Angkor Wat, Cambodia - Part 2: Tonle Saap     Last Updated: 21-Nov-01 

 

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We joined Thom and Joan, and George and Kim on a boat trip on Tonle Saap, the huge lake just to the South of Siem Reap. It breathes with the seasons, increasing to 12,000 square kilometers during the monsoons, and waning to just 4,000 square kilometers in the dry season. It was just beginning its annual contraction, with the rains ending in October, but we could still see many flooded fields (good for rice) as we flew in. Cambodia's economy depends on the lake and its fertilizing cycles, but it is not clear what the dams at Phnom Penh and on the Mekong headwaters in China will do to the lake and those who depend on it for their livelihood.

We drove in the Secrets of Elephants truck to the roofed longboat, which sat among many others chartered for other tour groups. We sat in wicker chairs on the boat's deck as the crew brought aboard the picnic lunch prepared by the guesthouse.

Heading South and then East through a ramshackle fishing village clinging to the land below the peak of Phnom Kron and its temple, we left the village's poverty behind. The waters seemed to clear a little, and we could see small fish jumping out of the water to escape the boat's wake. We approached the "Drowned Forest," a region of trees that stand in water during the rainy season. This is a major wetlands, and a winter destination for Asia's migrating birds. We saw gray heron, fisher hawks, swallows, egrets, pelicans, and many other birds. Some were diving into the water, others were startled into flight by the boat. The trees and water plants produce a rich ecosystem which is threatened by the growing pollution from Cambodia's surging population and the potential changes to the lake's cycles.

Along the way, we passed a few bamboo fish traps, and eventually came upon a Vietnamese fishing village which is clustered around a Buddhist temple. The temple sits on dry land (but its guarding lions have their feet in the water), and the crowded village houses sit above the water on stilts. As we saw on the land, the houses range from thatched bamboo to paneled siding. Many have extensions into the water, holding fish corrals, surfaces for drying fish, or pens with pigs. The village moves with the water; as it falls, they relocate it to a low-water position. Thom mused on what it took to move the land-bound temple. As we passed up and down the village's two main waterways, we were assaulted by intense smells if drying fish, cooking meals, and fetid water. Children waved from the houses, boats, and stairways, screaming "Bye-bye!" They were excited when we waved back. Moms (mostly) were mending fishnets and spreading fish out to dry, while teen-aged boys lounged in hammocks. Some adults waved as well, others sneered, and many just looked or continued working. It is not clear who was on display to whom. Electrical wires were strung haphazardly across the waterways, and Joan and I almost were knocked off the deck as we photographed the village. We mused over the sanitation practices, and were sure that they were adequately educated about plumbing and sewage.

Straw house on stilts  Main Street  Wooden house on stilts 
Kids waving from the house, ...  ... taking a bath, ...  ... or coming home from school 
Need fruits?  Or vegetables? 

The boat stopped briefly at the locked Red Cross building for a pee-pee break. The toilets sat on the ledge of the building, basically enclosed holes over the lake. Sewage question answered.

Can you find the out-house? 
Flooded trees  Taking the highway home  Floating greens (some seem to be house plants back home) 

After leaving the fishing village, we sailed again into the drowned forest, and anchored between two trees. The crew laid a bamboo mat out on the deck for us, and we sat in the shade of the tree and enjoyed a tasty picnic lunch. Off in the distance, at the base of another tree, the crew pointed out what they said was a snake in the water. One by one, we looked through binoculars and declared that it was either a snake or a bicycle tire, but not moving in either case. Finally, we all concluded that it was a snake, except for Joan (the self-declared snake expert), who was sure that it was a tire.

Finally, it was time to head the long way back. As we entered the original village near Phnom Krom, and saw straw-hatted women in blue boats sailing from floating house to house, selling foodstuffs, pots, china, household items, and prepared meals - 7-11 comes to you. Just as we thought that we were going to return to the boat landing, our boat slowed to stop at a floating restaurant. The first thing that we noticed was a large cage with pelicans, and huge storks roaming its deck. A woman was feeding pens filled with big, black catfish. A man dumped a big lethargic boa constrictor out of a plastic tub onto the deck. We then saw cages holding spider monkeys, a porcupine, another snake, and other very sad-looking cramped animals. Closer inspection showed that the stork's wings were clipped. Repulsed by this cruel tourist trap, we refused to buy anything and quickly got back onto our boat and urged the crew to leave.

Overall, the day was a pleasant change, with cool breezes and an escape from the dust of the temples. The fishing villages and drowned forest were fascinating. It was unfortunate that they ended a good trip with such a depressing spectacle. We all complained to the host of the guesthouse. He said that he had requested that the boat NOT stop there previously, but it seems that it was not yet effective.

 

 

Go to:      Angkor Wat & Ruins (1)     Secrets of Elephants / Siem Reap (3)     Meals (4)    

 

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