Culture shock

Trip Start Nov 18, 2009
Trip End Nov 27, 2009

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Flag of Cambodia  , KH.16,
Monday, November 23, 2009

That first morning, we visited the Tonle Sap, Asia's largest freshwater lake.  It (literally) supports a huge population of people who live on its waters and provides refuge for some of Asia's most globally significant biodiversity.  The area of the lake shrinks and expands drastically, and during raining season it can cover almost half the size of the country of Taiwan!  The depth of the lake ranges from one meter up to over ten meters!

Hundreds of thousands of people live on the Tonle Sap, either in rowboats or in huts built along its coast.  These huts are made primarily from thatch roofs, thatch walls, and thin wooden logs acting as the floor.  Many do not even have a door.  Hammocks hang in rows side by side and substitute beds.  The huts are built on stilts to keep it from the muddy bottom.  During raining season, the water may rise above the level of the stilt and otherwise flood these huts if they weren't made of wood: the hut transforms into a floating raft above the waterline when high tide season comes around.

The level of poverty on my first day there was indescribably... you had to be there.  The local tour guide explained that the families live off the fish they catch, and therefore have it better than the land-bound people who have to find food elsewhere.  The muddy water is their tub and toilet, and that they dip their cups into the water when thirsty.  If there was dirt floating, they'd simply brush it away.  The water isn't really dirty, Small Chen explained.  The only real pollution in the water comes from the motor oil leaking from the power boats.  The feces that we find disgusting actually act as fertilizer for the plants, producing the sweetest mangos and greenest trees.  These trees are under water half the time (the trunks are only exposed during dry season) and are extremely well fertilized. 

We took a ride on an old wooden power boat that provided a close up view of the quality of life on the Tonle Sap.  On my boat were two little deckhands that helped us clear the dock.  They looked to be no more than eight or ten at most, yet both wore hard expressions on their little faces and did their jobs quietly and efficiently.  When he (one that I was particularly fond of) smiled, he looked like the little boy he deserved to be, so I was truly blown away when we were told that they were in fact thirteen and fourteen.  Small Chen explained that these kids are generally malnourished, therefore appear smaller in size than what we are used to seeing.  These are well behaved boys who probably worked hard to help feed their families.  I can see now why Angelina Jolie had to steal one of them away with her.  I felt myself wanting to take them with me, knowing I could easily provide a much better life for them than they had there... but then this is where they belonged.  It's like taking a panther out of its habitat and bringing it home as a pet.  Would they truly be happier with me in New York City, amongst the hustle and bustle of taxi cabs and skyscrapers?

Probably, but probably not.
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