Paddling through Chong Kneas in Tonle Sap
For those who may have noticed, most of my travel trails covers a lot of UNESCO sites. I’m pretty sure you can never go wrong visiting one of their sites listed on their heritage list. In Cambodia, the Angkor Archaeological Park is not the sole UNESCO site in the area, nearby is the presence of a Great Lake, which helped the kingdom of Angkor Build their impressive structures and empire akin to how the Nile River build the Pyramids and the empire in Egypt. Tonle Sap, which means Large Fresh Water Lake, is the largest lake in South East Asia and was declared a UNESCO biosphere back in 1997. So a visit to Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without having visited this very important site and take a glimpse of life by this great lake.
It was already afternoon when we decided to visit one of the floating villages in Tonle Sap. We rode on a tuk-tuk from our hotel and headed out into the country side. The 11-15km Tuk-tuk ride going there cost around US$5 back and forth from Siem Reap. It was a dusty country side road where you could clearly see the poverty and realize that despite the booming tourism and structures in Siem Reap, Cambodia is still a third world country. Along side the road are shanty houses and some stilt houses as well. It was a sad sight really.
A floating school
We were first dropped off at a floating village registration center. There we paid a whopping US$15 for each of us for a boat ride to Chong Kneas. “Man that was a ripoff!” my friend said. I also think that this was a Tourist Trap at that time. I told them that we wanted to visit Kampong Phleuk floating village, but they said that it’s already late so we have to settle for Chong Kneas instead. We were in no position to complain though so we paid and headed off to another short drive to the docks. Chong Kneas has a reputation for being too touristy, but I guess if this is what time would allow, it’s better than nothing. A kid who seemed to speak acceptable English took our tickets and guided us to our boat. A small boat for that matter with a shade! I guess we paid that certain amount since there’s only 2 of us along with the boatman and the kid who served as our guide.
A typical household
The water out of the docks was muddy. Our boat easily rocks on when waves come along. And when a large boats pass by, I almost thought that the boat would turn. I was worried since I don’t even have my dry bag with me for my camera. Anyways, getting used to it, we navigated through the canal. From there we could already see some locals on their boats, some doing fishing, others have some wood. And why do those other tourist have a large boat while they are alone?!
A floating sari-sari store
Shortly on our way out of the canal towards the open lake we could see some floating structures ahead. It was the school grounds, err water. It was very interesting as their basketball court is also floating. I wonder how it’s like to study there with the ground gently rocking and all. I could easily doze off during lectures.
An excited dog greets his owner
Soon we were out into the open lake. I thought it was gonna rain at that time since the sky darkened a bit, but good thing it didn’t. The scene somehow reminded me of a boat ride in Laguna lake, but as we approach the villages it was totally different, it was a large community floating on the center of the lake. The kid was explaining there were even several villages there whose names I could no longer remember.
A one dollar banana vendor
On our way to the village we were passing by this boat then suddenly these girls who were riding a smaller boat grabbed the side of our boat. Hey, that’s dangerous! While we were speeding they were holding on to our boat while the others were selling us Bananas and soft drinks. As soon as they found out that we have no intention of buying they let go. Wow! Even the vendors here are still persistent.
Approaching a restaurant and souvenir shop
I must admit that this boat ride turns out to be interesting as we go along (or maybe because there weren’t that many tourist around). The people here live on what we call houseboats. Their community have different floating facilities as well like a store, electronics and repair shop, police head quarters, restaurants even a catholic church.
Vendors by the restaurant dock
As we go around the village, we saw how they go through their everyday lives, from preparing meals, having board games, pets greeting their owners or just hanging out on their lofts. I saw some antennas in their houses and was wondering how could they watch TVs when there’s no electricity in the area. Well each houses have fuel powered generators.
Top view of the vendors
Later we stopped by a restaurant selling souvenirs and they also have some information about the biodiversity on Tonle Sap lake. They even have crocodiles there on display. Also present are hordes of vendors coherently repeating their “Just one dolla'” hymn to any tourist visiting the place. Good thing they were not allowed to go up the restaurant docks though, but it was a really sad sight.
A landmine victim on a tin boat waves good bye
While the floating village like Chong Kneas is picturesque, is also a display of the reality of poverty on a third world country. The people living here have a harsh life and their living pattern depends on the swell of the lake. During dry season about 5000 of these houseboats move within the lake but when the snow in Himalayas melts or the rainy season comes in, they move to narrow canals heading inland when the water rises. Their dwellings doesn’t even have proper sanitations which could open them up to a lot disease. Crocodiles are also an occasional threat. But the people here have tolerated this kind of life since fishing is their main livelihood. And some Vietnamese communities here who came from the Mekong River have been here longer and have gotten used to this kind of life.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.