Day 3 (Sunday, 27th March 2011)
Part of the tour package we signed up with Seagul Tourist was a half-day visit to Tonlé Sap. In Khmer, Tonlé Sap means “Large Fresh Water River” but it is popularly translated as “The Great Lake”. Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, 2nd largest in the world.
Note: click on images to enlarge
The Tonlé Sap is a major attraction for two reasons: the lake expands and shrinks dramatically based on the monsoon season. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh (2,700 square km). However, when the year’s heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake of nearly 16,000 square km! That’s with 8 meters gained in depth! (check out the map above for the difference between dry season and wet season)
On the way to the Tonlé Sap jetty we passed by a few villages. It was interesting to note that the traditional village house in Cambodia looks exactly the same as the one in Malaysia. Even the sarong and the top that their women wear looks similar!
I had a long chat with Soknin (our tourguide)throughout the trip. He told me more insider stories about the Khmer Rouge. Yesterday he told us how his parents, both teacher and university professor, was killed by the Khmer Rouge and 7 of his siblings died during the period. Today he told me he spends his evening teaching village kids for free, mainly history. He said living in Siem Reap is financially tough, and most of the money he gets goes to education. He wants his 2 daughters (refer to photo of his wife and kids) to be fluent in English as the English teachers in government schools are not that good. He explained that extra English classes in towns are expensive, but he believes it’s worth the money as fluency in English would open up a whole world of opportunity for Cambodian kids.
The jetty was 15KM away from town, and it took us around 20 minutes to get there. Upon arriving, Soknin purchased our tickets from the counter. From the jetty, we rode up the small Mekong canal up to Tonle Sap. The journey to Tonlé Sap took about 15 minutes. It was along the way that Soknin explained that it is the “dry season” now (meaning the lake is shallow, around 1 meter deep). He pointed out to the surroundings, at the markings at the trees that indicate during the monsoon season the water reaches up to 9 meters.
We arrived at one of the villages in Tonlé Sap. The lake is so massive that you wouldn’t be able to see the other end of it. The water looks a bit murky but that was due to the low/dry season. We saw boat houses, shops, churches, and yes, and boat basketball court. Imagine that. Everything is on water. These people have been living this way for the past few hundred years, most probably post Angkor period.
Soknin explained to us that majority of the people are Vietnamese and Cham. Most of the Vietnamese on Tonlé Sap are stateless people. They are not registered neither in Vietnam nor Cambodia. The Vietnamese people of Tonlé Sap want to be official citizens of Cambodia but the government is not doing anything to officially register them.
At Tonlé Sap’s “village center”, there was a catfish and crocodile farm. The crocodiles are reared for their meat and skin. I even spotted a local girl with his brother, both holding their snake pet. Mind you, their “pet” snake looks like a massive python! The girl scared the tourists as most of us refuse to go anywhere near her! I also saw a few boys peddling around in their mini “boat”. I guess that’s what little boys use to move between houses in this floating village.
After Tonle Sap, we visited a local jewelry shop that sells Cambodian precious stones. (It wasn’t that interesting for me.)
Soknin wanted us to see how modern day Cambodians preserve and nurture their engraving skills, so he took us to Artisans D’Angkor. It is a school of Cambodian fine arts and crafts. This is where the Khmer people educate their younger generation on the ancient knowledge on wood carving, stone engravings, silk making and creating impressive sculptures. In other words, they are giving their people the same knowledge on what it takes to built Angkor Wat. It was impressive. With all the highly skilled people being killed during the Khmer Rouge, this is definitely a step forward. Kudos to the Khmer government for envisioning this.
We headed back to the hotel afterwards. Since we’ll be leaving tomorrow morning, we said goodbye to our guide. We thanked Soknin for his patience, hospitality, and for all the stories that he has been telling us of his people. We gave him a handsome tip of USD20, and I told him personally that Cambodia could use more people like him. We wish him all the best.
We had lunch at another Khmer restaurant (our 4th Khmer food restaurant) in town. After that, we scouted for a bicycle shop and rented 4, one for each of us. We cycled to the nearby villages using a map obtained from the hotel. The villagers are so used to seeing the tourist that they merely wave at us whenever we pass by. Some just ignored us.
After our cycling session, we went for a Khmer body massage, which later I found out it’s more like a modified Thai message. At USD8, it was definitely the cheapest body massage I’ve ever had, it’s even cheaper than the one at Krabi (south Thailand).
We had dinner at a nice restaurant on Pub Street. We had dinner on the second floor, near the veranda. It gave us a nice view of the street and the evening scene in town.
Tomorrow is our last day here. Our flight leaves at 8:45AM. All in all it was an amazing trip. I only wished that I could stay here for a week and explore more temples. The Cambodian people are amazingly friendly. They have been through a lot and looks like things are getting better. They have what it takes to better themselves, and I’m pretty sure 10-20 years from now we’ll be seeing huge improvements in Cambodia.