For the final full day of our “inspiration” in Siam Reap, Cambodia, my wife and I decided to take a day trip out to Tonle Sap to see the floating village of Kampong Phluk.
We booked the trip through our hotel and were picked up by a van that then drove us to connect with a bigger bus, and more tourists. As is the case with so many tours, we had one couple that seemed to be bungling along at every step of the way—and that included step 1, getting going! It took ten minutes for our guide (Sok) to track the couple down and then, at last, we were off into the Cambodian countryside.
The drive was about an hour and a half and along the way we could see a more rural part of the country, far removed from the gentrified tourist hub of Siem Reap. Along the way, Sok told us stories about what it was like to grow up in Cambodia. He said that he stayed in school as a child, even though his parents urged him to quit and work as a fisherman or a farmer. But he persisted in his education, learned English, and joined the burgeoning tourist trade.
Sok went onto say that Cambodians are quite thankful for the tourists, as it has raise the quality of life. This was actually something Marcie and I had talked about at great length—do the tourists like us or dread us? We had seen so many people treating the people poorly (read my post on what I dub the “poverty paparazzi“), but, according to Sok at least, we provide a positive outcome for the people. I hope that’s the truth.
We eventually arrived at the pier and were loaded into a boat. As we wound our way down the waterways, we could see many fishing boats, nets, and houses on stilts. It wasn’t a peaceful ride—our boat, and the many other ones just like it all run on grumpy petrol engines that growl and grunt the entire time.
Kompong Phluk is a five-hundred-year-old village situated on the Tonle Sap, the major lake and river system in Cambodia. In fact, Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere site because of its wide range of endangered flora fauna.
The direction of the water in Tonle Sap changes twice a year, resulting in extreme highs and lows in the water level. During the dry season, the bed of water is completely dry. During the wet season, the water rises immensely. It’s for this reason that the houses are either built on stilts or on rafts of petroleum barrels.
95% of the economy during the wet season is based on fishing, the other 5% on farming. This changes to 50-50 during the dry season.
Once we landed at the village’s main dock, we were swarmed by children, keen to see and talk to all the strangers. Their English was quite strong and they were particularly interested in one girl in our group who was above average height. They kept pestering her to tell them her height and then they went on to wonder what type of job she had. It was quite amusing to watch!
We ventured down the dry and dusty streets, cognizant of the fact that it would be a water way at a different time of year. Right at the dock is a large Buddhist temple. Due to tourism, it’s being refurbished and looks in really great shape. You can see it below, in the distance, as I turned around halfway down the street to photograph it:
And this is the view that was in front of us:
All the kids in the village go to school, which is free. The expensive part is procuring supplies, so we made a donation when we came upon the kindergarten.
We also came upon a few woman sorting, cooking, and preparing shrimp.
Everyone in the village was really kind, welcoming us into their personals spaces and showing us around. You could even buy the dried shrimp by the bag full, so I suppose this was a little bit like touring the factory, then buying the product afterwards.
After about a half hour, our guide tried to round everyone up and get them back on our boat. Once again, this took some doing. There are many tourists boats and some of our party actually boarded the wrong boat at first, and we had to collect them and head off again.
We continued down the river towards the lake. All of the sudden, we were in a type of mangrove, surrounded by trees . . . and people.
We wondered what was going on, but all was quickly explained. For $10, we could take a boat through the mangroves for a short excursion and meet up with the main boat again before proceeding to the lake.
Marcie wasn’t sure about this at first, but eventually decided to give it a try—and a good thing, as this turned out to be the favourite part of the tour for both of us. Our guide adeptly paddles us through the trees and, even though there were so many of us, we soon in a long single file and felt quite peaceful. We could hear the jungle birds and, peering up into the tree canopies, I spotted a monkey leaping from branch to branch. That was pretty cool.
And then what happened? Suddenly, we came upon a slew of boats . . . we had just entered a floating village of corner stores. Seems like the obligatory stop at a halfway point of a tour to buy something happens even out here!
The interesting part of this situation was that every boat was designated to stop at a specific store. One of the boats ended up doubling up, leaving one of the stores without a customer. We heard about that—the woman at that store began yelling and wailing. I don’t speak Khmer, but I can imagine!
As for us, we didn’t want to buy anything for ourselves, but the woman at our boat-store was very friendly and spoke excellent English. So, in the end, we decided to buy a tea for our guide and that seemed to make everyone happy. One thing we have learned is that it’s a really good idea to have lots of small bills here. You can use American currency (in fact, I think it’s preferred), but you need them in one-dollar notes. Change is often an issue, even for something like a ten-dollar bill.
After we were finished visiting the store, our guide continued paddling . . .
. . . and eventually we arrived at a large floating restaurant. It was here where we could eat, drink, and watch the first hints of the sunset.
For some reason, there was a giant snake in a cage in the very middle of the restaurant. I’m not sure if it was for the tourists to gawk at or if it was eventually going to be on the menu (snake and crocodile regularly feature here).
Whatever the case, the thing was huge and I ended up feeling sorry for it, especially when one of the tourists began antagonizing it by poking it with a plastic straw.
At one point, I had to use the bathroom. That ended up being quite interesting. I had to navigate a narrow wooden walkway, about a foot wide, wall on my left, water on my right. The bathroom itself was rustic, with just a bowl and a nearby barrel with a ladle to scoop up water and do the flushing. That part was fine—it was the treacherous walk that I was worried about. I’m just clumsy enough to have ended up in that lake!
After this break, we were all loaded onto our boats again and trundled out into the lake to watch the sunset.
Once again, this took some doing—people were getting on the wrong boats and one couple (the same one who had delayed us at the very beginning of the trip) ended up forgetting their belongings on the restaurant, which meant we had to detour back there after the sunset so they could collect them.
As for the sunset itself . . . you can see the pics for yourself!
We had a great final day in Siem Reap and going on the tour allowed us to meet and connect with lots of people from all over the world (not only the people in the village, but our fellow tourists).
It’s quite humbling to see how so many people eke out an existence. Their homes and living spaces are so small. So many of us in the first world seem to wring our hands over wanting a detached house, or more space to fill with stuff, or this and that . . . and here’s just one tiny cross-section of people who live with so much less than the rest of us.
We’re going to miss Siem Reap, but look forward to our next stop: Phnom Penh!