Siem Reap and Tonle Sap, 2010

Motorcycles rule the roads in Siem Reap. They were all over, jostling for position: the ones with single riders; others carrying one, two, or three passengers on the pillion; the tuk-tuks for tourists; and motorcycles moving goods.

I passed one with a four-foot wide cylindrical cage made of cane strapped across its back. In the cage were seven piglets.

Jo, Andrew and AboutAsia

I was on my way to the offices of AboutAsia Travel, to meet my slightly mad friend Jo. Her partner, Andrew, runs the luxury travel operation, with the profits going into AboutAsia Schools, a non-profit organisation that supports existing schools in Cambodia by providing them with volunteer teachers, classroom supplies, school uniforms and equipment.

There is an intensity about Andrew - whether in front of the computer or while fixing the fish tank - that some may find intimidating; Jo, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite, full of irreverent remarks, and quotes on social enterprise or development assistance. They make a great pair, and I'm saying this not because they let me use their spare room: Andrew makes things happen while Jo keeps them interesting.

Sugar and salt

I spent the first day getting over jet-lag. The next morning, Jo took me to Psar Chas - the Old Market - for breakfast. We used to have markets like this in Singapore, but I remember them as being more orderly. Here, you can have a ladies' hair-and-nails shop next to a stall selling raw meat. I found that slightly disturbing.

We had the kway tiew, which is actually rice vermicelli and not the flat and broad rice sticks we know in Singapore as kway tiow. It was good, although according to Jo, that's because "they add a lot of sugar, and then they add a lot of salt."

Tuk-tuks and motos

Back in the office, I had a chat with Kelly, who was helping to plan my days in Siem Reap. Unusually for me, I had done the minimum of research for this trip, hoping to rely on the resources and local knowledge available to Jo and her colleagues.

I decided not to get on a tuk-tuk but walk the half-hour into town, so as to take in the views along the river. The boats would be out, Kelly had said, referring to the dragon boats that would be racing on Saturday, during the Water Festival.

At various points during my stroll, calls of "Tuk-tuk?" and "Moto?" greeted me. "Walking," I yelled back, and if they were beeping at me from too far away, I let my fingers do the talking.

Amok and fish

At a food stall in the town centre, I had Amok, a fish curry and one of Cambodia's national dishes. It cost about US$1 more than other dishes but you are really just paying for the bowl: it was served in a coconut.

After lunch I spent my time observing dragonflies by the river bank. Young boys were wading in the water, trying to catch fish with their hands. A man who was hanging about told me that there was plenty of fish in the river.

I hadn't seen any boats so I asked him about the Water Festival. He said it was always too crowded and he didn't like it. Then he asked, "You need tuk-tuk?"

I said I was going to walk back. As soon as I managed to get away, it started to rain.

Where are you from?

It was now late in the afternoon, and the previously empty benches along the river had filled up with teenagers. There was a lot of interest among the boys in discovering my nationality.

Boy A: Where are you from?
Me: Singapore
Boy A: You walking?
Me: Yes.
Boy A: In the rain? Ah, you have a good coat.

I came to the next bench.

Boy B: Where are you from?

Suddenly a dragon boat tore down the river. I watched it fly, too slow to get my camera out of my bag. It was still raining.

As I turned on to the main road away from the river, more tuk-tuk drivers called out to me. They didn't seem as keen as the ones in the morning. I guess nobody really wanted to work in that rain.

Tonle Sap lake cruise

The lake cruise was the final programme of my trip, and by this time I had already explored the temples of Angkor and observed life in the outskirts of Siem Reap with Kimleng, an enterprising tuk-tuk driver and photography enthusiast.

Avoiding the tourist-infested village of Chong Kneas, I would visit Kampong Kleang, another village on the lake Tonle Sap, with a different guide. He was decent and knowledgeable, but I must admit that I didn't pay enough attention to what he said. It was too beautiful, too peaceful out there on the lake, which is easily twice the size of Singapore when full.

As our boat moved through the village, I snapped pictures of the houses on stilts, of market traders, and groups of schoolchildren rowing to or from school, three to eight of them to a boat.

The guide had told me a lot of things about the village, but strangely, I am only able to remember the last bit of information he volunteered: When someone calls you a lobster, it means you're stupid. (They crawl willingly into traps.)

With this, he asked the young boat driver to take us back to the pier. We had already been out on the lake for several hours, yet it felt too short, perhaps because I had had such a splendid time.

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