Leapt onto a vespa again yesterday … am now on first name terms with the owner of the company as I’m such a good customer. We went out to explore the Cambodian countryside and I had a fantastic day, marred only by a slight social faux pas at lunchtime.
The day started with a visit to a family who collect sugar palm juice and make palm sugar. One of the sons shinned up a tree and came down carrying a container full of palm juice.
The family either sell the fresh juice, which is sweet and slightly smoky because they smoke the wooden containers to keep the ants out, or they boil it down and make palm sugar. It takes 20 litres of juice to make 3 kg of sugar, and the sugar sells at the local market for $1.25 a kg.
This family makes $7 a week from their sugar, and as there are 7 of them, this means that they are well below the povery threshold of $2 per person per day. Their surroundings give an indication of their hand to mouth existence.
This woman makes her own baskets. She goes into the forest to collect the rattan; she cleans it and strips it and then weaves baskets, which she sells for $1. Apart from a distressing lack of teeth, she’s in a much better position than the sugar farmers.Her house is solidly built, and her husband wanders around smiling affably and showing off his well-turned ankles.
We went to a temple which also has a school – and there are more monks than you can shake a stick at.
These monks are learning a poem about the virtues of doing things thoroughly.
I just wish my afternoon class would be a quarter as attentive as this class.
I’ve decided that next time, I’m coming back as a monk.
We went inside the pagoda and there was a large crowd of local people receiving instruction from a monk.
But before their lesson, they had prepared lunch for the whole monastery.
When the bell rang the monks just wandered in and sat down to eat.
This is the chief monk, who kindly allowed me to photograph him.
I was impressed to see that he has not one, but two, mobile phones. My tour guide was very disapproving. ‘Things you can see on Facebook and Google aren’t suitable for monks,” he said.
The guide then took me to get my fortune told by a renowned local fortune teller, who told me that he had learned his art from his father. He tells people’s fortunes and also sells atomisers full of special fragrance guaranteed to bring customers to your shop or bring your wayward husband back home.
I had to tell him the day and the date I was born and he stared at me and then made a series of signs on a whiteboard (a concession to modernity, I think) and told me some very accurate things about my past, which startled me, and predicted great success with a new venture from August to December this year … watch this space and I’ll report back on 1 January 2017, possibly from my yacht in the Bahamas.
We had lunch in a barbecue shack in a tiny village, prepared by a local cook, and started off with fried chicken which we ate with our fingers. The cook then came out and poured some water into a bowl and put it on the table. Oh good, a fingerbowl, I thought and promptly washed my fingers in it. The cook looked rather surprised and went off to get another bowl for some more water. It turned out that it wasn’t a finger bowl after all, but an ingredient for the fresh spring rolls which we were having next. This is not quite as embarrassing as drinking out of the finger bowl, but it still marks you out as socially inept and unlikely to be invited to dinner by the upper echelons of Siem Reap.
My guide showed me how to roll a fresh spring roll, using the sticky rice paper wrap, soaked in the ‘finger bowl’and when he’d finished it looked neat and appetizing.
But the gods of table etiquette had it in for me by now, and I blame them entirely for sabotaging my attempt.
As we walked up the road after lunch, we were overtaken by an ox cart.
There were two oxen pulling it, and two bringing up the rear, and as it drew level with us, we could see that it was being driven by a very elderly man.
It seems incredible that these are still in use in the twenty-first century, but farming in Cambodia is not mechanised at all; everything is done by hand and without chemicals – not because they think that chemicals are bad, but because they can’t afford them.