I met a woman from Denmark over breakfast at my B&B in Siem Reap who had just been to Kampong Khleang, a remote village where houses are on stilts. She went there by tuk-tuk and spent her time mixing with the villagers. Her enthusiasm was obvious and though I wasn’t quite sure what the excitement was all about I felt we had similar appreciations, that this village was something I should see. So instead of seeing more Angkor temples I asked my tuk-tuk driver to take me to the same place this woman had been, to a village 35 km away on the edge of what in English is called Great Lake.
Tonlé Sap or Great Lake is unique because it doubles in size during the rainy season when the Mekong River joins two other rivers in Phnom Penh and because of its increased volume forces one of them (the Sap River) to back up and reverse its course. The Sap, in turn, flows northward and floods the Tonlé Sap with vast quantities of fresh water. In the dry season (starting mid-October) the reverse happens and the surplus waters are carried southwards to the Mekong Delta.
So this little village of Kampong Khleang and other settlements on the lake respond to these twice-yearly fluctuations in water level by building their houses on stilts or living in ones that can float. My visit to the village was during the dry season—in February—and the road was good all the way there. The village itself is incredible and you pass house after house teetering on what appears to be flimsy poles that are probably 10 meters high. What most alarmed me were the unsupervised children—many just toddlers—who were moving about on decks without railings way above me.
Everything seemed makeshift—good enough to last a few months—for in the rainy season the waters rise to within a meter or two of the buildings. This year, with the extreme flooding throughout Southeast Asia, the lake reached the roofs of these houses on stilts and they had to be abandoned.
After my driver and I made our way through most of the village, three young people approached us. They were obviously the gatekeepers for they told us where to park and rather unceremoniously took us up the town hill, past the monastery and school, and down the other side to the dock. No other tourists were in sight so if I wanted to go out on the lake I would have to rent the whole boat myself and these guys weren’t into deal making. So I paid up and was assigned two pre-teens as driver and guide although neither spoke a word of English until the very end.
For all my griping I must say it was well worth the price for being the only passenger has its advantages and watching village life from a boat is ideal because you don’t feel too intrusive. The river is the main street and it is a busy one with much activity all around: floating stores and markets; women cooking and washing up at the stern of the boats; children swimming in the muddy waters and keen to say hello; huge fish traps everywhere for the annual flood fills the lake with sediment, making it a rich source of fish. More than half the fish consumed in Cambodia are caught here. The land is also very fertile and farmers can be seen plowing their fields with the most rudimentary equipment.
Near the end of the tour one of the guides approached me and in a low voice asked if I had something for him. While the ‘ask’ didn’t thrill me I handed over another buck and he seemed pleased. There are other floating villages, a couple closer to Siem Reap, but I’ve heard tourism has taken them over. Kampong Khleang is a friendly place where life goes on as it has for many years. Visiting it was a highlight of my time in Cambodia.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012