“But you promised,” said a solemn little boy with trusting brown eyes. I had indeed promised to buy a scarf from him but my dollars had gone and now the boat was leaving. I felt an absolute heel as I hurried back up the gangplank of our fairy-tale boat, AmaLotus. We drifted away down the wide, slow-moving milky-brown Tonle Sap river, which flows into the Mekong in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), leaving the disappointed boy far behind.
The heart-rending incident happened after we had been taken to see the recently revived tradition of silk weaving in the Cambodian village of Chong Koh on an island in the river. Old looms, which had been hidden during the dark years of Pol Pot, had now been returned to use. Beguiling little girls selling armfuls of krama, a traditional scarf with multiple uses, had entwined themselves around us and led us around their village, practising their English and wanting our dollars. The girls scampered off, distracted by a motherly Italian tourist handing out sweets, and the boy sidled up full of questions about England. Is it a happy country? Did we all have blue eyes? From him I learnt a valuable lesson: carry plenty of dollars and spread them around to support the local communities and their handicrafts. After decades of violence, tourism is a lifeline for this fragile but emerging country.
Before joining AmaLotus, we spent the morning immersed in the wondrous temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. Our guide, Mr Sonny, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Buddhist monk and now tour guide, proudly showed us the three best-known temples, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.