Not far to the South of Siem Reap is Tonle Sap Lake. Being of comparable size to the great lakes in the U.S., this lake is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. Sitting at one of the Northern most points of this lake is one of the floating villages. This is an actual small town that is floating a few hundred meters off shore. Its population is mostly fishermen, but it also has all of the normal small-town trappings like a supermarket, restaurants, even a pagoda, all floating out there in the lake. To get to this village we had to hire a boat. There is a place that rents boats to travelers (each with a Cambodian English speaker on board with you). It is a pretty solid ride outside of Siem Reap, so that will be an expensive cab ride. We took a car that was provided to us by our hotel for the day, so the price we paid won’t be very helpful here. A ticket to get on this boat and go out to the village is 20 USD, a very high price for this part of the world.
The road out to this jumping-off point goes out through the boonies of Siem Reap and into Cambodian farmland. On one of side of the road are rice fields and on this other side is a field of lotus blossoms. Eating the lotus flower as food is popular here, and the fields were very picturesque. In the fields skinny white cows grazed and big white birds flew back and forth from perch to perch.
Once we were on our boat we set off down a shallow muddy river. At one point we had considered traveling to Phnom Penh by boat but we had been warned that the water in the river would be too low to make it all the way down river. We were unsure of how legitimate a concern this was, but going down this river, it was immediately apparent that we had made the right choice in buying a plane ticket instead.
The mud banks of the river that rose up on either side of us looked like a construction site after a heavy rain. The water was very low. Houses that were intended to float sat crooked on the riverbanks like beached whales. I sat on the bow of the boat snapping pictures as we went.
The water was so low that the river was much more narrow than normal. If our boat strayed too far from the center of the river we were in danger of getting stuck. The problem was that there was boat traffic going in both directions. So boats heading in opposite directions would need to play a game of ‘chicken’ to stay in the middle of the river and keep themselves from running aground. Our boat would motor straight towards another boat until at the last moment, through some sort of telepathic link between the boat captains, the boats would swerve around each other in opposite directions at the last moment. This is not to say that we never got stuck though. We did, multiple times. One of them was apparently my fault. My fat ass on the bow was pushing the front of the boat down into the mud so I had to walk to the back of the boat in order for us to escape our muddy entrapment. Our guide dislodged the boat with a long bamboo shoot pressed into the mucky river bottom.
We also got stuck a few times because of trash stuck in our engine. Each time, we had to stop for a few minutes so that it could be fished out. It was a pretty disgusting stretch of river, but all the same, local fisherman, who ranged from 14-year-old girls to old men, tromped through the muddy water carrying nets.
Eventually, we made our way out of this narrow, muddy stretch of river onto the lake. The lake was big. Looking out into the distance was like looking out to sea... if the sea was mud brown. The point is that there was nothing on the horizon. But here, nestled close to shore, was a whole village’s worth of floating shacks. It was much bigger than I had expected and certainly bigger than the floating village I had seen in Ha Long Bay. Boats motored back and forth, some captained by young boys, to conduct the daily business of the village. Behind every boat was a black cloud of smoke in the air and a dark, oily trail of residue in the water. We often had to stop to pull pieces of trash and debris from our engine.
The water was too low for us to go down the “streets” of the village… and by 'streets' I mean the open stretches of water between the rows of floating shacks, but we did take a lap. The village had everything you’d expect – including a floating “general store” that my nerd brain automatically linked to Beedle’s Shop – the boat store in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
One of the most interesting things we saw there though was a Vietnamese orphanage. Apparently there were a number of Vietnamese immigrants living in this village (although I don’t exactly understand why) and among them were a large number of orphan children. The orphanage looked like a floating school with big Vietnamese text on the side. Children played on the outside of the school-boat just as the do in any school that I teach at.
We were asked if we wanted to give them a donation of food. This would require us to go to a store ‘in town’ and buy it, and then sail back to the orphanage to give it to them. The question was asked in a way that gave a pretty strong guilt trip but we had to say no because 1) we had a flight to catch and 2) nonprofits working with children in Cambodia strongly advise against turning things like orphanages into objects of tourism. The best thing to do to help children like this is support organizations who work for/with them. Some of the proceeds of the outrageously priced boat tickets we had just purchased were supposed to go to the local community anyway. Also I didn't appreciate the guilt trip.
We eventually had to turn back and head in. We made our way back to the mouth of the river, and played ‘chicken’ all the way back to the docks, getting stuck multiple times again. Upon our return to shore our crew asked us for tips. Tipping is not customary here. We were starting to feel confused about where exactly all that money we had paid for our ticket was going but we tipped them anyway. One of them was (supposedly) about to have a baby. Now I see why he told us that.
We hiked back up the steep river bank and made our way through the dusty roads back into Siem Reap. Our next stop will be the capital, Phnom Penh.