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The ocean may be the body of water that defines many South East Asian nations, but not this one. Cambodia is dominated by another feature, a great lake- The Tonle Sap. The lake serves as the home, livelihood, and source of food for countless Cambodians. During the wet season, the lake swells to be one of the largest in all of Asia, over 7,400 square miles. Nearly half the fish consumed in Cambodia come from this very lake, which holds over 200 species. Most famously it is home not only to wildlife but also to enormous communities that take residence in floating villages and stilted homes. While I missed a visit to the Tonle Sap during my 2009 visit, I knew that as much as the temples of Angkor and the killing fields of Phnom Penh, this was a living breathing piece of Cambodian history. And while planning this trip to Siem Reap I vowed to visit the Great Lake.
There are three main areas open to visitors: touristy and easily accessed Chong Kneas, floating village Kampong Phluk, and stilted community of Kompong Khleang. Along with , I visited Kompong Khleang, the most remote and least visited of the villages, as well as the largest one of the lake.
Our journey started with a long drive along the north side of the lake, during which our group of 7 got acquainted and met our guide, Mr. Sopond. One thing I like about Tara tours is that most of the guides were themselves born in the villages that they provide tours of. Mr. Sopond had excellent English and answered many of the questions about Cambodian life that had gone unanswered so far on my trip.
When we arrived at the dock we were led into a small but comfortable boat that would be taking us around the lake. As you may be aware, Cambodia is in the midst of recovering from some of the , and we were about to visit a heavily affected area. In fact, as we boarded the boat our guide warned us that we would be seeing much less activity that usual, as most of the houses had been abandoned in the wake of the floods. Any disappointment we might have felt at an abbreviated tour was made trivial by the thought of the amount of people forced to flee their homes and livelihoods.
Still, there was a steady hum of activity as we entered Kompong Khleang. A full fledged community, we saw not just houses but small businesses…
a grand temple…
and means of employment such as fish and alligator farms. I had to remind myself we were floating on a massive body of water when I saw pet dogs and pigs hanging out on balconies, and bicycles and motorbikes parked precariously inside houses.
One of the most interesting bits of information Mr. Sopond shared was that there is a serious class divide between those with floating houses, who tend to be poorer, and those with stilted homes, who tend to be more financially comfortable. However, with the flooded lake reaching more than 15 meters, it was those with stilted homes that were forced to abandon them for dry land. In the wet season, the lakes usually reaches to about 10 meters, while in the dry season the tour forgoes a boat and drives through the village, with the stilted homes towering above.
At one point another boat with two tourists floated by and I was reminded we weren’t the only foreigners there. Mr. Sopond told me that there are on average less than 10 visitors per day. “What about the high season?” I inquired. He thought about it. “Maybe 15.”
This is in stark contrast to other Tonle Sap villages such as Chong Kneas, which is overwhelmed by hundreds of foreign visitors per day. Here in Kompong Khleang, we were still enough of a novelty to warrant waves and enthusiastic “hellos!” from children coming running out onto the balconies of their floating homes.
What was more interesting than the floating and stilted structures were the people. After spending six collective months of my life in Southeast Asia I’m no longer shocked by how modern everything seems to be. Rather, I’m delighted when I find a pocket of this region that still seems somehow untouched by the rest of the world. The Tonle Sap river seems to be one of these places where time stands still.
Boats serve not only as homes, but also as vehicles. For a heavily abandoned village, there were many boats on the water. I can imagine that there must be a traffic jam of sorts on more typical days.
I’m also pretty sure, based on the ages of the drivers, that no driver’s licenses are needed for these vehicles.
Unfortunately, do to the flooding, our boat was unable to enter the “Main Street” of the village, as it would have tangled in the sole electrical wire stringing through the passage. So we pulled up at the man made island that houses the village temple and school in order to charter a smaller boat and get a bit more up close and personal.
We found that the temple grounds also serve as an impromptu playground for village kids craving a patch of ground to run around on.
School is in session 6 days a week, and sadly we visited on the children’s day off, so we didn’t donate school supplies as mentioned in the tour’s description. But while our guide was chartering a boat, we garnered the attention of the few local kids who now live at the school after the flooding financially devastated their families.
The older ones seemed stoic and tried to play it cool, while the little ones went bonkers, running around shrieking and showing off.
Some of them expressed interest in my camera, so I took a few snapshots of them and showed them the images. These girls went shrieking and running in circles and continued to vamp for shots. Sometimes I feel a bit like a voyeur and get too shy or uncomfortable to take pictures of people, so it was thrilling to have such willing models.
This was a refreshing chance to interact with Cambodian children who weren’t asking for money, and one of the highlights of my visit to the Tonle Sap. When Mr. Sopond returned with a small boat willing to take us for a spin, the kids gathered by the water’s edge and waved goodbye.
In our new, more low-profile boat, we were able to see the devastation wrought by the flooding more clearly.
Those who’s homes were simple a meter or two underwater rather than completely submerged exhibited typical South East Asian ingenuity and simply built a second floor above the flood water. It’s this kind of make-do attitude that makes me love this part of the world so much.
With that, our tour had come to an end. Based on our early finishing time and comments from our guide, I believe that many parts of the tour had to be skipped due to the current conditions of the river. However, it was still an eye-opening and fascinating tour led by a friendly and professional guide, and an experience of this trip that I won’t forget anytime soon. I feel lucky to have seen a part of Cambodia that relatively few people have been to, and to be able to better understand the current events happening during my visit. Anyone can read about financial damage and displacement statistics, but seeing abandoned villages and homeless children first hand gave me a more visceral understanding of the devastation. But if there is one thing Cambodia excels at, it’s survival, and I have no doubt that the people of this country will recover from this natural disaster with grace.
At $72 per person, this is not a budget tour. But it does include hotel pick up, all guide and driver services, and supports a company that is dedicated to giving back to and supporting the communities on the lake. Those on a budget can still visit the Tonle Sap by choosing a visit to one of the closer villages at a much more affordable price. You can learn more and book through or with any travel agent in Siem Reap.
To see all my pictures from the Tonle Sap, visit my Flickr set
Full disclosure: For the purpose of reviewing Tara River Boat, I received a complimentary tour. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.