Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Siem Reap: Lake Tonle Sap

This is part of a series of posts on our March 2012 trip to Cambodia. You can see some previous posts here, here, and here.

After lunch on our second day touring the countryside around Siem Reap, we headed south to Lake Tonle Sap for a visit to one of Cambodia's famous floating villages.

Tonle Sap is a geographical oddity of its own. First, it's the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Second, it fluctuates in size from about 2700 sq km (1040 sq mi) in the dry season to about 16000 sq km (6200 sq mi) in the wet. Third, the flow of water in the lake actually changes direction with the seasons: in the rainy season, the Tonle Sap River backs up and flows into the lake, while the rest of the year the lake drains via the Tonle Sap River to the Mekong.

Tonle Sap is a major pillar of Cambodian ecology, not to mention an important water transport route and a crucial source of fish. Not surprisingly, an entire society has grown up around the Tonle Sap ecosystem, consisting floating villages that move along with the shoreline and the landside villages that keep them supplied.

Given my obsession with boats and Nana's intellectual interest in, well, everything, it should come as no surprise that we spent an afternoon journeying to Chong Kneas, the floating village nearest Siem Reap and one of the region's growing tourism hotspots.

In the dry season, one's first impression of Tonle Sap is not a pleasant one: mud, mud, and more mud, both in the water and in the embankments that serve as shipping channel walls when the lake is at its highest.

Major construction.
The boats themselves were cheerful affairs, though it looked like there were many more of them than the trickle of tourists could possible fill. 

In fact, we had an entire boat to ourselves.
Granted, it was the low season.
On the ride out to the village, we got to see several interesting glimpses of daily life on the lake.
They set ships up on stilts during the dry season, both for building and repair, then simply float them away when the water rises.
Near the harbor, at the end of a rough road atop the embankment running next to the channel, is a small port where those living on the lake can come to trade.

Two boats pulled up by the port.

A floating store.

A floating store with satellite television!

A boat pulled up to the store.
A new house barge under construction. It's steel, meaning it's either a government boat or it belongs to one of the wealthiest people on the lake.

Beyond the port we passed through a large mangrove forest that, in the rainy season, is almost entirely submerged. (You may have seen pictures like this of Cambodian people paddling canoes through stands of mangrove trees. It's a wet season thing.) On the whole, it was a very placid ride, interrupted occasionally by lake families tearing by on the way to the port, or by occasional flashes of activity on the banks of the canal.
The family station wagon.

Two families stop to trade. They're actually tied to the top of a tree sticking out of the water. Such anchorages were scattered around the mouth of the canal.
A closer look at a man-made anchorage.

Repainting a boat.

Mending nets.

The canal opens up very suddenly into the dry-season shoreline of the lake. There's a huge radio tower, then suddenly nothing but the distant horizon and houseboats as far as the eye can see.

We made our way out to one of the boats - essentially a floating souvenir shop - and had a look around. Most of the shots below are from the viewing platform on the roof.

It's a solar-powered houseboat.

The shop also had a bunch of motionless crocodiles in a pen below decks, for reasons not entirely clear to me.

On the way back from the store, we got a closer look at some of the houses.

Yes, that's a Korean flag on top. This houseboat knows how much the Koreans love their tchochkes.

A pigpen! On a boat!

On the whole, I'm glad we took this little trip. It was interesting to see a way of life so completely unlike my own, and it was a nice little break from all the temples.

However, in the end I'm not sure I'd put Tonle Sap anywhere near the top of the list of places to see in Cambodia. Perhaps it would have been better in the rainy season, when the trip down the canal is much shorter and the mangroves are looking their best. Ultimately, though the excursion was time consuming, I don't feel like we really saw much. But if like us you have the luxury of spending a whole week in Siem Reap, the floating village is definitely worth an afternoon.

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