Last weekend in Swae Sisophon was a chance to take it easy. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and I wanted a relaxing break. I have VSO volunteer friends in the town and so I was able to borrow a bike. I did bring my own bike here one time. It takes 25 mins of pedalling furiously when there’s a thunder-storm approaching and it gets very hot and sweaty so I came this time on the back of a moto. Firstly I visited the bank and the staff showed me an email from Hilary who has been seeking the means to transfer money. I was impressed even though the email had been forwarded from Battambang Branch 100km south of here. The problem is that the bank apparently has no sort code. It functions much the same as a building society at home with a passbook and monthly interest. I’ve had 34 cents added and 1 cent of tax deducted in 2 months, a better rate than I would have got back home I reckon. Anyway, I know that if there’s any way to transfer money here my wife will find it and if she can do it for next to nothing, she will be beaming! That’s what she does well.
The great plan for the day was a crocodile expedition. Two of us set off on bicycles perhaps a little later than intended since it was already quite hot and few clouds in the sky. I’d heard of the crocodile farm from Daniel in Mongkul Borei who had given directions over the phone but it wasn’t as simple as we first thought. Nevertheless after one abortive venture which took us a kilometre down a red road in the wrong direction, we retraced our steps, or perhaps I should say we back-peddled since we were cycling, and we found it on the second attempt.
The compound is well clear of any other dwellings, surrounded by a 2 metre high concrete wall along three sides and on the fourth, a lower wall topped by a fence and coils of razor wire – I think to keep the natives out rather than the crocodiles in. And no wonder when we discovered that a full-grown beast would fetch $500!
We called and shouted until the watchman came – he unlocked the gate and let us in with our bikes as if it were an everyday occurrence for barangs to demand a private viewing. In the baking heat we climbed a steel ladder banging our heads in good health and safety fashion on the rail at the top. The crocs were in separate pools with concrete surrounds for sun bathing, the water green and completely opaque, the creatures submerged but for their heads, each about 8 feet long judging by the few which lay basking in the sun or climbed out to demonstrate their agility and fearful jaws. Why they lay with their mouths wide open as soon as they emerged from the water I could not tell, perhaps they were cooling off though one would imagine that were easier in the water than out of it since the concrete must have been incredibly hot. Maybe they were warming up but how an open mouth helps that process I’ve no idea. Perhaps they hoped we’d fall from the wall or be curious to look closer in their throats and so be snapped up unsuspecting like. We were not about to drop in and test that theory. They seemed to be smiling at us but we knew better than to smile back at them!
Small dry pens between the pools, accessed through portals controlled by drop down steel doors, were the egg laying areas and several broken eggs lay scattered there. I thought they laid leathery eggs like turtles but apparently not. These harden in the air like hens eggs do and the shells are broken as the crocs lie on them. These particular beasts are 10 years old but as they grow older they will lay larger eggs and the workers will retrieve and hatch them for the next generation of shoes and handbags. Whole skins are on sale in Siem Reap and must be worth a small fortune if the price of a large croc is anything to go by.
The baking heat cut short our visit but not before my VSO friend Vicky had gleaned a lot of info on crocodile farming from our guide. I envy the language skills of those who applied themselves to the 6 week training. I would have enjoyed that process but now I’ve finished my lessons with Tarak and can’t afford to spend more time when my focus should be elsewhere. Besides I can get by shopping and have French for the older generation and I have a language assistant.
We dined at Coloured Chairs, the favourite place in centre town where sweet and sour always wins the day. A little cloud and overcast tempted us to cycle on after lunch hopeful that we would not be burned too much before the day’s end. I wanted to explore telecom hill I saw from Hotel Botoum though I feared the view would be obscured by trees as we found in Kratie. Grey threatening clouds were gathering by now and a few thunderclaps made us wonder if the hilltop was the best place to be but we ventured on thinking we may not have another chance. The road to Poipet passes the hill skirting its southern flanks before heading off past the university, over the river and into the west. We left the Poipet road at the first opportunity and began to climb gradually with the hill on our right. The first path that led toward the hill took us through a Chinese cemetery, all the graves facing west toward the setting sun. As we climbed we passed a woman minding a herd of grazing cows and holding a catapult with which she seemed to be hunting birds as she was looking to the trees and had a game bag slung over her shoulder. The path opened onto a large level area where a group of children greeted us with loud hellos from a safe distance. A dirt road climbed from here toward the summit though a concrete staircase seemed to offer walkers an easier route up the hill.
We left our bikes and climbed the steps, reassured by the gestures of a villager from her house that it was OK to do so. I hadn’t expected people living here but there were several small houses and a group of monks caring for a small shrine with tin-sheet roof where a huge barrel-shaped drum with Kmai inscriptions lay supported in a trestle frame. We could not persuade the monks to sound it – maybe it has religious significance or is used to call the monks to prayer – we had to content ourselves with a gentle tap on the skin at either end and use our imagination for the rest. The monks seemed more interested in the changing weather as the first rain drops started and the gathering storm promised a good rainfall to fill their water pots. Blue plastic pipes were hastily connected leading from the gutter on the tin roof across the pathway to a group of concrete containers each 8 feet high and perhaps a yard diameter.
We left them there and retraced our steps until the hilltop road broke away to our left and led us in the right direction. The children called again and followed part of the way but they seemed shy and soon fell back. We found to our surprise the view was clear over the town. A group of engineers were installing new equipment and the enclosed towers were open for us to see. We climbed on the concrete base and saw for miles and miles into the distant haze beyond Mongkul Borei 10km away though at this distance could make out nothing but the Tax, Finance and Health Department buildings some way down the road. The green fields around the town, the river and irrigation channels stretched away to the horizon with ribbons of trees along the road and river. The grey clouds and belts of rain were all around but here we had been spared although the monks were disappointed not getting fresh supplies to their hilltop home, though the rainy season has begun and they will not wait long. An old watchtower, vestige of colonial times, stands on a small promontory at the end of the hill and from there our view was best. This too has become a shrine with smiling Buddha and white-faced attendants gazing out at the view that we enjoyed but they couldn’t see.
Our descent was pleasant in the cooler air, butterflies of different hues fluttered around, orange with black and white borders; purple; black and blue; black ones with red and white flashy tails and a lovely black and yellow monster which cruised back and forth round the flame tree with its brilliant red flowers and long brown seed pods. The children found us at the bicycles and we had our meeting, Namaste gestures and names offered one by one as we introduced ourselves to them likewise. It’s such a shame that we cannot interact so freely with the kids, they love to try their little English and find it fun to talk to barangs and giggle shyly at our ventures in Kmai. It would be better if they were not so friendly. Perhaps they shouldn’t smile at strangers because you never know if one of them will turn out to be a crocodile. The problem is that there are people who take advantage of their innocence and steal them away into prostitution and child slavery. It’s better the barriers of caution and shyness stay and we should not be breaking down what still protects them.
We wave goodbye and ride away, taking with us no photos of the children, only memories; carrying on clockwise on the pathway now leading downward back to town. The rain is falling but not so much and we are refreshed but not much wetted. Completing our journey with a shopping trip – some biros, phone card and a piece of cake – we end the day drinking tea in Mary’s place, a refreshing luxury I haven’t had since I can’t think when!