Life on water: Tonle Sap and the Cambodian floating villages
Although Siem Reap is first and foremost the “base camp” for the marvellous Angkor temples, there is much more to the former backwater town than the ancient ruins. The floating villages are just an example but they are one of the things I absolutely wanted to see in Cambodia.
Unfortunately it was dry season when I went there so I could not really see them “floating” but it was avery interesting sight nevertheless. I am happy I went against the repeated advice from local people, including my hotel, not to go there because “there is nothing to see now, it’s dirty and it smells badly”. It was already stuck in my head so there was no way I would skip this. Yes it’s true it was dirty and it did smell pretty bad but by now I was more than 3 months into my SE Asia adventure and I was accustomed to everything. Plus having been to India so many times and even for long periods sometimes, really prepared me for everything.
There are various tour options that you can take, from 3 hrs to one day including “a cruise” but the latter really depends on the season. Out of the 3 floating villages that could be visited, I chose the furthest one (Kompong Khleang) because I have been told that it was less touristic which proved to be true, at least for the time I went there (in March). We were in fact the only ones visiting the village at that time. The other 2 villages are Chong Kneas (the closest to Siem Reap and thus the most touristy) and Kompong Phluk (a boat ride away from Chong Kneas and a good compromise if you don’t have much time on hand but want to see a less touristic place).
After a very bumpy 1.5 hours ride (during the wet season the travel would be by boat) we reached a small river and we were transferred to a boat that could have gotten stuck any moment in the shallow muddy waters. Thankfully it did not happen and we reached our destination: the suspended village (definitely not floating at that time). The houses are build on stilts 10 meters above the ground because that is how high the water can reach in the rainy season. Even so, some people have to leave their house in the rainy season as the water can still reach them.
There is a very big difference between dry and rainy seasons in these villages which seem like a completely different place. So again, because of the dry season we could only go as far by boat and from there we would just walk through the village. This gave us the opportunity to interact with people and watch them performing their daily activities while listening to their explanations and stories.
I was really surprised by the number of small children in the village. And it is a common sight to see children taking care of children.
We paid a visit also to the village school and caught them during their English class so they were very eager to practice and very talkative at the same time 🙂 . I was quite impressed with their level of English I must say.
There is a community feel throughout the village and all the activities are done together: preparing the fish paste, drying the prawns, even cooking
After visiting the floating village we hopped on the boat again and went out on the lake just in time for the sunset. Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake of Southeast Asia and it serves as a backwater of the mighty Mekong river. During the rainy season the lake can more than double in size and it provides more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. And this is not insignificant as Cambodia is very dependent on fish. Apparently at least 70% of the proteins consumed are actually coming from fish. So for a country as dependent on water as Cambodia, a lake like Tonle Sap together with the Mekong river are at the backbone of life itself.
Tonle Sap is not only a huge natural resource but also a very beautiful lake that deserves to be explored and admired. Although it was a bit cloudy at the time we were there, we still managed to get some moments where the setting sun was transforming the surface of the lake into an infinite golden glaze.
What I found the most shocking about this life on water tough is the fact that the water is used for EVERYTHING. And I mean everything: from drinking to cooking to washing to other human needs. There are continuous efforts to bring drinking water into these villages but until then life goes on as it had always been…