Tonle Sap – Cambodia’s Great Lake

On my final full day in Cambodia, I took a trip to Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake, not far from Siem Reap. If you don’t want to hear me ramble on (and it’s a rambling one today), scroll down for the gallery.

After being picked up from my hostel and managing not to freak out when I discovered I’d booked a private tour (no disappearing into the crowd this time), my guide and I set off on the bumpy remork ride to the lake.

We rumbled through villages, where tiny school children expertly whizzed about on mopeds they were definitely too young to ride, women were carefully laying out incense offerings on the colourful Animist shrines outside their homes or collecting the crickets from their clever DIY traps, and the chimes from Buddhist ceremonies rang out through the thick, hot air.

We rattled past paddy fields and lotus farms, as my guide explained to me the different uses of the important flower in Cambodia. For Buddhists, the lotus represents purity, and of course I’d seen it being offered in Buddhist temples in Thailand. But it’s not just the flower that’s useful – the bulb is used to make stews, soups, and sweets, the stem and seeds are also eaten and can be used as medicines, and the leaves are used to wrap things – not one bit is wasted. Apparently, anywhere lotus flowers grow, the water is safe to drink. It wasn’t something I fancied testing though.

Taking a longtail boat from the pier, we headed down the river towards the lake. November to April is dry season in Cambodia, so the water was low enough to see the roots of the trees. According to my guide, as the water level goes up, the rats and snakes go up too, until they are running along the branches with the birds! The water can sometimes get so high that the trees become entirely submerged. I struggled to imagine my surroundings looking so different, especially as we floated past a cemetery – I didn’t want to think about what happens when that floods.*

Arriving at the lake, I was amazed to see just how huge it was. I guess I was expecting an oversized pond (yep, somebody didn’t do their research again). Turns out it is really, bloody massive, even during the dry season, but can swell up to 250 km in length and 100 km wide, and looked more like an ocean from our little boat, stretching out far further than I could see. Looking at a map afterwards put it all into perspective.

The boat took us past a small floating village – tiny, brightly coloured bouyant huts, often just one room, made from wood, corrugated metal, cardboard, plastic bags and whatever else seemed to be to hand, strapped to bamboo rafts, which can be towed along by boats, as the villages move with the bloating and contracting of the lake.

I hadn’t realised quite how difficult the living conditions were here. Many of Tonle Sap’s inhabitants are ethnic Vietnamese, who were either forced out or managed to escape the mass genocides of the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. Upon returning to Cambodia, unable to provide evidence that they were legal residents, they became considered stateless residents or illegal immigrants, despite the country being their home for generations. No legal papers means virtually no rights. These ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians are unable to buy houses, open bank accounts, and can find it extremely difficult to gain access to employment and education. Because of this, the majority now live on the water, working as fishermen, and send their children to their own floating schools. Conditions aren’t just challenging – they’re dangerous too. Malnourishment, risky working conditions, and poor healthcare all make surviving on Tonle Sap hard. With no real means of waste disposal, the lake has become one enormous watery rubbish tip; the same water they use to bathe, wash their (limited) food, and drink. My guide informed me that 12% of the children who live on the lake don’t make it to their 5th birthday, and the average life expectancy is just 54 years old.

Knowing all of this makes me look on this tourist ‘attraction’ in a very different way.

We soon approached a larger floating construction, which I was told was a crocodile farm (cue almost enough instant awkwardness to rival the time we were taken on a surprise trip to a dodgy elephant park in Bangkok). After looking at the poor creatures in their enclosures (there aren’t any in the wild any more), and then walking past a gruesome display of croc-skin handbags and shoes, I felt a little nauseous, and was glad to get back on our boat.

Next stop was a village market, so back on the remork I clambered, and off we went, stopping briefly to have a wander round a temple. It was beautiful, with a combination of Buddhist and Hindu decoration, and my guide talked through some of the different stories illustrated on the walls. We peeked in on some monks performing a ritual on a man who’d been to see a fortune teller, and received some unpleasant news about his destiny. To rid him of whatever nasty fate lay ahead, he had paid the monks to cleanse him with holy water. We’d spoken about faith on the way to the lake, and my guide seemed surprised and disappointed when I’d told him I wasn’t religious (he double checked, to make absolutely sure), but I still find learning about it fascinating. After saying hi to some super cute school kids bombing around the grounds on their bikes, and stopping to take pictures of an even cuter puppy, we headed off to the market.

This one wasn’t too dissimilar to Siem Reap’s – a food market for the locals, where all produce; everything from the usual fruit and veg, to live fish flapping around (one leapt out to momentary freedom right in front of me, before swiftly having its head hacked off with a cleaver), crickets, and snakes wriggling in plastic bags, was laid out on the floor, as customers picked which was going to be their dinner.

There was a brief moment of panic, when I thought my guide was going to try and feed me a handful of red ants, but thankfully he opted for jackfruit, some fried bananas, and a refreshing green juice, which was exactly what I needed for the journey back.

It was a mixed day – feeling guilty as the rich foreigner looking out from my private boat across scenes of rural poverty, only ever really glancing the surface – guilty as I took photographs of the crocodiles, statue-like in their tiny enclosure – guilty as I internally turned my nose up at the skinned frogs and grey flesh of the plucked chickens lying on the warm plastic sheeting at the market – but despite the undercurrent of sadness, it was interesting to see another side to Cambodia. My guide was fantastic – after my initial reservations I discovered that being shown around one-on-one by a local, someone who really knows their stuff and can’t wait to share their culture with you, is an invaluable experience. Unafraid to ask question after question, I felt like I learnt much more than I would hae done otherwise, and managed to get at least a glimpse into everyday life in rural Cambodia.

*But I’ll tell you – if someone dies during the rainy season, when the cemetary is under water, they roll the body up in a mattress and stick it in a tree out of the way, until the water goes down, and then bury the remains.

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