It never crossed our minds a week earlier, when we spontaneously decided to take advantage of yet another Malaysian bank holiday, that we’d land in Cambodia at the start of its biggest bank holiday. Malaysia gets so many bank holidays that we are always going away during religious festivals and it has never seemed to impact our trip at all. That is until this one.
We’d visited Siem Riep two years earlier and had enjoyed a blisteringly hot and action-packed few days visiting all the temples we could squeeze into the time available so had no real desire to go there again. One thing we really wanted to do though, was to take the 10-hour boat trip down the Siem Riep River to where the Tonle Sap River joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. Ian did his usual assiduous research and booked us a trip on the safest boat there was. We received an automated confirmation and immediately booked our flights into Siem Riep and out of Phnom Penh four days later.
Then our boat trip was cancelled. No explanation.
The Internet informed us that some of the boats also offering this trip were liable to sink, but Ian battled on and secured us an alternative, albeit rather basic trip with a man who appeared to be named Fat Sock. I was wary. Socks have a reputation for holes. We were going to stay at the utterly fabulous Shinta Mani Club hotel again. It really had been too gorgeous last time for us to stay anywhere else. I still remembered the wonderful seven course dinners seated on double-bed swing-seats over the lotus-strewn water. And the buy-one-get-one-free happy hours. We asked the hotel to try and source us a boat too. If anyone could manage it, they could.
Within minutes of landing in Arrivals we were reminded of the constant easy smiles of the Cambodian people, the visa-on-arrival chaps who mess about, the immigration officials who make you feel welcome. We were glad to be back in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
As we freshened our hands on the jasmine-scented cold towels we were greeted with at the hotel and sat down to enjoy our welcome drinks of pink champagne, we remained confident.
“I’m sorry, Jo, Ian,” said the receptionist with a jaw-breaking smile. “I could not find a boat. Big Buddhist holiday until Monday.” We were heading back to KL on Monday. Whoops! Still, there was always Fat Sock. We asked Smiley to call Fat Sock and check he wasn’t likely to let us sink. Our options had reduced to one.
An hour later as we drank our surprise cocktails Smiley returned. “Sorry, Jo, Ian. No boat.”
So there we were in Siem Riep, where we had been before, with no way of going on the river after all. A taxi would cost $100 but a local bus would cost $15. Realising our saving would more than cover a swing-seat dinner we opted for the bus.
Our bus left at the crack of dawn (to me anyway) and was packed with tourists like us. The GiantIbis was comfortable and cool and provided plenty of bathroom stops. The best thing was that they showed films the whole way that, though not silent exactly, could be followed without being able to hear a word. The 1972 French comedy Les Charlots Les Fous du Stade was delicious in childish French slapstick .The whole bus erupted in guffaws. This was much better than a taxi.
We were determined to get on the river and thanks to onboard wifi booked a sunset cruise with a company called Cambo Cruise. Five hours later we arrived in the capital ahead of time. Roads were quiet because of the holiday. At least there was an upside. By five pm we were on a boat. With the cool breeze in our hair and another welcome drink in our hands we were entertained by Khmer music as we sailed past illuminated pagodas and temples out to towards the sunset. We clinked glasses. Local holiday or not, we’d made it.
The next day we decided to get up early and see the Royal Palace, the museum and Silver Pagoda and headed off along the waterfront. Stopping outside the palace we thought it looked rather quiet. A smiling Cambodian wearing a gorgeous silk scarf that was brown like liver, approached us.
“Everything closed,” he said. “Big holiday. All the peoples gone to the country to see their family. Only open two o’ clock.” That was five hours away. “I take you round city, show you beautiful buildings?” he asked, gesturing to his covered tuk-tuk.
It looked like this was our only option, besides we rather fancied spending time in the shade. In the end our driver, who wanted us to call him John, though his name was Chanthy, proved to be an excellent guide with a good command of English. He led us the finest and most unexpected of sites and not down back-alleys to visit his cousin who had a carpet shop as some are wont to do.
We visited an ice-making factory, saw little-known temples, visited the splendid pagoda at Wat Phnom and ultimately agreed to stay with him until the palace opened again. It is really not like us to be so spontaneous, but on this trip, with nothing going according to plan it seemed rather exciting. Who knew what would unfold?
In the end, what unfolded was a captivating day. John took us not to tourist boats and ferries but on the local car ferry. Not roll-on-roll off, he had to reverse his tuk-tuk on board up a ramp after bumping down a steep pot-holed track. After ten minutes on the river we were on land. Crossing a bridge, John noticed something we had to see.
Three white cows were being bathed in the river. Their two handlers scrubbed broad handfuls of dried grass over their skin as they wallowed. Soon after, we bumped down a track between padi fields and banana plantations to the Silk Farm Community Project. Here, widowed, single or separated women work long hours for little pay to weave silk from the silkworms that feed there on mulberry bushes.
The looms were quiet today because of the holiday, of course, but our tour was no less fascinating. I looked for a scarf like John’s in the shop but they had none of this style today.
The farm is not contrived in any way. It is a real project doing real good for the community. Alongside the farm, by the river they have fenced off a rectangle of river to make a safe swimming pool for locals and made houses, swings and picnic places for relaxation. We decided to try some chopped wood apple, dipped in a mixture of chilli, sugar and salt. After all, that’s what the locals were eating. It was remarkably tasty, and, indeed, hard as wood.
Being a holiday, it was packed with people having fun with their families. We could see why Cambodians love to return to their families in the country for their holidays leaving the cities deserted.
As we bumped back down the track, John stopped the truck beside a large tree where a group of young girls clustered. He called out to them. The large black bin bags that had balanced on the back of their motorscooters suddenly appeared in the tuk-tuk and they rifled through them enthusiastically. John explained I wanted a brown scarf like his.
“I have!” exclaimed the smiliest, jolliest of the bunch. She pulled out a scarf just like John’s – only it was pale pink. Not my colour I’m afraid. Her face fell.
“Look!” called another girl, pulling out scarf after scarf, none were brown and none were the raw silk of John’s I had so admired, speckled with embroidered flowers. Eventually some like his did emerge in red, in black, in white. I never wear black or white but after all their effort and good humour I’d have to buy something. Maybe the red one?
The jolly one, the one with the pink scarf, kept waving it at me and smiling coyly. “Please buy?” she weedled. “My last one. Please?”
I shook my head.
“Surely you can buy a pink scarf for someone?” Ian tried. The girls were so beguiling, they had an infectious, childlike appeal that was hard to resist. Maybe it was because their brand of hustle was done with such good humour? Ms Jolly turned her back and rustled in her bag.
Ms Jolly was turning round again towards us. Bursting out laughing she thrust something else at us. “Here!” she said as if this, at last was a brown raw silk scarf. It was a pale blue string hammock.
I decided to buy three scarves in the end, though they were not brown, from the other girls. They’d make lovely presents.
I also bought the pink scarf.
“I have brown one at my house,” said Ms Jolly as John restarted his engine and Ian put his wallet back in his bag. “Two minutes!” And before we knew it she’d joined us in the tuk-tuk. It appeared we were giving her a lift home. Ian and I were getting good at this spontaneity lark and gladly let ourselves be led to a dusty, enclosure, where three palm-roofed stilted houses stood by the river. Here, our saleswoman it appeared, looked after her four children and lived with other members of her family and a collection of dogs.
There was no brown scarf of course, but I did buy a nice green one and another completely different one from her younger sister, who stuck out her bottom lip and pleaded that we buy just one from her too.
After giving our scarfseller another lift, this time back to the ferry, we said goodbye. The experience had been uplifting in the extreme. We were converted. Spontaneous trips were much more fun than pre-booked organised ones. We’d so enjoyed our time with John that we booked him for our airport run the next day, which he did punctually and with good grace despite driving rain. We had also asked him if he could help us get some Vietnamese mint so I could make more spring rolls once back in KL. The next day, on the way to the airport, he pulled in off the road and a pretty girl was waiting with a choice of three mints wrapped in a banana leaf for us. No charge.
If you’d like to book Chanthy aka John too, his email is chanthy.phnompenh @ gmail.com
On our last trip we had just seen Sue Perkins’ BBC Documentary about her journey on the Mekong. She had quoted Joseph Mussomeli, the former US Ambassador to Cambodia’s words: ‘You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart,’ those words rang in our ears throughout the trip. I expected much the same to happen this time.
The next day we joined The Killing Fields and S-21 tour we had pre-booked via the Internet, wishing we’d been able to do it with John instead.
Despite the rising heat I was chilled the moment I set foot in the former high school that became a torture camp for intellectuals during the war and where thousands were murdered once they had been forced to write false confessions. Only a handful survived.
On April 17 1975, when I was 14 years old, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and within 24-hours a million people had been forced into the country. This time their trips to the country were not happy occasions. Instead of swing-seats they endured either the swing of the spades they were forced to wield in the labour camps or the swing of the blows of the Brothers of Angkor, the Organisation, that would shove them barely alive but starving into a mass grave. During the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Cambodian Genocide, Cambodia lost a quarter of its population to genocide.