by Lindsay Grahaem
-A Holiday in Cambodia...-
Being in Thailand for much of the year, my husband and I are required to do regular visa runs out of the country, so we can get our passports stamped out and back in again. On our last visa run, we decided to go a little further and travel to Siem Reap, with the intention of going to see the Angkor Wat temple complex, but as you will read, we managed to fit a few unexpected other attractions in too...
As it happened, we arrived in the busy tourist town of Siem Reap at a bit of an odd time of day, not having enough daylight left to have a good old explore of nearby Angkor Wat as we'd first intended, but still having a fair few hours until nightfall. We first learnt of the boat trip to the Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake from Johnny (I'm guessing that wasn't his real name) our Cambodian moto/tuk-tuk driver. He suggested that would be a good use of time until the next day. Informing us that the whole trip to the lake and Floating Village would take 3-4 hours and that we would have our own longtail boat to travel in, we decided to go for it. Obliging and slightly pushy as usual, Johnny bought our tickets for us for $10 dollars per person.
A few minutes later, off we all set, with Johnny driving us for around 20 minutes through a maze of Siem Reap backstreets, out into gorgeous paddy-field scenery and eventually to the dusty banks of Tonle Sap Lake itself.
To get to the Western end of Tonle Sap Lake as we did is very easy, particularly when based in Siem Ream, where transportation revolves vehicles like Johnnys, a motorbike powered rickshaw, a mode of transport almost like a tuk-tuk but less grand.
The moto/tuk-tuks are 10 a penny in Siem Reap, and can be hired by the day for around $15 US - although currency there is officially the Cambodian Riel, US dollars are often more widely used, with Riel only really appearing for very small purchases. Anything more costly than a bag of crisps will usually be bought in dollars, so they are invaluable.
Arriving at the shore of the lake, we were led down a gangplank and onto our own longtail boat, which we would be on for the next 3 hours. In addition to the boat driver, we had our own guide on the boat, whose English was pretty good, and he was a hive of information about the lake and approaching floating village.
Not having planned originally to visit the lake at all, we knew very little about it, but the guide put that straight! Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and the biggest body of water I've ever seen that wasn't an ocean. In the wet season, which we visited at the start of, the lake can swell to a massive 16,000 square kilometres, and literally all we could see for miles was water.
-The Floating Village-
Almost from the very start of the boat trip we began to see houses bobbing on the lake, or those higher up the banks on stilts. Due to the huge increase of water flowing into the lake in the wet season, those who live in the vicinity of the lake are forced to make their houses 'lake-proof', and the best way to do this is to make them float, by basically building their houses on top of large rafts. That way when the water levels rise and fall during the seasons, the houses move with the lake.
Spending a lot of the year in Thailand, I have become used to seeing poor people living in shacks that most Westerners would be horrified at, but many of the houses floating on the side of the lake were even more basic than that - aside from the wooden raft base, houses were made out of bits of wooden crates, driftwood and sheets of plastic in places. Some houses were much nicer, and almost looked like beach huts, but those ones were few and far between.
It was still amazing though, that despite being on an ever changing lake, the community still had a police station (looking like every other wooden shack, but painted slightly nicer) and a couple of schools, one of which we pulled up at to visit.
The lives of the people living at the Floating Village are truly bizarre to outsiders; many of the people there who are miles away from any shoreline will never set foot on land. Electricity comes in the form of batteries, which villagers ferry across on their boats or houses to the charging station where the generator re-powers them. The water in the lake is not drinkable (and with so many people living on it, and nowhere for all their waste to go but into the water it's not surprising!), and so there are daily water rounds to supply the villagers with a fresh drinking water. For bathing they use the lake itself.
-Noah Would Not Be Impressed...-
In addition to people living on the lake, there are also a lot of animals. Nearly each house has a fish farm underneath it, where villagers have sunk nets downwards to trap fish so they can breed and have a ready supply of them for food. As well as the fish farms, there were floating chicken coops, floating duck pens, and even a sow crammed into a floating crush pen.
Dogs were living on some of the raft-houses, clearly bored with nowhere to go, and living a completely unnatural life for a dog, and it was this aspect to the trip I found unpleasant. You can't help feel sorry for a dog that's never going to be able to run, or a pig that's future consists of lying in a pen, bobbing on a lake in all weathers then being slaughtered. Still, different cultures etc.
-The Floating School-
In the middle of the lake is a floating school for Vietnamese Orphans, and during the boat trip, this was one of the planned stop offs. Prior to arriving at the school, we were taken to a floating general store, where the crafty Cambodians were there to guilt you into buying overpriced pencils and school supplies for the pupils (who must have pencils coming out of their ears judging by the amount that tourists buy for them). We were actually on a very tight budget for that part of the trip as we were waiting for some money to clear in the bank, so I felt slightly uncomfortable that the people there seemed to think we would be pleased to pay $10 for a pack of 5 cheap pencils worth about at most 50 pence. We reluctantly coughed up, but I hated being made to feel guilty for not buying more.
Pencil-blackmail aside, we boated over to the school, and that cheered me up after the general store shenanigans. The kids were all lovely, though it was obvious that that poor buggers hardly get any work done because of a nearly constant trickle of tourists, coming in ones and twos. They had a lovely time trying to pull my husband's tattoos off, having seen nothing like him before - try explaining piercings and flesh tunnels to a Vietnamese orphan stranded on a lake...it's quite hard!
-Crocodile Farm? No Thanks-
After the school, we were asked if we'd like to visit the Crocodile Farm which the price of is included in the boat and floating village ticket. Working for a wildlife rescue centre which houses a rescued croc, myself being vegetarian and my husband being vegan, we didn't feel the need to go see crocodiles in poor conditions (we'd seen posters of it in Siem Reap) and watch them being made into handbags, so we refuse to visit the place. After that, all that was left to do was to work our way back around the floating houses, past the floating basketball court and floating karaoke bar (really) back to the shore, where Johnny was waiting to take us back to our hotel.
Considering we hadn't planned to visit Tonle Sap Lake and the Floating Village at all, we were very glad that we did. Compared to the hoards of tourists in Siem Reap who descend upon the Angkor Wat temple complex every day, spending over 3 peaceful hours boating around a lake and seeing the unique lives of the people who live on it was a breath of fresh air, so I'm glad we had the opportunity to do so!