Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia

Seen on the way to the lake. I would’ve given my right arm to travel about like this when I was a kid.

At about 4pm on Friday Ean picked us up from our hotel and we headed out to Tonlé Sap Lake. Now, I’m not sure what was going on in my head, but from somewhere I’d picked up a mental image of a lake with trees in it and blue water and … I don’t know… nice stuff. It really wasn’t like that at all.

Houses on the way to the lake. Our driver lived quite close to here. They are on stilts because of the monsoon floods.

We bought $20 US tickets from the dock about 30 minutes out of town. Imagine an open cut mine with some raggedy boats milling around. The water was milky-tea coloured and there wasn’t a tree (or anything green other than a toxic sludge around the water’s edge) evident anywhere. Somewhat unfortunately, we’d timed our visit for the end of the dry season. The lake is filled once a year by the monsoon to levels of 5 metres or more but for us it was more like half a metre. We saw a couple of boats being pushed out of the mud.

There was a 20 minute ride along a narrow channel (strewn with garbage and shacks) to the lake. I was kind of wondering what we’d signed up for. Luke and I had one of the little boats to ourselves – us and to young men, one as pilot, the other as our guide. It turned out that only the pilot was paid, our guide did his job in the hope of a tip at the end.

This boy jumped aboard to sell us coke and beer. That’s our guide in the background.

When the channel emptied out into the lake we saw the floating village.

Groups of dwellings, some looked a lot like regular wooden houses, others like boats with shacks perched on top. Our guide told us many interesting things about the people who lived there. Accommodation on the lake is free but dangerous. Hundreds of people die each year due to the monsoon storms. Our guide himself was orphaned at the age of 5 when his parents died in a fishing accident. There are currently around 150 orphans living on the school boat and surviving on charity.

The children here are some of the ones who live at the school.

We bought a bag of rice to take over to the school from the co-op boat. When we got to the school they had quite a lot of rice already, if I’d known I would’ve preferred to take some fruit or vegetables, it seemed as though they lived on rice and fish most of the time. While we were at the school some Chinese people arrived and handed out books and lollies. I am not a fan of giving junk food to children in these situations. I can’t imagine the kids have toothbrushes or toothpaste to deal with this kind of diet and the wrappers from all the sweets get chucked in the water.

The teachers at the school, if I understood correctly, work there for a week at a time for free and then rotate. It seems to be a pretty unstable arrangement but better, I suppose, than no school at all. The lake community, according to our guide, looks after each other though. And he said that he thinks they are happy – “poor but happy,” and they share their resources.

This boy on the boat was dancing about and singing, much to everyone’s amusement. Reminded me very strongly of my nephew.

It was quite heartbreaking to watch families using the lake water for swimming and drinking when sewerage clearly would be going straight into their environment untreated.

The visit was… well, obviously not fun… but definitely interesting and eye-opening. I’m glad we went. On the boat ride back our guide and pilot brought a bag full of beers and shared them with Luke. They gave me a rather odd soya drink in a can. It was a bit like sweet, floury milk.

We watched the hazy sun set from the prow of the boat and watched families go past, back to their floating homes.

Ean was waiting for us at the dock and on the way back to Siem Reap he took us to his house. Even though he said I could bring my camera I felt a bit uncomfortable about taking photos. He lives with his wife and son and daughter in a one room cabin that is raised up off the ground. The village market seems to happen pretty much right outside his front door and he said the dust from the road often blows in. He had 3 dogs but now has 2 and fears someone took the one that is missing.

Ean had lots of photos up on one wall, a tv and shelves of toys that belong to the kids. There was one bed that had a curtain around it. It seemed that often the kids slept there and he said he would sleep on the floor. Speaking of which, the floor in his house was the most beautiful wood. Dark and super shiny and smooth it was absolutely lovely to sit on and I told him about how I have a wooden floor at home but it is full of holes and nowhere near as nice.

We had a drink and talked for a while before heading back to the hotel. It was sobering, realising what luxury we had to return to when there were people so close by who lived in fairly extreme poverty.

That evening we met up with Kitty, a friend from Melbourne who is traveling around Asia with her 13 year old son. Turns out I thought I’d messaged her back last night and hadn’t – no wonder she didn’t turn up! Tonight I’d suggested we meet at ‘Butterflies’, a restaurant inside a butterfly enclosure. Now, because I am a certified genius, it did not occur to me until we got there that butterflies don’t fly around at night so we didn’t see a single one. Le sigh.

Still, we had a great chat about Cambodia, compared travel stories and just generally enjoyed talking to people who weren’t the people we’d spent all day every day with. Kitty’s son Harvey particularly seemed to enjoy talking about gaming with (to?) Luke. Mums aren’t the best audience for that.

Cambodia has certainly, in our short time here, been a positive, and learning, experience. If I could give any prospective travelers advice it would be to come in November/December. You’ll get a lot more out of the place when it isn’t nearing 40 degrees.

Angkor Wat

Before I relate yesterday’s adventures, I’d like to do a quick plug for another blog, The Adventures of Lames McFuzzy, written by another Australian couple who, sadly, have just finished their 3 month tour of SE Asia. I’ve really enjoyed reading their adventures and if you’re planning on visiting the same part of the world they include lots of good travel tips. Whenever I have time, which isn’t often, I like to search for good travel blogs and this one is a lovely read.

Speaking of having time on my hands, Luke’s gone out temple-touring today while I sit in our room in close proximity to the bathroom. Just in case. People tell me this is bound to happen on any trip to SE Asia, I’m kinda grateful it’s happening while we’re staying in a four star hotel with reasonable wifi, room service and all the other mod cons.

Anyhow, enough about my bowels, on to Angkor Wat, reputedly the largest religious site in the world.

The thing to do (and it certainly seemed that everyone was doing it) is to get up at 4:30 in the morning and drive out to the main temple to watch the sunrise. An picked us up at 5:15 and we went to the kiosk along the way to buy our tickets. $20pp for one day’s entry to all the temples and they take your photo and print your ticket with your picture on it – very high tech!

There’s a pool of water right in front of the main temple structure and so the reflections of the sunrise look great. We were in a crowd of at least 2 or 300 people so there’s wasn’t a whole lot of serenity to enjoy, unfortunately. At least the dozens of people selling guide books sort of leave you alone at that point.

Even at dawn the weather was hot. It was 32 degrees, which climbed to about 38 over the course of the morning. After grabbing a few shots we wandered around the temple. The restoration works are much in evidence but are clearly very well done. The whole thing reminded me of Tomb Raider (the game), which I spent one Summer in Canberra watching my housemate play. There are parts of Angkor that look as though they should be filled with water and there’s so many swimming scenes in the game that I was half hoping to spot some kind of secret lever or trap door 😉 .

I don’t know whether it was the onset of my stomach issues or just being a wuss, but the heat was making me feel woozy. I didn’t take many photos and eventually went to the line of drinks stall in the hope of getting some ice for my neck scarf. After I bought some water and tried to explain what I wanted, the lady sawed off a piece of ice (they come in enormous blocks here) the size of a housebrick. Smaller please! I ended up with something the size of maybe 4 Mars Bars bundled together which was a bit awkward but heavenly nevertheless and there’s nothing like icy water running down your spine to perk you up in baking heat.

Luke and I wandered off down one of the side roads and found a run down little part of the wall where there was a gate and a gorgeous view over the lake. With no one else around it was extremely peaceful and lovely. From there we wandered around the outside of the walls back to the main entrance.

From there An drove us to another temple where the wall carvings were in excellent repair, even thought there was no roof left to this building. While driving us around An told us that all these ruins had lain in the jungle, completely unknown to anyone for over 200 years before a French Archeologist discovered them last century. Due to a war with Thailand everyone had left the area a long time ago and so even the local people had forgotten them. I can’t imagine how that explorer must have felt, coming across these buildings for the first time. It would’ve been magical.

We walked through two more complexes. One was the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’, featured in the movie and currently undergoing huge restorations, the other was the ‘Smiling Face’ temple (probably not it’s real name but handily, I didn’t write down anything An told us), which I walked around the bottom of and Luke went through. I have a minor phobia of steep flights of stairs and this one had lots of steep, slippery, narrow stairs.

But this time it was about 12 and An took pity on us and drove us by a few other sights before dropping us back at our hotel. He had been a great driver all day – unending bottles of icy cold water, lots of local information and even told us about his family and what happened to them under the Khmer Rouge. I was very glad I’d spent a while reading about the history of Cambodia on our way here. I’d heard of Pol Pot but I’d had no idea just how atrocious the history of Cambodia was. Seems like they’ve been at war for a very long time, and when it wasn’t other countries trying to take over it was their own leaders commiting genocide.

A very instructive, interesting and active day. I was very happy to get back to the hotel for a shower, swim and a nap before our evening excursion.