten off to an inauspicious start. But the
life of the aquatic villagers was fascinating. Near the wild life office
there was a temple, a school, and a hospital, all floating on the water.
Outside the school was a sign saying that it had been provided by UNICEF.
All of the houses had a TV and an antenna, although most had no power-lines.
Two girls selling food allowed guests to board their canoe and eat breakfast.
Whole families floated by in small rowboats. Even young baby girls already
had pierced ears. People went to and fro, crossing the street and running
errands just as they would in any other village. All the while, they
were careful not to damage the water hyacinths, which covered the surface
of the lake. Samban told me that they ate the flowers in salad. The
stems were dried and woven to make hammocks.
On the porch of
a houseboat, two medical technicians played music on a loudspeaker to
attract people to come and be vaccinated. Women holding small children
sat politely on the floor in Khmer fashion, with their knees together
and legs out to the side. The medics explained that babies and mothers
were being vaccinated for polio, small pocks, and other diseases on
a regular cycle. In addition to the usual host of childhood illnesses,
children living on the lake were particularly susceptible to diarrhea
due to a lack of hygiene. Apparently, the villagers were drinking the
lake water, which they also used for bathing, toilet, cooking, and washing
dirty dishes. The health problems increased in the dry season when the
water level became lower and the concentration of contaminants increased.
In the dry season," explained the female technician, the
water is low, muddy, and full of dead fish. Some
people are afraid of the vaccination." She explained. They
go to Kru Khmer." She added, meaning the traditional healers. They
have many stories of ghosts. When they are sick or have a sore throat
they go to the traditional healer who mixes potions and medicines for
them to drink."
Although there were
obvious problems with hygiene, the villagers looked
noticeably healthier and heavier than poor provincial farmers. We
there were two reasons for this. First, they were probably getting
more protein than farmers because of the easy access to fish. And
they were sitting all day in their boats and werent burning calories
walking around. Some farmers live very far from their land and have
as much as two hours at the start and finish of each very long work
A big boatload of
tourists came through the village. Suddenly, several
boats paddled like mad, looking like ants swarming on an elephant,
food and other goods to the foreign visitors.
The woman from the
health service asked why I had come. We told her that I was writing
a book. She smiled politely, but it was possible that she had never
owned a book, much less read one. Even among educated urban Khmers,
reading is just not a common pastime. In the provinces, illiteracy is
extremely high. I always wondered what these people thought of me when
I said I was a writer. In university English classes where I would ask
thirty students to write as many occupations as they could think of
for five minutes, writer came up less frequently than astronaut. My
Khmer friends have told me that most people think I have a very strange
job. I am inclined to agree. Back where we started, we turned in our
powerboat and took a walk around the village, visiting boat-builders.
All of the boats were made of wood, and it was amazing how few power
tools we saw at each open-air workshop. A master-shipwright. Named Kut,
squatted in the keel an 8m boat, using a primitive ax and plane to shape
the ribs. He said that he could build an entire boat in just one month.
He bought the wood from a vendor and was paid by the owner to build
the boat. After the woodwork was completed, he would use tree resin,
applied dry, to make the boat waterproof. Kut used an oily rag on a
stick to wipe down his tools and keep them rust-free. He sharpened the
blades on a wet-stone.
Kut had learned
boat-building from his father, who had learned from his
father, and so on, for generations. Unlike the aquatic villagers, Kut
his family lived in a ktom, a kind of thatched bamboo hut on stilts.
a fisherman nor a farmer, Kuts fulltime profession was boat building.
particular boat was going to be a fishing boat.
Curious men and
children from the village had gathered around to see
strange foreigner climbing around an unfinished boat, carrying a camera
Do you work
alone?" I asked Kut, a man of few words. He was extremely focused
on his work, and went about it with a practiced meticulousnes. You just
knew that Kut would never leave an end undone. He reminded me very much
of the practical men of the maritime states back in my own country.
He could just as easily have been a Maine shipwright as a Khmer.
you see Jieng, my assistant?" He asked, pointing at a less-intelligent
looking man loafing at the side of the boat.
But he doesnt
look like hes working." I joked, in Khmer, breaking the ice.
The villagers all laughed, Jieng most of all. The smiles on their faces
said that it was fine with them if I stayed to finish my story. Kut
laughed too, but then immediately went back to his work. He was an intense
man. But then, that was why he commanded such a high price. He told
us that he was charging $1,000 to build this boat. In a country, where
the average income is only $26 per month, this was an absolute fortune.
I asked Kut if he
was going to teach his four children to earn money by
building boats, as he had done.
not," he said, without even a moments reflection. Building
boats is hard work." Instead, Kut sent his children to school,
and hoped that they would find some other way to make a living.
A group of boys,
returning from spear fishing, ran past us laughing.
were obviously excited to show their mothers the food they had caught.
A hundred meters
further along the beach we found a master boat-maker
his three-man crew building a 13 m long racing boat for the dragon
during the Water Festival. Surprisingly he said that he only needed
weeks to build a boat. This master had a slightly different story than
first. His father had been a farmer, but he had learned boat building
his uncle, whose family for generations had been boat builders. His
in Banyan Bong Province, and he only came to Chong Kines Village
temporarily. When the boat was finished, he would return home. He said
he was contracted by the owner, who would sell this boat for $1,000.
Occasionally, however, he would buy his own wood, make the boat
sell it for his own account.
We decided the only
way to really experience the village was to swap our powerboat for a
rowing boat. For three dollars we rented a local longboat. It was similar
to a dugout canoe, and could be paddled by two men facing forward. Trying
to be as conscious as possible about the various kinds of boats I saw
on the lake, I hadnt seen any western style rowboats, where you
faced backwards. All of the craft were small, practical, seaworthy boats,
which were slow, simple and reliable. Similar to the truck like lifeboats
we had when I was a merchant seaman, I believed that the majority of
these boats would continue to float even if completely swamped.
There were some
very long, narrow, shallow draft canoes with nearly non-existent gunnels,
which were propelled by a single rower, standing in the prow, using
a long, pole shaped oar. Apart from big floating cages used to breed
fish, we didnt see any rafts. The only boats I saw with fixed
oarlocks required the rower to stand, and crisscross the oars as he
went. Several of the boats were driven by a large steering oar in the
stern. Once again, speed was not a priority. But reliability was, as
most Khmers, even many river and lake dwellers, cannot swim.
The newspapers often
have reports of fishermen who drowned when they fell out of their boat
only meters from the nearest landfall. Fred, a SCUBA instructor I met
from the United States, said that he was considering starting an NGO
to teach swimming to water dwellers.
The most unusual
boat I saw was a round basket-boat, which I believe is
common in Indonesia. The basket is just large enough for one person
in and is controlled by a single oar, which is free, not fixed in a
Having read the laughable accounts of foreigners failing to master this
of boat, I was inclined that you had to be born to one, to do anything
than rotate in a stationary circle.
Do you know
how to do a boat." Asked Thavrin, a bit uneasy. No idea."
I answered. truthfully. How about you?" I know how
to swim." He said, not instilling confidence in me. A fourteen
year old boy, living on the lake, brought the canoe alongside our power
boat. I hated him for the ease with which he handled a boat. I
know more about the stock market than you." I told him, to even
out the playing field. Gingerly, I stepped into the canoe, careful to
keep my center of gravity low. Are you sure you are supposed to
be hugging the seat like that," asked Thavrin. Of course!
I am a professional."
But face down, how will you row."
Who made you captain, Gilligan?" I asked.
I said a quick prayer to my ancestors, all of whom had thrown up in
New York Harbor after the long crossing from Sicily. Then, carefully,
I pulled myself up to a precarious sitting position. Are you all
right." Asked Tharvin. I wasnt sure if he was more worried
about me or himself. This boat aint gonna row itself. Get
in." I commanded. I raised my voice, but it threw my balance off,
and I felt the canoe turning over. Quickly, using my tongue, I pushed
my chewing gum over to the other side of my mouth to balance out the
into the boat, but either forgot, or had never been taught, to crouch
down. He was standing as tall as the Statue of Liberty, and nearly capsized
us. He leapt back onto the bigger boat, like he had been electrocuted.
I should leave my camera and notebook here in the village." I said.
we should pay someone to go with us." Suggested Thavrin. This was
a much more practical suggestion, since without a notebook and camera
there would be no story.
In the end, we hired
the powerboat driver to sit in the prow and lead
With his help, we stayed more or less stable. Once again, I envied the
ability these people had with boats. Our driver, Rith, using only a
square piece of scrap lumber he had found, was able to steer the boat,
Thavrin and I struggled with the oars. The scrap wood was only slightly
larger than his hand, and yet he achieved more pull than we did.
Now, more mobile
Thavrin and I could visit people more effectively.
Houseboats on Tonle Sap
As we passed
by the village houseboats, children laughed, surprised to see
the two tourists paddling a boat. Rith was twenty-four years old,
but not yet married. He didnt own the powerboat, he simply
worked as a driver, and didnt have enough money to support
Many of the
houseboats were a drab, weathered gray color. But, the floating
shops were often colorful affairs, designed to attract buyers.
Women squatted on the backs of floating restaurants, washing the
dishes in the river.
Since much of provincial
Cambodia doesnt have electricity, people rely on rechargeable
batteries for lighting at night. In every village, there is always one
family with a generator, who makes a living by charging the batteries
for people. Here on the lake, the battery charger family lived in a
huge, colorful houseboat with a restaurant attached. Apparently charging
batteries was a good business. They seemed to be the richest family
on the lake.
We came upon a bright
blue houseboat, covered in what, at a glance, looked like Chinese Buddhist
illustrations. But, on closer inspection, it turned out to be a Catholic
Church. One of the observations my friend, Steven Crook, made in his
book about Taiwan, Keeping up with the War Gods, was that in
Asia, Catholic churches normally blended in, looking like Buddhist temples,
where as protestant churches, particularly ones from American missions,
tended to look like modular office units. Literature
we found inside the church said that it was part of a Jesuit Mission.
If I were ever a priest I would want to be a Jesuit. With fifteen years
of education and training, they are like Gods Green Berets.
The altar was very
low and had an incense pot, the same as in a
temple. There were no pews. Most likely, the prisoners sat on the floor
they would in a Buddhist ceremony, with their knees together, out to
side of their body. Instead of hanging on the wall, the crucifix stood
the altar. Made of clay, the styling could just as easily have come
of the temples at Angkor Wat. Once again, we saw the mix of old and
religions so common in Cambodia. At the same time, this demonstrated
Catholic missions goal of blending in. On a pegboard hung photos
Christmas party, which read Buon Noel in both French and Khmer. The
Christmas pageant had apparently consisted of children, in traditional
clothing, doing Apsara dancing, in front of the nativity, wearing Santa
The only aspect
of the church, which clashed with the bright blue
feel, was the paintings of the Stations of the Cross. There was nothing
Asian about them. In fact, they were typical to the Latin masses of
youth. Christ was depicted as handsome man, with strong features,
length hair, and a beard. Obviously he was designed to appeal to a post
Vatican two, younger generation who opposed American involvement in
The Buddhists and
Hindus are right in their belief that life is a
that life is a series of small circles, which all eventually lead back
place where they started. Like the analogies section of an intelligence
test, however, the connections were not always easy to spot. Many of
experiences in Indochina seemed to lead back to my countrys
the war here.
The church caretaker
came to great us. Speaking Khmer, I asked him several questions about
the church, most of which he couldnt answer. Often in Cambodia
I found that because of the color of my skin, people make the assumption
that I am speaking English. So, they tune me completely out, assuming
they wont understand what I am saying. If I continue to speak
Khmer to them, they just freeze like a deer in headlights, or point
at their ears and shake their heads, as if to say that they dont
understand. To shake them out of their trance, I will say something
shocking or insulting in Khmer. Usually I just ask them, Are you
Vietnamese?" They immediately snap out of it, and say Of
course I am not Vietnamese. I am Khmer." Most Khmers hate the Vietnamese.
Ok, then we can continue in Khmer language.?EAnd then seventy
percent of the time, after this exchange, we can communicate normally.
Occasionally, they go back to saying they dont understand me although
they obviously did since we had an exchange
Anyway I tried my
tactic on the caretaker. After the fifth or so time that he failed to
answer my questions I shouted at him. What are you, Vietnamese?"
Yes." He answered. I felt like the overbearing self-absorbed
idiot that I am. He went and got his son, a fourteen-year old boy, who
was born in Cambodia and could translate for us.
Through the boy,
we learned that there were about sixty parishioners,
all of whom were Vietnamese. I had read that the Catholic Church, like
script, and the French language, had made greater headway in Vietnam
Cambodia. And, here was proof. I had also read that many of the
had supported the Americans in the war and were thus forced to flee
Some of them settled in Cambodia.
Later, looking up
the percentages of various religions in Cambodia, I found that the majority
of Catholics in Cambodia were either foreigners, particularly French,
or Vietnamese. This
particular floating church was opened in 2000. According to the caretaker
most of the families had come here in 1985.
In Cambodia, the
Vietnamese are one of the poorest ethnic groups. And, here at the lake
it didnt look like anyone was getting rich. I wondered just how
bad things must have been in Vietnam to make people want to move to
Cambodia and live in abject poverty. Maybe
the caretaker was wondering the same thing about me.
A boatload of river
police told us that we had to turn back. According
them, it was illegal for foreigners to paddle a canoe in Cambodia. Just
spite them I planned to drink and drive when I got back to Phnom Penh,
there was no prohibition against that.
© Antonio Graceffo
Contact the author at: email@example.com
You can reach Long
Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at
All of Antonios
books are at amazon.com read some reviews here
Death on Three Wheels
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Vanessa Hyde review
Monk from Brooklyn by Antonio Graceffo
Lang Reid review
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