To add to my already impressive panoply of skills, I have now learnt how to weave a mat from dried water hyacinth. I hope you’re impressed. If you’d ever seen the needlecase I made for my mother at school, you’d be astonished.
We went to Tonle Sap, which is the largest lake in south-east Asia. Just to give you an idea of the size, at the end of the dry season, in late April, it is 2,500 square km, increasing to 16,000 square km by the end of the rainy season in October.
We visited one of the floating villages, which has a population of 8,000 all bobbing about on the lake, to see what life is like for these lake dwellers.
For a start, they have to move house between 5 and 10 times a year as the water levels change, and when the water’s very high, they have to tie the house to a strong tree because it’s also very windy. Moving house doesn’t involve emptying the loft and hiring Pickfords though, because you simply move the whole house by towing it around the lake until you find a location that you fancy.
I don’t know if you can see the ropes attached to this house, but it is being pulled along by a couple of boats.
Just like in any village, there are shops
and the occasional floating garden
but these are apparently very costly to install, so not many people can afford the luxury of home-grown vegetables.
Hanging out the washing could be a problem
– you’d have to be careful that you didn’t drop it.
Our driver for the trip to the floating village looked so young that I asked how old he was.
He’s sixteen, and earns $40 a month as a boat driver. He decided not to go on to high school because he didn’t want to leave home and have to go to Siem Reap to study, so he took a job that puts him well below the poverty line of $2 per day.
We transferred onto paddle boats to visit the village – you can spot the tourists because they’re the only ones wearing life jackets.
We met a chap who breeds fish and sells them to a wholesaler when they’re big enough for $1.75 a kilo. He’s feeding them on a mixture of rice and tiny fish that he catches himself in the lake.
Not everyone in the village is poor, however. We met a woman who breeds crocodiles and clambered around on top of the cages to have a good look at them.
Here’s my foot, just to prove that I was only inches away from a hundred large crocodiles in a cage that only had a few holes in the wire, where sharp teeth had obviously snapped at it a little too vigorously.
Not all the crocs were huge though –
I thought these were rather cute.
The owner has 300 crocs and can sell each fully grown one for $1,000, so she’s a very wealthy woman by Cambodian standards.
Then on to the water hyacinth weaving studio. Water hyacinth is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and can grow 1cm a day. It’s extremely invasive and is clogging up the lake.
The boat is ploughing a channel through the plants as we make our way across the lake.
Luckily, someone discovered that when it’s dried it’s extremely strong yet pliable, and excellent for weaving. So a group of women run a weaving studio, making baskets to sell and teaching hopeless tourists like me how to weave.
Here is the water hyacinth drying out before it can be used.
My tutor showed me how to weave under and over the framework, and how to tie in new strands without a visible join.
She was very patient and undid my mistakes without rolling her eyes or giving me pitying looks.
I could only do it right if I chanted ‘over, under, over, under’ constantly, which must have been very irritating for everyone else – but finally it was finished –
and I had my very own hand-made souvenir to take home.
We passed a lot of families out for a spin as we travelled back
and some fishermen
and I learnt a few of the rules for driving on the lake, such as
if something bigger than you wants to get past in a narrow channel, pull into the side and cling on to a plant while it passes you.