Siem Reap, Cambodia, is – obviously – mostly known for Angkor Wat and the other temples in the area. But the region has more to offer. Just a few short kms south of Siem Reap city is the northern shore of the largest lake in all of south east asia. This lake is named Tonle Sap. Tonle Sap provides the livelyhood for thousands of people living around its shores, and on the lake itself.
Yes, there’s people living on the lake in floating villages! While this is in no way unique to Tonle Sap, it is always interesting to visit floating villages because the life there is so vastly different from life back on land, and these people have to adapt to whole other conditions. It can be hard to understand how people can live like that.
Tonle Sap is special in another however, that the lake grows/shrinks enormously throughout the year, with the arrival/departure of the rainy season. During dry season the depth of the lake can be as low as 1 meter, while during peak rainy season it swells up to 10 meters. This also results in the surface area of the lake expanding 4-6 times. Some of the floating villages thus become dry-land villages during the dry season, as their houses are built on tall poles. While others follow the water as they’re just built on floating devices.
Beyond the lake, Tonle Sap is also the name of a river that runs from the lake all the way to the Mekong, and the unique thing about Tonle Sap River, is that it changes flow-direction based on the season.
Touring one of the floating villages and then going for a sunset dinner aboard a larger ship is a fairly popular activity here, and one I was very excited to do. I joined a public tour along with a group of young malaysians, and two spanish guys. We set off from Siem Reap in a small van headed for the tributary river from where we would board the smaller ship that was to take us on a tour around the lake.
Enroute we had a small stopover at a lotus farm also functioning as a hotel, where we had a look at the lotus flowers. Although the farm is over a km inland from the lake (at our time of visit at least), it still gets flooded during rainy season. The lotus flowers survives the flooding as they just float on top, but other crops like rice will drown and die when the lake swells.
After this short stopover we continued on for a short while until reaching the docking station. Here we boarded a smaller boat and headed off out to the lake. The boat wasn’t particularly fast, so we had plenty of time to oberve the local way of life along the river banks. Plenty of people fishing. One thing you notice right away is how muddy the water here is, a natural consequence of the major swelling and shrinking of the lake throughout the year.
After about 20 minutes we reached the lake itself. It looks more like an ocean than a lake, as it just stretches on into infinity in all directions. Marvellous! This makes the lake appear very deep, and since the water is so muddy, you don’t have any visual cues as to how deep the water really is, but we were told that right now the water in this area, even several hundred meters from shore, is just about a meter deep. This was later confirmed by locals that wandered around in the water barely reaching above their waist.
We had a small stop at a tourist-hub first, which has a restaurant, a shop and a crocodile farm. Yep. They had a cage filled with crocodiles. These crocodiles were captured from other parts of the lake (no crocodiles living around here), and are kept in this sealed off cage for tourists to oogle at. A frightful sight, especially since just outside this cage were kids floating around in cut-in-half barrels. It’s easy to imagine disaster, but apparently it is very safe. Some of these kids even have fairly large snakes as pets, so it is certainly a different kind of life out on the lake.
After seeing the crocodiles, we were taken on a quick tour around the floating village. We didn’t have any stops, but just sailed through the city, getting a brief explanation. The city has it’s own school, police station and even a tiny prison! The village visit was disappointingly short, and it would have been interesting to actually have had a stop along the way, but oh well.
After the small village tour, we were taken out to the larger boat, Queen Tara, which is permanently anchored up near the floating village, serving as a restaurant for tourists. It offers splendid views of the lake, the floating village, and the lake shore. On board we were served a buffet of classic south east asian rice and noodle dishes, it was very delicious. Included in the price for the tour were also free drinks. I quickly made friends with the group of malaysians, and we had a grand time talking over dinner, and using/abusing the free drinks, which included various alcoholic beverages.
While this was supposed to have been a sunset tour, we didn’t get to see much of the sunset at all, as it was extremely cloudy, so it just gradually got darker, but without any beautiful sky. Atleast we had good company.
Eventually we had to return back to shore. So we boarded our smaller boat again and set off. But almost immediately the motor of the boat broke down, leaving us just floating around at the mercy of the waves. Our captain called for help from the floating village, and it soon arrived. We were just sitting around enjoying the beers we had brought from Queen Tara for the trip back. Before too long, but after the darkness had properly set, we were going again. Unfortunately with the onset of darkness, all the insects and bugs also came out in full force. The air was swarming with life, attracted by the lights from our craft, so we had a less than fun 20 minutes of constantly brushing off insects and avoiding too many insect bites. That return trip was actually quite horrible.
Eventually we made it back on shore however and could sit back in the van taking us back to Siem Reap city. Some exciting 4 hours on the lake were now over.