As we putter down the main “street” of the village, a shirtless boy floats by in a battered aluminum wash basin and splashes his face with pea-green lake water. Behind him, a woman in a floppy beige hat hauls a load of firewood up the rickety wooden ladder that leads to her balcony. “It’s a hard life, brother,” says local tour guide Roeun Sarin, “but it’s all we know.”
The temples of Angkor may well go down as some of the most incredible sites I’ve ever seen, but the Siem Reap region isn’t all about thousand-year-old ruins. Case in point: the traditional “floating village” of Kompong Phluk on the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia. We visited during the wet season, but if we’d been around a few months earlier or later, we could have walked down the main street.
For many, the highlight of a trip is transferring to a traditional rowing boat to see the “floating forest” (the trees, like the houses, are in fact firmly rooted to the ground).
The to-ing and fro-ing of the Tonlé Sap hydrological system have dominated Cambodian life for millennia. The vast seasonal lake is Southeast Asia’s largest (for half of the year, at least), and the one-of-a-kind Tonlé Sap River flows in one direction from November to April, before doing a U-turn and flowing the other way for the rest of the year. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians farm rice in the fertile soils that are exposed when the lake recedes, but the Tonlé Sap’s floating villagers make their living from fishing and, increasingly, tourism. “Boat driver is a much easier job than fisherman, brother,” says Sarin.
If you go on a tour with Sarin’s company, you’ll visit the home of a woman who makes delicious handmade waffles (នំថាំងនួន in Khmer) some 45 minutes from Siem Reap and an outdoor market for some more sweet treats (banana sticky rice, anyone?). From there you’ll pay a visit to a sprawling and completely non-touristy pagoda for a brief intro to Buddhism, so be sure not to show too much skin.
You’ll then board a motorized boat for the ride to the “floating village” (a 15-minute journey through water as far as the eye can see), where multicolored washing lines dangle just above the lake surface and mobile greengrocers sell bananas and mangoes from canoes. You might even be able to hop off the boat to check out the local schoolroom (the teacher was eating lunch in front of a blackboard plastered with Khmer script when I visited), but not if classes are in progress. For many, the highlight of a trip is transferring to a traditional rowing boat to see the “floating forest” (the trees, like the houses, are in fact firmly rooted to the ground), an otherworldly wonderland that reminded me of the algae island in Life of Pi — minus the meerkats.
If you visit in the dry season, you’re in for an entirely different experience. You’ll still access the village by boat (friends who’ve been say the short spin along what remains of the river does feel a bit “silly”), but you’ll walk, not paddle, down the dusty main street (dodging 30-foot tree-trunk stilts and impromptu games of soccer) and the floating forest will be downgraded to a regular forest. By the sounds of things, the only thing more interesting than a floating village is a floating village with no water.
Which is why I’ll definitely be back.
Go there: TONLÉ SAP FLOATING VILLAGES
- Classic: Half-day tours to Kompong Phluk with Tonlé Sap Tours cost $29 per person and include all transfers and a donation to a local NGO. The afternoon departure gives you a chance to experience sunset on the lake.
- Also on the menu: Other popular tours include Kompong Khleang (farther from Siem Reap and more of a town than a village) and Prek Toal (great for bird-watchers).
- DIY: If tours aren’t your thing, you can go it alone, but it’ll cost a lot more. Commandeer a tuk-tuk (around $18) or taxi ($35) to the boat dock, before paying $21 per boat ticket and another $5 to see the floating forest.
- Just say no: The tours in Siem Reap will try to take you to Chong Kneas, but the whole place is a farce and the villagers there are “like actors,” says Sarin.
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