The long wooden river boat was jammed. Me the Canuck, seven Brits, a Tasmanian, two Americans, our Cambodian guide and oh look, I note with a quick glance upward, just six life jackets. Let’s not even mention the “happy place” or toilet, just a bucket.
We head north on a narrow stream that dwindles to make river travel impassable in the dry season.
“Hello. Hello.” Naked, dark-brown children dart forward on the riverbank. Squat men wading waist deep, check their nets. A woman slaps wet clothes against a flat boulder on the shoreline as we glide past shack after bamboo shack on stilts.
We’re leaving Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, moving down the intestinal-like stream of the khaki brown Sangkae River that drains into the Tonlé Sap, the largest fresh water lake in S.E. sia.
We’re on our way to Siem Reap, home of the world’s oldest Hindu temples and the UNESCO World Heritage site: Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple are also on the day’s itinerary as is the dramatic Ta Prohm under seige, it seems, by the roots of Spung trees. Angeline Jolie filmed Tomb Raider there, and then my favourite, Banteay Srei, or ‘Citadel of Women’, pink sandstone structures glowing more vibrant in the late afternoon sun.
Later, we head north to Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian complex, 30 km past Kampong Thom; crumbling standstone monuments a mirror suggestion of their former glory, looted during civil war, and the destination of our overnight homestay to see how the locals really live.
At the halfway mark, pulling into a floating corner store to grab lunch, I bite down into a baguette I’d bought from a street vendor the day before. On the second bite, I look more closely at the black dots I mistook for poppy seeds. Why are they undulating? Ants. Pfhaff! Very busy ones. Amy, the Tasmanian yells at me like a mother. “Spit it out. Spit it out.” I react like an obedient child, scooping the chewed sludge from my mouth and after a minute, “Just ants,” I say. “Tiny ones.”
What’s a little ant in a country where, out of necessity, desperate, starving families ate tarantulas, crickets, June bugs and whatever they could get to survive during Pol Pot’s barbaric regime (1975-79). In contrast, throughout the trip, we’d dine on local favourites: Fish Amok, (a coconut curry), Morning glory and Lok Lak (stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions on lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes dipped in lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper). An expensive meal set me back $3-5 US.
Culinary extremists, if you must, drop by Skuon on Hwy 6. Vendors, seated beside the hole- in-the-wall lunch stop offer crispy black tarantulas spooning in foot-high piles that look eerily similar to the eggshell-coloured human skulls piled high at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial 17 kms from Phnom Penh.
We’d put Cambodia’s unhappy history behind us on day one starting at Tuol Sleng or S-21, the high school turned torture chambers. A War Crimes Tribunal has crept along, frought with delay, as the former Khmer Rouge leaders have escaped with death from old age with only two elderly alleged war criminals potentially able to experience justice. Or Not.
Standing in front of a large white wooden board in the courtyard, large black and white photos of the former leaders and in front of them, under shade, the oldest survivor, artist Bou Meng, signs books about his experience. Our guide looked around nervously while he explained the trial. “If you have any political questions, don’t ask them in public,” he warned on the bus before we arrived. “There’s an election coming up in the spring but we already know the outcome.”