March 12, 2017
Somewhere on the Tonle Sap
This morning I filled out the survey form left in our rooms for us last night. In answer to the question on the form: “Is there anything you would change?” I wrote in: “Don’t make me leave the boat!!” Unless Thomas, Veasana & Maria can come with me to tend to my every whim for the rest of my life. Oh, wait, that’s what I have Debbie for! ….. Are you finished laughing yet? Nope, me neither.
Tipping on the boat is a very serious business. Along with the questionnaire, there were two separate envelopes left for us in our rooms last night, one clearly marked “Tip for the Crew” and another “Tip for the Tour Manager”.
Mr. Son is the Tour Manager. He is responsible for dealing with our complaints. God help him. In addition, he is there to provide a briefing to us about each upcoming excursion, meal, bowel movement, whatever.
Through Mr. Son (‘call me “Son”) we learn, for example, the exact nuances of how to introduce our tushies to the ox cart and then how to extricate them. How many minutes we will have to move our tushies from the Saigon Lounge onto the tender boats, and how unlikely it is we will be extricated from the river if we slip while getting into or out of the tender boats.
In short, there is very little if anything that happens on or off the boat for which Mr. Son is not ultimately responsible, aside from actually steering the boat. That, as you know, is my job.
This, then, warrants a separate envelope for a tip for Mr. Son, apparently. We are welcome to provide a tip to each and every crew person individually if we wish, impressing upon them earnestly how much we appreciate them. Or we can do so collectively by simply making one contribution for the entire crew….. and another just for Mr. Son. Whaaa?
The tip for the crew can be added onto your ‘on board’ account. To date, my on-board account consists of the $40US each it cost to bribe the immigration official at the border to give each of us a Cambodian visa. Now, it includes my collective tip to the crew. The tip to the crew can be paid in cash or by credit card. I was happy to pay the tip by credit card. That way I get points.
Mr. Son’s tip, however, must be paid in cash and placed in the separate envelope and handed directly to him.
All of this exacting information I have listed about tipping on the boat I know with certainty because it is written out on the FAQ Tip Sheet (“Tips on Tips”) that was also left in each of our rooms last night along with the questionnaire and the two envelopes. I have had discussions in a Chevruta setting about Mishnah that has not been parsed through nearly as finely as the rules relating to tipping on the boat.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Today’s sole (and our final) excursion was a visit to the floating village that lies just north of Kampong Chhnang, at the mouth and bottleneck where the Tonle Sap River meets the Tonle Sap Lake. Kampong Chhnang (“Clay Pot Village’) itself is known for the clay pots produced by the villagers. These folks are nothing if not literal about naming things.
This was one last chance to see if anyone would fall into the river while getting on or off the tender boat. No luck, but one guys iPhone fell in and one of the locals jumped in and, incredibly, retrieved it for him.
Thus, ensued the 20 minutes of gratuitous advice about how best to dry out the iPhone. Predictably, most of the advice revolved around the notion of dunking it into the nearest sack of rice and leaving it there for a few days.
We saw a much smaller version of a floating village in Halong Bay – a hundred floating homes there, maybe. Here, there were thousands, all tied up and neatly lined up so that there were actual ‘streets’ to sail up and down. Every possible need is addressed, from the mechanic to the fruit vendor to the restaurants to the bars to the … you name it; they got; and it floats.
There are 4 distinct ethnic districts in 2 separate floating villages. One each for Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, and Khmer people. The Vietnamese do not, generally, have legal residency in Cambodia but until now they have not really been bothered but last fall the Cambodian government started suggesting that they consider moving back to Vietnam and now, anecdotally, the whispers are that up to 5,000 who used to live on floating villages around Tonle Sap (the lake) have moved back to Vietnam.
This, in large part, is because of the environmental degradation of Tonle Sap itself. It is SE Asia’s largest freshwater lake but the toll from overfishing and irrigation are evident to all those who live in the area. As a result, last year the Global Nature Fund named it the world’s most threatened lake. Each year the catch for the fishermen is diminished, as are the size of the fish being caught. Each year, the level of the lake is lower. As such, the extent of the monsoon flooding that spreads out over the land and makes the 2,500 sq. km. lake grow nearly 5 times in size is not reaching as far as it used to in order to supply the needed water for rice cultivation in the surrounding areas.
The villagers we’ve met have shown us how far the water reaches on their stilt homes nowadays, as compared to the past. While the stilt homes are still very much needed and the flooding is very much real, everyone who lives here is keenly aware of the issues.
These concerns aren’t readily apparent to us, however and so it’s only thanks to our amazing guides here in Cambodia, like Pier, who are very much worried but also cautiously optimistic, that we are ‘in the know’. The cautious optimism comes from looking eastward, at the economic powerhouse that Vietnam has become, and westward, at the eco-tourism that is now becoming a more normal reality in Thailand.
Back on the homes that make up the floating village, it seems to me that aside from the unique aspect of living on pieces of floating wood and using the river for every need (and I mean every need) there is also the aspect of having tourists floating by a few times every day taking photos of you tending to the most menial of tasks. And, let’s face it, how many times a day can you really get up the energy in this heat to smile genially and wave back to the tourists who are wildly waving at you from their tender boat?
Watching everyday life on and around the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers drift by this past week has been quite fascinating. There are some differences between the Vietnamese and Cambodian styles but in the 465 km. that we’ve travelled, the one item that is identical is the smile and friendly welcome from everyone we’ve met.
The boat was tied up to a couple of trees on the banks of the Tonle Sap River near the village of Prek K’dam this afternoon – our final stop. Tomorrow morning, we leave the boat (I’m actually going to stow away so they may not find me). The usual array of villagers was on hand to greet us. At this point, I have my welcome speech to small children down pat:
Me: Hello, my name is Ha Wee. I live in Canada. I have two sisters, no brothers. No thank you, I don’t want to buy any of the [insert name of product being thrust at you here]. Don’t you have to be in school right now or anywhere else but here?
Small Children (whispered to one another): I think Happy Buddha may have had a little too much rice beer. Let’s see if we can sell something to his wife.
It’s our final night on the boat and we are invited to dress up for dinner, to be preceded by a champagne toast to us and by us including the Captain and crew. It’s also Erev Purim tonight – a chance to dress up in costume. I think I’ll wear the Buddhist monk robes that I picked up at the monastery yesterday for my Purim party costume. No, on second thought, maybe not, as then I might only get a clump of steamed rice to eat for dinner tonight.