Charmed by silver service
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.