Archive for November 21st, 2011

Feeling at Home in Cambodia

November 21, 2011

Imagine hearing this description of the politics in a country:

“The Government is corrupt and cheats in elections, people in the cities vote for the opposition, but when elections time comes around, the Government starts giving away stuff to the poor in rural areas and between that and cheating they win all elections”

While this may sound like Venezuela, this was told to me by my guide in Cambodia, a country where a liter of gasoline is “only” $1.50, but which I found to have many similarities to Venezuela despite the cultural, political and historical differences, which are clearly huge.

The feeling of familiarity began when entering the old hotel where I stayed in Siem Reap, it felt like a mixture of Hotel Avila with Tamanaco, lots of vegetation, 50’s style, big spaces.

But perhaps the biggest similarity was when visiting Lake Tonle Sap, a huge lake (in the rainy season) near Siem Reap. The Lake gets to be almost 135 kilometers at the peak of the rains. People there live off the lake, fishing and growing rice and other foodstuffs in the fertile lands left by the like whenever the rainy season ends.

But what was eerie was how much like the Llanos the whole region around the lake looks and feels. Were it not for the different customs, you would have thought these were morichales in flooded Venezuelan llanos:

I don’t think I ever saw a scene like the one below in the Venezuelan LLanos, but change the cart for cows or horses and I have seen very similar things in Venezuela in the height of the rainy season:

It is when you look at the details that things are different. The Cambodians have adapted to the flooding in a very dynamic way. Towns like this one:

are made up of floating palafitos, reminiscent of Maracaibo (another similarity). What is different is that these palafitos are movable, the whole town but the temple moving as the waters increase or decrease to be right “on” the edge of the lake. This ferrying of the whole town includes the floating public school, the floating dispensary and yes, the floating house of Cambodia’s PSUV, known as the Cambodian People’s party. These “moves” occur many times during the year, as the area of the lake increases dramatically. In the dry season, the lake is barely one meter deep, but when the rainy season begins, the Mekong river flows into the lake, quintupling its size and making it ten meters deep.

The difference there is that people live off the lake, thus they prefer to be on the lake. Look at these women “shopping” for fruit:

Only one of them is selling, the one in brown, the rest are “shoppers” rowing close to see what’s available today. The whole life of the town is like that, rowing boats, motor boats moving around for all needs and fishing and agriculture driving the economy.

And their PSUV equivalent seems to be more organized, it has merged the Mercal and party features all into one. And as you can see in the picture below:

It provides a full set of services, there is the Mercal inside, food tables and even beer outside. A full service and integrated service provider to the population. I never asked if the beer is subsidized too! Hope PSUV does not get any ideas from this.

And it is back to reality after this post!