I love researching new places before I first visit them, but I have to admit that my scholarly endeavors before visiting Cambodia were lacking. I was busy and didn’t have the time I needed before flying with Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then on to Cambodia to properly research all the things to see and do in Siem Reap. I put myself in the hands of my hotel, the Residence d’Angkor, knowing that as long as I saw some temples that I would be alright. As it turns out, one of my favorite experiences had nothing to do with temples and almost didn’t happen at all.
The description on the hotel’s web site and in their on-site brochures mentioned a river and a visit to traditional villages. That’s all I needed to know before eagerly signing up for the excursion, the destination I didn’t even know. I did know though that it was important for me to get out of the sometimes touristy Siem Reap, away from the Angkor Wat bubble and to see for myself what the countryside of Cambodia looks like. Plus I love being on the water, so it was an obvious decision to spend the afternoon out of town.
The drive out to the river was an enlightening one, the car passed by innumerable huts and makeshift houses, full of kids and parents whiling away the time. 4 million people in the country exist on $1.25 per day or less. Seeing poverty, extreme poverty, from an American point of view is always an uncomfortable experience as it was that afternoon in Cambodia. But I didn’t want to be the invading colonial; instead I wanted to learn more about these folks.
My guide paid the owner of the small boat, a floating combination of rickety wood, a bad motor and a lot of good wishes. He gave me a toothy grin and pointed to his US flag bandana; I imagine he has one for most countries, but the effort was appreciated. We were off though, an hour-long ride on the river that along with the massive lake is known simply as Tonlé Sap. The river is a strange one and its flow actually changes throughout the year and when the rains come in the summer months, the vast lake is formed. I was there early in the season passing through villages built on stilts, I had an inkling of what the area would look like in a few short weeks.
Fishing and rice are the industries of importance to the Tonlé Sap villagers, taking advantage of the change in seasons and the effect water has upon their lives. The small collections of huts on stilts were basic, just four walls and some furnishings, at least that’s all I could see. Boats lay about in the grass, just waiting for the waters to rise and make them useful again and kids jumped into the dank water, trying to stay cool on an oppressively hot day. As the water flow changes, many villagers move their entire homes, turning them into houseboats and floating to the next spot for the best fishing. After an hour (and two breakdowns) of puttering along the murky, brown river we arrived in what is the current lake, a reflective masterpiece I never would have expected.
Tonlé Sap is huge, it’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and has incredible importance to Cambodia both in practical and spiritual terms. I could see why as we motored among the huts, floating but still firmly anchored in place. It was an entire village with a school, store and homes, exactly as one would expect except that this one was floating. There was a certain beauty and elegance to the design and I felt myself getting lost in the mirror-like qualities of the lake and how it reflected the unusual town.
I didn’t go to Tonlé Sap to gawk or to engage in lowbrow poverty tourism, I went because I was curious. Curious to leave touristy Siem Reap and see what the country really looks like, curious to see this UNESCO recognized lake and curious to discover something new. My curiosity was well fed that day and I left happy, happy in discovering something new and different and happy to have seen more of what daily life is really like in the country, albeit discouraging. I didn’t plan this experience, it wasn’t the result of Internet research or advice, it was an impromptu decision but, as so often is the case, was the best one I made during the trip.
Have you discovered important but unknown to you places before?
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