The tuk tuk is a most enjoyable way to get around in Siem Reap. When I first came to this town and sat alone at the roadside eating my banana lunch, tuk tuk driver Vin sat down beside me, we started chatting and soon became friends. Of course every tuk tuk and moto driver would like to befriend as many tourists as possible because they represent regular business and hopefully will make recommendations to others. Unfortunately many go about it in the wrong way and want to make as much as they can on the individual transaction depending on a constant stream of vulnerable and unwitting visitors, caring less about their reputation than the fast buck. On the other hand, whenever I visit Siem Reap I call Vin and know he will deal fairly with me. In fact he is embarrassed to quote me a fare these days and I have to extract the information in general terms – ‘What is the usual cost of a trip to the lake?’
And it’s to the Tonlé Sap Lake that we go today, my last chance before I return home.
I sit in the back and relax, surrounded by a chorus of high-pitched squeaking resembling a family of fledglings calling in the nest until the parent bird comes with food for them. It reminds me of the VW advert where the search for the sound finally locates a squeaky ear-ring except that in this case the noises do emanate from the vehicle, from the tubular framework supporting the roof of the cabin. Combined with the ‘tuk tuk’ sound of the moto out in front and the clunks of the articulation between the two every time we negotiate a corner, out of town the sounds are rather soothing.
In the town we are surrounded by other traffic noise, especially the horns, the squeaking of the cart of the refuse collector and recycler, the bell of the ice cream man and by the ubiquitous wedding and funeral music. In more rural areas the ride is more peaceful. Somehow the children don’t shout ‘hello!’ and ‘barang!’ as they do when I ride my bicycle, and the dogs are less likely to bark. The breeze created by forward motion, the shade of the awning, the chance to remove flip-flops and rest the legs on the front seat is most pleasant and makes the tuk tuk experience so repeatable. The passing scenes, constantly changing, are a source of fascination and wonder.
The lake is 15km from Siem Reap town and we are there in no time. At the river basin, row upon row of tourist boats drawn up against the wooden pier waits to ferry clients out to Tonlé Sap Lake and the floating village. This is the opposite end of the Tonlé Sap from the first toe-dipping experience of Phnom Penh, just short of its confluence with the mighty Mekong, almost three months ago. And here the experience turns a little sour as I leave the relative safety of my friend Vin and enter the custody of the boat driver. The transition from volunteer to tourist is instantaneous for the tour guide but only dawns slowly on me. We travel down river past the shore-based market visited in the early morning by small boats from the floating village on the lake which houses Vietnamese, Cambodian and Muslim Cham peoples. Along the water line, washed and sometimes buffeted by the bow wave and wash of the passing outboards are small groups of women and children scavenging for metal and plastic waste, anything than can be recycled and fetch a price no matter how small. Fishermen standing in the shallow waters cast their weighted nets deeper, retrieving small numbers of small fish; perhaps this is not the best time of day or best season but hunger demands that fish be sought and hopefully caught.
As the river gives onto the lake the horizon suddenly recedes into the centre distance, the land to right and left tapering into nothing where the thin surface of the lake meets the bottom of the sky. And between us and that distant point lie numerous vessels and house boats of every shape and size imaginable, between which weave large and small vessels ferrying goods and tourists, fishermen and families, beggars and priest. The Catholic church, blue painted with its prominent cross, floats serenely amid the jumble and bustle which belies the fact that this is Sunday morning. My guide points out the floating school and suggests is terms unmistakably frank that buying books and pencils would be a great benefit to the poor pupils who cannot afford to buy for themselves. The captive tourist penny drops and I make a rapid mental assessment. There are hundreds of tourist boats out here and it’s only 10am; the long day stretches ahead and the purchase of books and pencils is repeated over and over, day after day, and this is the low season. How many books can they need? How many can they use? By now I am aboard the floating supermarket and the shopkeeper is applying the same pressure to buy and my inclination is to resist and to refuse to buy. I want the freedom to choose to donate. I have carefully investigated how best to spend the money entrusted to me that has not been used for poor patients in the hospital and I don’t want to be coerced into spending where I can’t justify doing so, whether my own money or not. So far the money is allocated to Kantha Bopha children’s hospital which will directly benefit these very school children if they get sick, to an antenatal clinic for poor people in Phnom Penh, and to a rescue centre for young girls saved from trafficking and sexual slavery in some of the countless brothels in this country – a charity I will be visiting tomorrow. I have become shamefully intransigent and they recognise my resolve and so we get back in the boat and drive to the school to look around.
There are lots of children aboard but there are no lessons in progress. Of course it’s Sunday but the endless stream of visitors donating books must be a huge disruption on weekdays, when do they teach and when do the children get time to use the materials? I have become quite cynical by now and I hate myself. There’s a donation box in the school and I decide to put some money in but the boatman insists strongly it is better to put the money in the hands of the teacher. ‘Oh, really?’ I say, putting it in the letterbox provided. ‘I think I’ll do it this way.’
At the next stop the crocodile and fish farms are mere attractions in a floating souvenir shop surrounded by children in boats with whining voices and hang-dog eyes. A poor man sports a demeaning sign hanging around his neck ‘I’m blind, please help me!’ The one bright spot is a solitary child expertly sculling an aluminium washing tub with large splits in the sides from which he first bales out the water which threatens to swamp his flimsy unstable craft and then produces a snake which prompts the visitors to exclaim and take photographs and make donations – at least he made some effort to entertain.
I was glad to be away. I babbled some incoherent nonsense to other visitors about giving to good causes and the exploitation of poverty. I gave my guide a dollar towards his schooling, not believing for a moment that’s where the money goes and asked my driver to make our getaway, heading back into town. We carried on through until we reached the haven of the countryside around Angkor Wat. There we sat by a reservoir constructed by the empire builders hundreds of years ago and I recounted my impressions of the visit to the lake. Vin was not surprised. He knows their reputation. The poor lake dwellers are the victims of the system. Their floating village, once just a home and place to fish, survive and to make a humble living, has become the substrate of the tourist industry which profits greatly from it but fails to invest the profit for the benefit of the poor community on which it feeds. It’s another case of exploitation, of the rich and powerful riding on the back of the poor and weak. And I felt tainted and complicit in it, and demeaned and self-justified in refusing to donate. It was not a pleasant way to spend the morning. If it were not for my friendship with Vin I think I would be left feeling rather sad.
But what should I expect? At most I am here today and gone tomorrow, a passing shadow in their lives, if I feature at all. I do hope tomorrow is more meaningful. I came to Siem Reap this weekend because of an invitation to visit a rescue centre for women and girls who have been trafficked and trapped in sexual slavery. Will I feel like a tourist there too? Will I be just another person passing through or will the visit have more significance? I really hope so.