Man there’s a lot going on in my cover photo. It kind of looks like a Richard Scarry book, Cambodian-style. You would be right to assume this story is about the continuation of our rather sketchy nautical adventures on SE Asia’s largest lake!
On the last day of our guided tour from Siem Reap we hired a long-tail boat to see the floating village of Chong Khneas on the shores of Tonle Sap lake.
Tonle Sap loosely translated means “great lake.” It’s a really curious geological phenomena, because its flow changes during the year when influenced by the monsoon. When the Mekong River swells further south, water is backed up into the lake. As the dry season sets in, the water starts flowing into the river again.
To really understand the magnitude, the lake can apparently go from a size of 3,000 square metres and a depth of two metres in the dry season to more than 10,000 square metres and a depth of 14 metres during the monsoon.
Our visit coincided with the end of the wet season, so naturally you would expect the water to be high. However, Cambodia has had such little rain over the past few months that the rice is not growing properly and the height of the houses were far above the normal water line.
Our tour guide is very concerned about drought and starvation in Cambodia in the coming months. Whether it’s subsistence farmers not making enough rice to feed themselves and sell at market, or fishermen who can’t find enough fish, it’s going to be rough for this already impoverished nation.
When we arrived at the boat launch (if you could call it that) we saw a number of long-tail boats tied up to the shore. We walked across a short plank of bamboo poles tied together with rope and then scrambled across a couple of decks to get to our boat.
Each boat is about six feet wide, with the entire canal being about 25 feet in width. You can do the math and imagine the scene when a boat is tied up to either side of the canal, and two boats need to pass each other in the middle.
When we got on the boat, I noticed three life jackets for the six people on board. Meh… the canal isn’t deep, we said!
Our driver jumped into his seat, and we watched him maneouvre the boat (expertly I might add, given the tight squeeze). The steering column and gas peddle were tied together with ropes that were attached to the motor at the back.
Our guide got a chance to try out a new career when the motor suddenly lost speed and our driver needed to check out what was going on in the back. The guide smiled sheepishly and said driving a boat was a new thing for him.
Once we got going we soon forgot about the sketchiness of our ride as the village was fascinating. Homes, schools, the police station – all buildings were high up on stilts to withstand the fluctuating water levels.
The buildings were about 30 feet above the water. Steps running down to the water stopped at a platform in the middle, which is where the high water mark normally sits.
Everything is conducted by boat. Whether riding the school “boat”, raising pigs, or selling goods – all activities take place on a boat or floating structure. Venice has nothing on this village!
Of course the people are very poor, with 90% dependent on fish as both a food source and income to buy the rest of life’s necessities. Access to safe water is a pressing issue, as water is pumped up to homes through a pipe, and grey water returns the same way. People essentially pump their water from the same place their neighbour is using the toilet.
Once we got to Tonle Sap from the canal, we watched fisherman at work. We looked up and noticed a woman making a beeline for us in her small boat. She came right up alongside us, and for a moment we wondered if we were going to be attacked by a tiny Khmer pirate.
In the end she sold us a couple of beers and some Coke for the kids. It was the perfect compliment to a sunny day on the lake!