Our time to Siem Reap wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap!
Using Siem Reap as home base, we were able to take a half day tour of one of the floating villages located on the Tonle Sap lake. It sounds obvious, but one thing Shane and I try our best to do when we travel is to support the local economy. We try to stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and use guides from the local community to make sure that our tourism dollars are actually supporting the place we’re visiting. Of course, this can’t always be done – lack of reliable information, budgets, etc. – but, generally speaking, finding a local tour guide is easy to do.
Accessible from Siem Reap, there are 4 main floating villages. In doing tour research, I found out that the closest village, Chong Kneas, is basically a tourist trap and essentially none of your money goes back to the locals. Scratch that one off the list.
I ended up settling on the furthest village (~55km; 35mi), Kompong Khleang, because of a “Community First” tour I found online. I really liked it because a person who actually lives (or in our case, grew up in) the village is the one who gives the tour, and all the money paid goes back into the village itself – to the school, to their clean water project, and of course to pay the guides. I also especially liked it because the tour included stops for snacks. Boy, do I love snacks!
So, as I mentioned before, our guide grew up in Kompong Khleang and he was eager to take us to his village. We were picked up at the hotel in the morning and headed off to our first stop – bamboo sticky rice!
Rice, beans, sugar, coconut & coconut milk mixed together and is placed inside a piece of bamboo. It’s cooked over a wood fire for a few hours and presto-chango! A warm delicious treat! To get the rice back out, you kind of squish the bamboo with your hands and then you can peel it like a banana.
Our next snack stop was more than just eating snacks. We actually got to see how the snacks were made! We tried doughnuts (see Sis pic above), ginger cakes – which tasted exactly nothing like ginger – and ice cream cones made from rice and sesame seeds.
Now that we were sufficiently sugared up, we made our way to the lake. As I mentioned before, the Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We happened to be there during the dry season (Nov. – May). During this time the lake is about 3000 sq. km (1150 sq. miles) and only about 2m (6.5ft) deep. During the rainy season the lake grows. I mean REALLY grows – to 10,000 sq. km (3850 sq. miles) and a max depth around 14m (45ft.).
Kompong Khleang is actually a stilted village. In the dry season you can see this, but in the wet season when the lake swells, the houses appear to float. Despite being stilted, we needed a boat to get around. So, we hopped in and headed to the Bridge of Life school, which is supported by the tour.
I would just like to take a moment to discuss this boat. Now, don’t get me wrong, never did we feel unsafe on the boat, but when you start noticing how said boat functions you can’t help but laugh and be amazed all at the same time. If you look at the above picture, straight down the middle to the back. That container? The fuel. The rudders? Connected with rope. Gas pedal like a foot pump. Hey, it got us from A to B and back again, but we were definitely not expecting it!
Anyway, back to the Bridge of Life school. We arrived when school was in session so we got to watch the last few minutes of school with the cutest kindergarten-aged kids in their matching school uniforms sing their closing day songs. Out of respect for the kids and their families, we didn’t take pictures of them, but I can show you their one-roomed schoolhouse precariously perched on stilts with floorboards I wasn’t entirely sure would hold all 6 of us adults.
Do you want to know what’s really cool? In America, we have school busses. In Kompong Khleang they have school BOATS! The kids who live further away are picked up and taken home in a school-boat! This really serves two purposes – it assures the kids will make it to school and it allows the parents to not lose income by taking time off to bring the kids.
On top of having school boats, this school is extra adorable. Ya know why? See the ramp going up to the school? One side has slats, for walking up. The other side is smooth, and it’s hard to tell in the picture, but the wood is extra smooth – shiny even. It’s for the kids to slide down when they leave! We got to watch this happen and they all loved it!
Outside of teaching, the school does other things for the community as well. They have a sewing school (a useful trade) in the front of the building as well as their own water filter to provide free clean drinking water (and encourage reusing water bottles).
After the school, we walked around the village for a little bit then it was back on the boat for some more touring!
After a few hours on the lake, we headed back to land and back to Siem Reap. Since we were home by early afternoon, we spent a happy afternoon by the pool and followed it up with the night market and infamous Pub Street!
And with that, our quick time in Siem Reap was up.
Next up, Battambang!