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