Cambodia

A visit to Siem Reap’s floating villages

Tonle-Sap-people-in-a-boat
At Kampong Khleang village

Siem Reap is best known for the ruins of Angkor Wat, but Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, is another standout feature of the area.

If I was a tourist, rather than an expat, I don’t know if I would have ever made it out to Tonlé Sap’s floating villages as it can easily take up another vacation day. Although, I’m glad I finally made it and I’d like to go back to see the bird sanctuary at Prek Toal.

Another reason why Tonlé Sap might be passed up is that Chong Khneas which is the closest village to Siem Reap at 15km is the most touristed one, and has developed a bad reputation for scams and price gouging. But, of course, we didn’t go there. We went to a further floating village, Kampong Khleang which is about 35khm away.

Nong, Kai, Apple and me.
Nong, Kai, Apple and me.

My former students from Chiang Rai Thailand were visiting and they hired a driver and a car. The funny thing was how they did it. Nong looked through my Facebook friends and found one of my former Cambodian students and asked him if he knew anyone who they could hire to drive them around for the weekend. And it turned out his brother could do it. But I couldn’t decide if she was crazy or clever for doing what she did, probably a little bit of both.

I mean, who does that, right?

Well, now I know the name and number of a nice driver. Although, if I had made the arrangements, we would have taken a tuk tuk! I guess I just don’t think to rent a car.

Anyway, Tonlé Sap Lake has a very interesting water cycle which is worth noting, so I’m going to quote factsanddetails.com

During the rainy season, from June to November the Mekong River reverses its flow into the lake causing it to expand to more than six or seven times its normal size of approximately 2,600 square kilometers. It becomes a vast inland sea.

In June, with monsoon rains swelling the Mekong, excess water is pushed into the Tonle Sap that then drains back upstream into the lake, flooding the surrounding low plains. By monsoon’s end, in November, the pressure is relieved and the Tonle Sap reverses course and returns to the direction of flow expected of it. However, the waters take several more months before they begin to recede, and it is not until February that Tonle Sap Lake begins its return to normal size.

TonleSapMap
Map of Tonlé Sap lake and river, and drainage basin by Wikipedia

Amazing!

We started our journey around 9.30 and returned to Siem Reap around 3pm. Overall, the roads were good, but after we turned off of road 6 to head to Kampong Khleang, we had to slow down on the narrow dirt roads. And our previous rice field filled landscape changed to simple wooden houses and then suddenly, houses on stilts, some apparently 10 meters tall (32 feet).

Kampong-Khleang-stilt-houses-in-a-row

Tonle-Sap-stilt-houses-and-stairs

Tonle-Sap-stilt-houses

I had a hard time believing that come October those stilts would be covered in water.

There was a sign that indicated where the boats are, so don’t worry if your driver (or you!) isn’t familiar with the area. (Consequently, most posts on Tonlé Sap have to do with taking a Tara River Boat Cruise. I was surprised to see this, but I suppose it is easier to just join an established tour group.) In any case, the ferries are at the local temple – hard to miss.

Kampong-Khleang-boat-dock
At the Kampong Khleang boat dock just behind the local temple.

The round trip boat ride was an hour and a half and cost $15 per person, although we bargained down to $12. What can I say, we were mostly Thais and Thais bargain. Our drivers were two young boys who couldn’t have been older than 14 and 12. It was interesting to watch them work together. For instance, the eldest drove the boat while the younger one used a long oar to steer us away from the other boats while we were backing out.

Kampong-Khleang-boat-drivers
Captain and first mate 😉

Unfortunately, the boats were very loud, so talking subsided while we all settled onto our bench seats and looked out onto a water world.

Kampong-Khleang-man-in-boat
I wondered how much gasoline they used to power these boats. Speaking of, nice color, huh?

The poverty here is no longer shocking to me. Poverty was shocking when I was 16, visiting Thailand. And it became shocking again when I moved abroad in 2009. Now, this is not to say I’m not taken back by peering into someone’s home that is the size of a closet or that I lack feeling. In fact, I’d say my Western education and upbringing has done a pretty damn good job in making sure I do feel sympathy. But I’ve accepted it for what it is – life. It’s given me a broader view in which to contemplate: fortune, luck, gratitude, governments, wealth and privilege.

Tonle-Sap-girl-washing-her-hair
Girl washing her hair.
Kampong-Khleang-floating-village
There are 10 villages in this commune, and about 20,000 people at Kampong Khleang.
Tonle-Sap-girl-washing-dishes
Washing dishes. The sign that makes up part of her house says, “Diesel Engine. Made in China.”

Judgments are suspended in moments like this. It’s only later do I reflect on the happiness for these villagers, what they thought when our eyes locked during passing moments on the water or how their lives must be. Are they happy? Are their lives stress-free? I don’t know. I won’t romanticize it.

I have to admit, I bristle when I overhear a tourist enthusiastically talking about how ‘simple’ a Khmer’s kitchen was or how visiting SE Asia is like ‘going back in time’. I blame it on majoring in Anthropology – and my Thai family’s basic kitchen…

Kampong-Khleang-floating-village-school
Floating village school. Can you imagine going to school on the water?

When I lived in Hawaii, my then-boyfriend and I used to visit the docks and read the boat names and addresses. We contemplated traveling the world by sea. Could we do it? How hard would it be? Maybe we should try working on a cruise and experience life at sea while making some money. Eventually the dream faded, or more like the unpleasant reality set in, but it was fun to imagine what unique community boaters live in, what life might be like on and off land.

on-the-water-at-Tonle-Sap

boat-on-the-waters-of-Tonle-Sap

While I looked up at the brilliant cloud-filled sky, I wondered if the villagers ever had a bad sky day. It seemed as if they were blessed in this way. Did they take it for granted? City dwellers complain about lackluster concrete landscapes, but then again, that is the tradeoff. I know this is why I can’t be too far from nature. I was lucky enough to grow up around it, and now it seems to be a very necessary part of life. Some folks need the ocean or the desert, or the city’s busyness and bustle, and I definitely need the right amount of nature.

banks-of-the-Tonle-Sap

I’d say if you have the time, then head out to Kampong Khleang’s floating villages. There are bathrooms and snacks and drinks at the docking platform, but other than that we couldn’t find good food. So, bring your own! And while I can’t speak for the other floating villages, this one did not have many tourists. Plus, you also get a snapshot of another way of life.

boat-drivers-on-Tonle-Sap

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51 thoughts on “A visit to Siem Reap’s floating villages

  1. Wow fascinating journey and experience for your former students and I am sure you gathered the most of your own experience. I was fascinated the most that you thought about living on a boat while in Hawaii. Your ability to be anywhere is amazing Lani, and yes I am sure an appreciation for so much of life. I can only say recently i lived out of my friends van in Australia for 8 days 2 of which out of 10 days it was so cold and windy a hotel was the only option for me. It was a modern day walk a bout and we went 2600 miles! I was reborn and will never go back to the ego driven life I had before the trip. Mahalo honey great to hear your journey here I love you Robyn PS the stilt houses scare me on this mainland ( something about the stability)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha, I want to go on a road trip in Australia some day and do what you did, camping out in a friend’s van or car – living it rough 😀 It is currently winter here in Australia and it can get cold at night. After living here for almost a decade, I know…and I don’t blame you for taking shelter in a hotel 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mabel I will look you up ON FB I am going back soon. I saw a really cool looking van that was camped out with a tent on top that you can rent TEHE . On the sides were painted Pumpkin Heads. We traveled all down south definitely winter . would love living both in Australia and here in Maui. Its looking very possible. Heart to heart Robyn

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hahhaa! What an observation. I never thought about how it would feel to be in one of those stilt houses. Crazy, huh? It sure must be breezy up there! Yeah, I’m not sure how I could do with it either…now a tree house sounds nicer – and perhaps even a bit more comforting. Maybe you’d get used to it? 😛

      I’d love to do a van camping trip. Especially in Australia! Lucky you. It is certainly a particular lifestyle – even entertained caravan living. Really, any alternative lifestyle or living arrangment, I think I’ve thought about 😀

      Thanks so much Robyn. Much love and mahalos back, xxoo

      Liked by 1 person

      1. you and I should road trip sometime with Mabel! Yea treehouse for me also ..way bedda! I reblogged you as you are SO SO good at sharing your experience!
        I could probably have done that on the van about. Next time I will! Heart to heart Robyn

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  2. Kampong Khleang’s sounds like a nice and quaint little village. Those houses on stilts look so strong, and I bet they are since they have to withstand waters and possibly currents during the monsoon season. I wonder how wet to these houses get in these months – perhaps quite a bit and they are used to it.

    Those boys driving your boat do really look young. But I suppose they have to do what they have to do to make a living.

    I have never heard of someone saying to my face when they visit parts of SEA they feel like “going back in time”. Don’t like the sound of it one bit, though. It sounds almost condescending. Maybe the locals there are really happy with the way they live. If you live a routine long enough, you can become used to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It certainly was interesting. And I’m grateful for you and Robyn’s observations on the stilt houses. I didn’t think about them too much – just couldn’t imagine the water going up so high! But yes, they must be strong. Of course, it’s just lake water, but we do get some good storms here.

      I was surprised by how young they were, but they acted like they had been doing this all their lives, and so they probably learn to drive a boat as soon as they can. It’s so wild to think about doing everything on moving waters.

      Although, they do go on land – we saw a group playing volleyball, another having lunch under the trees – and of course, there’s the farming.

      I don’t think the ‘back in time’ comment is meant to be condescending. I think it’s just people’s way of relating. But I’ve always tried to sidestep this comparison. Cultures develop how they develop. In any case, I don’t know if the villagers are happy, content or if that even matters. But it’s food for thought.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “Cultures develop how they develop.” I like how you put it. We can’t stop someone from thinking in a certain way – it just their perspective and how they were brought up.

        I am sure the two boys were capable of teaching your group how to steer the boat. They would make good teachers 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have very similar thoughts when contemplating poverty in South Africa. People often say, “Doesn’t it bother you to live in a place with so much poverty?” And my response is always that the poverty will be here whether I’m living here to see it or not. So it’s best to see it, acknowledge it, and do whatever small thing you can (blogging, for instance) to educate others about it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes. We Americans can be incredibly sheltered. I think it’s because we live in such a massive country and don’t travel as much as our ‘Western’ counterparts.

      Of course, this is changing.and the Internet does provide so much exposure and knowledge about these things. But there is something about seeing it live, it’s heartbreaking – but I think it brings us closer to reality.

      Like

  4. Thanks for the snapshot — another lifestyle I had no idea even existed.

    Sewage is on my mind, thanks to the news from Rio about the Olympics. Does waste just go into the lake?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as I can tell, sewage in many parts of SE Asia (if not all) runs into canals, lakes and rivers. Nothing is regulated and I fear many are uneducated about these kinds of things. Coupled with corrupt governments, rarely are public facilities well funded.

      But the interesting thing about the Tonle Sap is there is a particular water plant that I know of (they float on the water) that cleans the water. So, if they had those plants delibertly near toilets, it would create a self-cleaning system.

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  5. I remember watching a German documentary about these villages many summers ago. It is so interesting to see that you went there as I always imagined them to be nearly unreachable for most people but then again I was fairly young when I watched it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the world is getting more and more accessable. Just look how much China has opened up in the past few years. But my goodness, it is interesting that you watched a documentary about this! There is actually so much more to say about these floating villages, from the ethnic makeup of these people, to the lack of government fishing and sustainable regulations to the wonderful diversity on the lake.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I should try to find that documentary again as it was really interesting back in the day, I think there was also a lot about the diversity of the people in there but I could be wrong after so many years

        Liked by 1 person

    1. For better or worse Tonle Sap is not as well known. But it’s tough, we certainly don’t want to invade their way of life, but if the tours and visits could be monitored then maybe Tonle Sap could retain its authenticity.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Love the insight here, as we contemplate who we are as human to human. I look for the love and I bet they really work with each other during the Monsoon season.

    Maybe the best of humanity when we are challenged? Not sure if that’s what brings the best out? Yet whenever we seem to have major crisis (in the US) people WAKE UP.

    There are these Halo children coming in who love just to love. Pure divine energy. They are called the 2020 children. Our angel children.

    Being a student always in this thing we call life, my mission is that we all remember we are simply divine love in motion and all is God creation. Seeing through the eyes of the divine child.

    Heart to heart Robyn

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There does seem to be a dichotomy here. Humanity needing to be challenged, creativity flourishing under restraint, light shining through the darkness.

      I feel like things are coming to a head, but maybe we always feel this way, globally. I don’t know. But I think like many of us, I’m ready for a shift towards compassion, understanding and pushing back against gov’ts and greed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “But I think like many of us, I’m ready for a shift towards compassion, understanding and pushing back against gov’ts and greed.” Yes my dear you are BEING this. heart to heart Robyn

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s nice that your former students visited. We don’t always get out and see the nearby sights unless we have visitors to show around.

    That picture from wikipedia is fascinating. I guess when the water flows in reverse and the lake expands the water becomes brackish.

    I like the way you explained how someone from a developed country can come to accept (or get used to or not be shocked by) the poverty of a developing country: “But I’ve accepted it for what it is – life. It’s given me a broader view in which to contemplate: fortune, luck, gratitude, governments, wealth and privilege.” As an expat, I saw how much someone with little material wealth can enjoy life. I say this because people in the Philippines (where I lived for many years) seem to take a lot of joy in life, maybe because they’re so sociable and family oriented. Of course, I’m not talking about the poorest of the poor–the garbage pickers, the abandoned children, the lepers ..

    Such a beautiful sky. I agree, getting out in nature every so often is a necessity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been wanting to go to Tonle for some time, but yes, visitors give you that incentive! I’m glad they wanted to see it to.

      Yes, the lake water isn’t pretty looking because it is from the river. So fascinating how it moves, reverses and comes from the Himalayian mountains! Nature is so amazing. It’s one of the reaons why the Angkor Wat empire flourished for so long too – all that water created great sedimination for the soil and growing food.

      Yes, I’ve seen how much people can enjoy life with ‘so little’. I’m humbled by their generosity as well. My Thai family would be considered poor by Western standards and yet they never cease to gift me with bananas, drinks and snacks whenever they see me.

      Like

      1. Oh, I see my mistake. When you said the water flowed backward, I was thinking from the sea. That’s why I thought the water might be brackish. Now I see that the lake is far from the sea.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. “I had a hard time believing that come October those stilts would be covered in water.”

    It is difficult to imagine. I was in a village in Nigeria once when the river was at its lowest level. I found it difficult to believe that it could rise to the height they showed me. We have houses on stilts and schools on water too in some communities.

    I understand about the poverty. Yet one observes children (sometimes adults too), running, playing, laughing and happy. Here, I notice people are grateful for whatever assistance one provides.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think everyone wants the same things, you know? We all want/need love, shelter, food, etc. It seems so unfair that we live in a world where greed is rewarded and many get by with so little. I don’t believe it takes that much to be content, either.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This brings back good memories. When I visited a floating village several years ago my guide suggested bringing notebooks to give to the school children, so we stopped at a store in Siem Reap and bought 25 nice notebooks. When we got to the school kids kept coming in until the room was packed, way more than 25 kids. Fortunately one of those little boats that sell everything pulled up and “happened” to have books to sell me. The books were half as thick and twice the price but I didn’t have much bargaining power standing in front of a room full of expectant kids. I thought it was funny and the kids were very grateful since this was one of the lesser visited floating villages.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Oh, I know it’s not a way of life people here would prefer, but we do have people living like that. They have to accept the current situation to get by well enough. It’s really sad.

    That said, I have to ask as it’s not clear to me, what is it exactly that tourists go there for aside from the boat ride? Never heard of a floating village school, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They go to see the floating villages. If they go to the more popular destination, then they might take a river cruise and visit a crocodile farm and some shopping (?). I don’t know as we didn’t go that route.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see. I guess I’m kinda used to seeing such situations that I couldn’t exactly comprehend why tourists would go to see such a place. Their situation just makes me sad, personally. I WOULD have liked to see the crocodile farm (except I have that moral dilemma about keeping such animals and not leaving them in the wild).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think you have to worry about crocodiles. I think they do just fine in the wild. But I might be wrong. Folks have them for pets and breed them so I guess they’re like the sheep of SE Asia, but deadlier and not as cute 😛

        You bring up a good point, everyday life for some is an exciting touristic opportunity for others. If I could take people over here for a quick visit / transporter to my old stomping grounds, I wonder what they would take a photo of?!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. my first visit to your blog. you are a fellow expat, I see. I am a former expat and always a third-culture kid. I very much enjoyed going on this trip with you. And what gorgeous photographs!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very interesting. Yes, romanticizing about poverty. And so called simple life. Honest, it’s reasonable to wish for most people living in a home to have a stove that doesn’t require wood fuel, a small fridge and if there is children, a small washing machine.

    sorry, am influenced by my Canadian childhood …5 young children in a 1 bedroom apartment in Ontario. At least my mother had these appliances. She would have been worn out even more if not.

    Liked by 1 person

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