An afternoon on Tonle Sap, Asia's biggest lake

One of the optional excursions during our free afternoon in Siem Reap, was a boat trip out on Tonle Sap lake.

According to the guide book, "Tonle Sap represents one of Earth's most interesting natural phenomenon...each year, during Cambodia's rainy season, the swelling Mekong river actually back flows into the "Great Lake" via the Tonle Sap river. During the dry season, the lake's surface area is 2,600 sq. kilometres, but expands to a sea-like 12,000 sq. kilometres.

The drive out to the port was eye-opening in itself, in that we passed through villages which had been severely affected by recent floods in Cambodia.

The road was being re-built after being hammered by floodwaters, and large piles of gravel and construction vehicles lined both sides. Rural Cambodia is pretty dusty at the best of times, but with all the roadworks in progress, everything was covered in a thick film of red dust.

Being stuck in gridlocked traffic on what was effectively a single lane road, gave us a chance to peer into people's homes and see how they lived. Old TV's powered apparently by rechargeable batteries seemed to dominate homes, as did hammocks for beds. Houses are typically small wooden structures on stilts, and washing is strung across whatever poles are available. At least it wouldn't take long to dry in this heat.

We drove past a wedding, where we could see guests dressed in bright silks, mainly orange, peach and gold colored. Two large framed studio portraits of the couple stood on easels outside the building. It's tradition here, like other Asian countries, to have studio portraits done in wedding and traditional costumes before the wedding. It probably pays really well to be a wedding photographer in Cambodia.

Arriving at the port, which is now being developed by the Koreans, our bus driver found us a boat for the afternoon. We had to giggle - it was sort of a covered long boat, with wooden chairs strapped into position. Each chair had a life jacket strapped to it, which formed a backrest, and a cushion for a seat.

We headed out into the canal. Because of the recent floods, litter was strewn high into the mangroves, in some cases, two meters above the waterline. I can only imagine how many of the rickety little houses had been completely swamped...

Long boats zoomed up and down the broadening river, ferrying locals back to the mainland, and tourists out to the Great Lake.

Houseboats started to appear, and we could see straight into them. Small children ran around riverfront balconies, dogs and cats lazed in the shade, and life went about as usual, except it was all on water.

Our guide had warned that boats carrying small kids would pull up beside us and they would either try to sell us something or pay to take a photo of them and their pet pythons.

Sure enough, the very next boat we passed had a couple of young boys and their father, and the little one pulled out a young python. God I hate snakes, and was now within a foot of one in a situation where I couldn't get away. It was bad enough knowing that these waters had once been infested by alligators, but live pythons at close range were a tad confronting. The boys were just after a couple of bucks, which we happily paid to get them further away from the boat.

The lake was massive! As we ventured out into what felt like open water, we saw a floating monastery, telecoms tower and absolutely no sign of land on the other side of the lake. Apparently it's about a 5-6 hour speedboat ride from where we were to the capital, Phnom Penh.

We turned around and headed back inland for a look at the other side of the floating village. There were floating bars, kindergartens and shops, and our boat pulled into one large barge which had a bit of an observation deck.

Getting on and off these boats is not the easiest thing in the world, because you usually have to clamber over the bows of three or four boats which are also moored and bobbing up and down from the wash of passing boats.

We made it "ashore", and I happened to see something out of the corner or my eye move in the water. I was actually looking into a submerged wooden cage which contained about eight alligators. While the were not huge, they were very much live and looking upwards to see if they could catch their next meal ie, us...

The crocodiles bothered me because small children floated around the barge in small boats, and in a few cases, tubs that I'm sure were washing baskets. They were clearly used to living around water, but I don't think it would have taken much for the alligators to bust out of their enclosure and into a feeding frenzy!

Questions about where are the loos and how do you cook with open flame stoves or fires on wooden boats went through my mind. How and when do they teach kids to swim? Where does all the garbage go? However they did it, these mainly Vietnamese communities had adapted to life afloat Tonle Sap. It made me think about the creature comforts I take for granted every day back home.

As the sun descended, and we motored back to the port, the whiff of fires and yummy foods filled the air.

We stopped at a bar on the drive home, and watched the sun set through clouds over rice padi's, while swaying gently in hammocks.

I'm so glad we chose to do this optional mini tour. It was certainly a fascinating glimpse of rural and river life in Cambodia.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

No comments:

Post a Comment