A day trip to Kompong Khleang and Tonle Sap Lake, Kampuchea
Oh dear I thought as the mini van doors slid open revealing the slumbering forms of four teenagers. We’ve been spoiled so far, even most of the small group tours we’ve booked have ended up just being us and we’ve come to enjoy having a guide all to ourselves. Vague disappointed pushed aside we squeezed past them into the vacant back seats and we were on our way.
Our first stop was only a few minutes later when we pulled over by a roadside vendor making and selling sticky rice in bamboo, a dish we’d seen being sold outside some of the temples but hadn’t yet tried. Fresh green bamboo sections about a foot and a half long are stuffed with rice, water, red beans, shaved coconut and some sugar before the open end is sealed with wet straw. They are then placed over charcoals for an hours cooking during which they’re regularly turned. At the end of the hour the burnt outer layers are hacked off with a machete leaving a thin casing of bamboo around the now cooked rice dish. You peel back the bamboo like a brittle banana skin leaving the soft and fragrant rice exposed for you to eat. A packaging and therefore rubbish free portable snack, we both thought was pretty delicious, J and I sharing one while the teenagers picked cautiously at theirs before climbing back into the van where they slept once more.
Our next stop was at a local market, among the fruit and vegetables stalls the mornings catch was just beginning to arrive, sellers setting up shop on battered tarpaulins, their wares still wriggling wildly not yet aware of their fate. Several food stalls selling aromatic noodle soup and one lady making rice flour pancakes she was filling with meat and vegetables made us wonder why our food tour didn’t come here. Everything smelt amazing and we would willingly have tried many of the dishes we saw. I bought some lotus pods full of the seeds we’d tried the other night, dispensing one each to our youthful companions, explaining alongside our guide what they and other fruits were before we boarded our mini van once more and headed to Kompong Khleang as I munched away on lotus seeds.
After travelling some distance from the main road along a dry paddy lined road and past increasing numbers of stilt houses we stopped. I wasn’t entirely sure we had arrived at the village until the end of the tour later that day, when we visited no other villages. The narrow road is lined either side by houses, little more than one roomed wooded boxes raised far off the road, behind and below them crops and what we later find out is the beginning of waterways leading to the lake. The water level changes by thirteen metres between the wet and dry season, the water frequently covering the road, hence the height the houses are built at. There are ten thousand people living along the road in this village, one of the most picturesque and least touristy of those easily accessible from Siem Reap. We stopped by one of the many families stringing rows of ten or so small fish onto bamboo rods, interlacing them with another rod of ten and placing them onto narrow racks several metres long and lining them along with scores of others to dry in the sun. After a days drying the racks are moved over a fire for smoking. Once finished they are sold at the local markets to be used in soups, stews and all manner of dishes and can be stored for up to five months. At one house an impossibly tiny girl no more than a few years old was holding a foot long razor sharp machete that she was using to carefully chop first mud and then a leaf alternating between using her hand and a slice of tree as a chopping board. Her movements self assured and measured far beyond her years. Electricity is a new thing in the village and not all of the houses have it, yet life functions quite easily. I couldn’t help think that were the power ever to go out permanently as science fiction threatens they would survive pretty much unscathed and it would be the West looking East for guidance.
After we’d wandered a little more we headed to the lake itself where we walked a narrow plank to board a twenty five foot covered boat, wooden chairs reminiscent of primary school were bolted to the floor in rows along a central walkway. The water level is almost at its lowest barely a metre deep here and we crawled along at a snails pace as much smaller lighter boats piloted by local fishermen flew by splashing us with brown and muddy water as they passed. The narrow waterway leading to the lake is lined either side by more stilted houses that give way to fields of green beans until the lake opened up before us. Tonle Sap lake covers between 2,500 and 16,000 square metres depending on the season but for the lack of waves we could have just boated out into the ocean, nothing but water as far as you can see. We stopped briefly at a floating village, surprised to see a couple of large dogs on the porches of several of the floating houses, poor things. The village, totally dependent on the lake for a living, moves location every few weeks moving farther out as the lake drys up and farther in during the wet season when it is at its fullest, a floating school among the many buildings that move with it. One of the teenagers threw up over the side of the boat, hungover more than travel sick methinks, it seemed the lil bunnies are Brits at university in Australia and had popped over to Asia for a little explore and have been exploring the bars as much as anything else and why not.
On the way back to the jetty we stopped briefly while the captain fiddled with the engine and became stuck in the thick mud lining the waterway. He produced a long wooden oar and tried to prise us free and when that didn’t work he used an even longer one. Seeing us not budge an inch I went to man the shorter one which knowing how clumsy I am on dry land let alone a boat was an interesting decision. As I grabbed the oar, stuck deep into the mud, a boat sped by rocking us wildly and I could feel my balance going but managed somehow to stay upright and with both me and the captain pushing we were soon free from the mud. I couldn’t believe J didn’t snap a photo but apparently he had been too busy preparing to rescue me from the water, convinced I’d be going over. Once again on our way we passed men standing waist deep pulling nets, children playing in the shallow water, women sat working on porches it’s another world. I don’t want you to think I am romanticising Cambodia, here or in Siem Reap, theirs is not an easy life by any means. Almost everyone we’ve spoken to here yearns for free elections, a government free from corruption and some benefit for the community from all the money tourism brings in, rather than it going into the pockets of foreign business men and cronies of the elite. But despite all this and everything the Khmer people have been through they are kind and welcoming, far happier than many of their counterparts in the West who even the poorest of have freedoms and wealth many here can only dream of. As if they had not been through enough theirs is a way of life under constant threat, in June 2015 there were eleven dams planned further up the Mekong river that supplies the lake in Laos, China and Thailand which will catastrophically affect the lakes level and those whose livelihood is dependent upon the diverse ecosystem that calls the lake home.
Back in the van we said goodbye to the quiet tranquility of Kompong Khleang and headed back into Siem Reap where we parted way with the girls, who really weren’t that annoying travelling companions, just young and uncertain and lacking in the confidence that age and experience will hopefully bring them Xx
Our tour was arranged by Beyond Unique Escapes who pride themselves in working with and supporting the local of community. As always we paid for our own tour. Photo credit for 2 photos goes to JHubz.