In some people's view, only a day at the temples of Angkor is a disgrace but we were only in Siem Reap for two days and decided we would visit one of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake. It sounded very touristy but we made that decision and, once there, we realised we had made absolutely the right one.
The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia and provides fish and irrigation water for half the population of Cambodia. The lake is linked to the mighty Mekong by a 100km channel. From the middle of May to mid October, the level of the Mekong rises rapidly and backs up into this channel, making it flow back into the Tonle Sap Lake. Nick was correct when he questioned the current of the river in Phnom Penh as it was indeed flowing "the wrong way" and very visibly a strong current.
Incredibly, this force of nature increases the size of the lake from 2,500 sq km to 13,500sq km or more and the depth from 2.2m to over 10m. As the water coming down the Mekong subsides from about the beginnng of October, so the flow in the channel is reversed and the water level in the lake begins to drop.
This amazing natural feat makes the Tonle Sap one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish as apparently the flooded forest is an ideal spawning ground. The fishing industry based upon the lake supports approximately a million people and around 80,000 people live in floating villages around the lake. The lake's ecosystem has been given world wide recognition with "protected biosphere status" but if threatened dams go ahead in China and Laos, as well as continued deforestation (which loosens top soil which is then carried downstream and deposited in the Tonle Sap, thus silting up shallow areas), having a label isn't going to protect the environment, communities and livelihoods of so many. This would have a devastating impact upon Vietnam as well as Cambodia.
Mr Dollar, our tuktuk driver, duly drove us there. Having driven past factories where all that nice cheap clothing we can buy in the UK are made by people working 12 hour shifts and earning around $61 a month and then villages strung along the road with hand pumps serving many houses, suddenly there are signs of road building and there are a few white, modern, unattactive booths and walkways. Apparently the Koreans have invested money to build the road and need to recoup the cash and the local police need payment to maintain security so there is a flat fee of $10 p.p. for the tour by sampan. There are the usual group of women selling drinks and just as we were walking down the slipway to the line of boats, a guy takes our photo - one by one. I don't think Nick or Kamal even noticed.
The sampans are scruffy but have a roof and seats which remind me of cheap waiting room seats but we aren't here for a luxury tour. I very much regret that I can't remember the name of our guide - especially as he was good company, keen to tell us all about the village and such a lovely smile! Our helmswoman had her 3 year old little girl with her and our guide explained that she also has a baby but her husband was killed, on the lake, only a few months before. Deaths are common amongst the villagers; the lake is vast, the boats flat and offer no shelter if you are far out in the middle of the lake and a storm gets up.
We visited the village of Chong Kneas although you can go further to a much larger village, Kompong Khleang, which also has a couple of large floating pagodas. The villagers need to move their boats as the level of the lake rises and flows and whilst we were there, we saw a couple of houses being moved. No Pickfords; you untie your house from the tree, pile any extra belongings onto a raft, tied behind you and off you go. The rafts had baskets, pot plants, chickens, one had a pig in a pen. I guess if you fell out with your neighbour, you just slipped your mooring and moved elsewhere!
You can make out the pile of belongings on the raft behind the houseboat.
There was a village "street" - everything floating: couple of Catholic churches, basketball court, schools, English language school, lots of shops. Our guide pointed out the orphanage run by a Catholic organisation and that it was expected that tourists would buy presents for the children. We duly pulled up by a shop, he went in and spent the expected $10 and we moved onto the orphanage. I've uploaded the first photo of Nick with the children but haven't included any more: it just wasn't very pleasant. Firstly, Nick was appalled that for his $10, he reckoned he got $2 worth of notebooks ; when he questioned this with the storekeeper, the latter did give him the pencils but clearly someone other than the children were doing very nicely out of this. We thought that Nick would hand the acquired goods to a member of the orphanage staff but the children crowded round and he was clearly expected to hand out his gifts. The children were grabbing the items, pushing each other, coming back for more. Another group of tourists had just left the orphanage and had clearly bought sweets or crisps and the kids were chucking away the rubbish from those and grabbing whatever they could from the next tourist - Nick.
We really would recommend you go to the lake - the sheer size and natural phenomenon is worth the visit but.... go into Siem Reap and buy $10 worth of pencils/paper/whatever you like and give it to the children: don't get ripped off in the store. Believe me, it would have been difficult to have motored past the orphanage and not done anything.
The villages are poor and whilst there are rich fishing grounds some, for whatever reason, decide to use tourists as a hopeful way of making some money. A faster boat came up beside us and the little girl in the bows began scrabbling around and suddenly emerged with the most enormous water snake, wrapped it around her and was clearly begging. Another father and little son came alongside and the boy had cans of cold beer and coke. Kamal reckoned he had negotiated a good deal with the little lad! There is a tourist centre further along the lake shore which gives some flora and fauna (what is the aquarian equivalent? can't think!), facts and figures about the lake, a few crocodiles in a cage, a couple of souvenir and hat shops and a cafe - all floating, of course.
We saw the village on a bright, sunny, hot day and therefore, arguably, at its best but reality is that living there is not easy. Our guide must have been about 20 years old and wants to train as a teacher and then return to his floating village. He and Mr Dollar are the future of Cambodia, focussed on educating the next generation but with the former, returning to the hard life on the lake to teach. As we left the boat, he duly shook hands with Nick and Kamal and then launched towards me with the huge hug!
Basketball court and shops
Oh, and the man with the camera at the start of our village trip? A young girl of about 10 had three plates with Angkor Wat printed on the surrounds and in the middle - yes! our photograph. $5 each - they even came with a plate stand. They have to be one of the best, tackiest souvenirs I have, or probably will, own. I'm a bit miffed that my photo is peeling from the plate so I now have to find some SuperGlue in Hanoi!