Thursday, March 01, 2007
(From journal:) It's morning and the perfect temperature and I'm sitting on the end of our guesthouse's balcony, looking out over Boeung Kak Lake. Katie and Mary are both asleep (and look likely to remain that way for some time) and I am the only person here. I was woken by monkeys and tiny stray cats running across the corrugated metal roof of our guesthouse--Mary and Katie must both be dead to be able to sleep though it.
Our guesthouse is just one in a string of of many--this whole area is Phnom Penh's "backpacker central," and filled with cheap guesthouses, restaurants, mini travel agents, and billions of tuk-tuk and motorcycle drivers (I find it really weird that the people who come here are known as "backpackers" in travel guides and to each other, even though none of them are here to go hiking or camping. Instead, "backpacker" refers more to an identity and an aesthetic). The guesthouses are nearly all long, extremely narrow affairs, built on docks that jut out into the lake. They are pretty much interchangeable: decks and balconies bursting with plants, where guests walk around barefoot on smooth wood floors and lounge around in wicked comfortable, nest-y wicker furniture and hammocks. They all serve food--Western breakfast, Western and Cambodian lunch and dinner, delicious fruit smoothies, and drinks at night. The guesthouse to the left of ours has a large boat that guests can lounge, eat, and dance on, and beyond it, the string of guesthouses stretches unbroken down the length of the lake. To the right, a gold-domed mosque ringed by palm trees rises above a dock-building so full of plants that it looks ready to slide into the water. The lake in front of us is a strange, shifting labyrinth of floating, plant-covered islands that give us a new view every day. Cambodians in long, very shallow boats (the person directly in front of me is using a plate for a paddle) pick their way through the mazes. There is usually an adult and a small child in each boat, although some are manned by just an adult. I just watched something very bizarre--one kid, carrying a long pole, jumped out of his boat onto an island, thrust the pole deep into the plants of the island, tied a string to it, and squatted on the island, holding tight to the pole, while the man still in the boat started paddling madly away. I asked one of the guest house staff what they were doing. "Fishing," he answered with a grin, "All the people in boats are fishing." I pointed again at the boat with the string and the island following it slowly. "Oh," he said, "Harvesting." So apparently they are harvesting a plant island. None of the other boats in the lake seem to be doing anything like this...and strangely, now that they've dragged the island partway across the lake, the boy is taking the pole out and getting back in the boat. They've paddled away and definitely haven't harvested anything I could see. Maybe island moving is some sort of intermediate step towards island harvesting? In any case, I'm really excited to be here. I could not have picked more perfect traveling companions than Katie and Mary and I think the next few weeks are going to be amazing.