Charmed by sil­ver ser­vice

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT -

mal dung as a five-year-old and los­ing 36 rel­a­tives dur­ing the late 1970s. Adding to our ed­u­ca­tion, in Ph­nom Penh we visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Geno­cide Mu­seum, on the site of the old S21 se­cu­rity prison, where the fate of two mil­lion peo­ple mur­dered dur­ing the Pol Pot regime is graph­i­cally rep­re­sented.

As we head into Viet­nam and the Mekong delta, the river­bank pop­u­la­tion swells. We visit a Mus­lim com­mu­nity known for its weavers and fish farm­ers, who bring new mean­ing to the phrase “liv­ing above the shop”; they breed 100,000 fish in the river below their stilt houses.

Read­ing Mar­guerite Duras’s novel The Lover has been part of my prepa­ra­tion for this trip. It is a story about a love af­fair be­tween a teenage French girl and a Chi­nese man and was made into a film in 1992. We visit a mag­nif­i­cent colo­nial house in Sadec where one of the scenes was shot. The movie was deemed too shock­ing for re­lease in Viet­nam; our guide says he fi­nally saw it on­line in 2007.

Twenty-four hours in Saigon con­cludes our tour. I am in tears one minute at the War Rem­nants Mu­seum, then in ner­vous laugh­ter the next, as I cling to a group of lo­cal women who cross the world’s busiest in­ter­sec­tion, sim­ply wav­ing at the hun­dreds of mo­tor­cy­clists who look in­tent on scut­tling us side­ways. Later that evening, sip­ping a gin and tonic at a rooftop bar in the cen­tre of the city, I go back in time to the colo­nials and war cor­re­spon­dents, con­tem­plat­ing the past, the present and the fu­ture of enig­matic, un­for­get­table In­dochina.

He­len McKen­zie was a guest of Malaysia Air­lines and Wendy Wu Tours. “Hello, lady, what’s your name?” He­len, I re­ply. “My name is Myrena. Where are you from?” I tell her I am from Syd­ney. “Oh, that’s a long way away!” I can but agree. RV Mekong Pan­daw has pulled in to the vil­lage of Prek Kdam in Cam­bo­dia. Adorable chil­dren with open faces are prac­tis­ing their English from the shore; they are very good at a few lines of con­ver­sa­tion and the wel­come feels warm. School has fin­ished early for the day and pony­tailed girls on bi­cy­cles, all wear­ing pleated skirts and white shirts, chat as they ride.

There has been a heavy down­pour of rain but a planned af­ter­noon ex­cur­sion to a vil­lage sil­ver­smith will go ahead and brol­lies are prof­fered for the short muddy walk to the work­shop.

The chil­dren we spoke with ear­lier from the ship’s bal­cony are at the end of the gang­plank. They now have trays of sil­ver jew­ellery and want us to look and buy. My name has be­come Diane and they say it again and again to get my at­ten­tion.

Our guide ush­ers us into the sil­ver­smith’s fac­tory. The sil­ver comes from mines in north­ern Cam­bo­dia. We hear that Prek Kdam has been pro­duc­ing sil­ver dec­o­ra­tive arts and sup­ply­ing the Royal Palace in Ph­nom Penh since the sixth cen­tury. Most of the 250 fam­i­lies in the vil­lage are in­volved in sil­ver work. Dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge years many skilled ar­ti­sans were killed and re­viv­ing the in­dus­try has been dif­fi­cult.

We have heard the sound of ham­mer­ing since dock­ing a few hours ear­lier and now find the source is a man flat­ten­ing cop­per or brass in prepa­ra­tion for the sil­ver-plating pro­ce­dure. A teenage girl care­fully im­prints pat­terns on ves­sels that have been coated with a mix­ture of resin, fish oil and pound­ing clay. Two older women are pol­ish­ing al­most-fin­ished items by hand. Their tools have not much changed over the cen­turies. A blow­torch to melt the resin mix ap­pears to be the only mod­ern im­ple­ment in the shed.

And so to the shop ad­join­ing the work­shop, where there are beau­ti­ful ear­rings, chains, bracelets, pill boxes in the form of buf­faloes and ex­quis­ite scaly fish that wrig­gle. The prices are rea­son­able and we are as­sured they are real sil­ver.

Out­side the kids with the trays look long­ingly at us and I hear my new name Diane called out. We need a minute to de­cide on our pur­chases so take a walk around the vil­lage, flanked by our five new friends; “Please, Diane, it’s for my ed­u­ca­tion.”

Boys are play­ing soccer out­side the tem­ple, par­tic­u­larly en­joy­ing chas­ing the ball into pud­dles. It is easy to imag­ine that vil­lage life on the banks of the Mekong has rolled along at a sim­i­lar pace for cen­turies. As we head back to the shop and then the ship, the in­ten­sity of our en­tourage’s in­sis­tence in­creases. Sud­denly an un­teth­ered bul­lock dashes be­tween us as we walk along the road. The kids crack up with laugh­ter.

Quick de­ci­sions are made at the shop. I buy gifts with Christ­mas in mind. And then panic. The ship’s horn is sound­ing. What are we go­ing to do about the chil­dren? I give one $5 for a neck­lace with a dan­gling ele­phant charm but have no more cash. I feel rot­ten about not buy­ing from the oth­ers. Just call me stingy Diane.

HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

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