The narrow straight road reminds me of one of the Dutch roads being laid out on a narrow dyke not far from where I was born. It prevents the water from flowing from one field to the next. Just the hordes of cyclists are missing. Around me, the landscape is as flat as the one I grew up in, and a smile appears on my face when I observe a familiar bird, the Common Snipe (gallinago gallinago) wading through the muddy shallows of water parallel to the road, searching for food. This bird used to be printed on the former Dutch notes of 100 Guilders, a wader I haven’t seen in a while. It is not the only one searching for food. Bare chested, tanned fishermen make their way through the murky waters, ready to throw their nets while a kingfisher strikes from the air. The road is rebuilt every year when the water of the massive Tonlé Sap Lake resides several kilometres in the dry season. It ends in a dusty parking lot bordering the stream that is connected to the lake. We are about ten thousand kilometres away from the Netherlands when the captain of a characteristic wooden boat welcomes us on board to explore his floating village, Kampong Phluk, in the heart of Cambodia.
It looks as if time has stood still for a few decades. The handmade wooden houses contrast greatly with the booming city of Siem Reap where tourists touch down to explore the ancient temples of Angkor. Children operate boats, women wash themselves and their kids in the water, pigs are raised on boats, vegetables grow in suspended pipes, and wooden frames covered in fishing lines mark small hand-made fish farms. Some houses are literally floating on the calm water. Our enthusiastic guide explains: “Owning a boat here is vital and the most important way to communicate with the world. Most of the people take the fish they catch to the shore to sell it on the markets. But kids take their boats as well to go to school!” The captain skilfully lands the boat and stows it a dock. We climb up a few concrete stairs and enter a wide sandy street on which young boys are challenging each other playfully in a wood log throwing game. Others play soccer while some girls try to ride bicycles, practicing with utmost focus to keep their balance. On both sides of the road, colourful wooden houses on stilt rise about four to seven metres above us. The highest ones are up to ten metres! Young kids stare at us from the tiny balconies on which herbs and vegetables grow, their little feet dangling scarily above the steep vertical ladders.
“Life for the people in this village in the rainy season compared to now in the dry season is totally different”, our guide explains. “In the rainy season, between June and November, the water reaches to just underneath the entrances of the houses. Transport between houses, the school, the temple, markets and other towns is done 100% by boat. No soccer, cycling, wood throwing, nor tag games for the kids anymore!” he adds. “In fact Kampong Phluk is a seasonal floating village. A good boat ride on the Tonlé Sap Lake away, lies another village that floats all year round, let’s go there.”
We board our vessel again, and pass by the colourful wooden school building before reaching the shores of the lake where we board a wooden canoe to explore the mangrove forest through which local women of Kampong Phluk paddle quietly through the flooded forest. The absence of roaring boat engines and the rhythmic sound of the paddle hitting the water surface creates a peaceful atmosphere. In the distance, one of the women sings in Cambodian with a monk on-board. The orange robe of the religious man contrasts against the different shades of green from the tender green of the trees to the murky green of the water.
Canoeing 20 kilometres to the next village is a bit too far: we embark the princess Tara one more time. She takes her time to carry us over the massive Tonlé Sap Lake. Apart from the puffing engine of our vessel, there are no sounds nor people to be seen on the lake. Only the plastic bottles floating on the surface to locate the many fish traps reveal that the lake is frequently visited.
The mirror-like surface of the Tonlé Sap Lake changes colour as the sun is making its way down. In the distance, I make out some anchored boats and pontoons, and a buzz of long tails commuting between the shore and some floating wooden platforms. Slowly, we approach the Chong Kneas floating village, populated by people who originally fled Vietnam. It is totally different from Kampong Phluk, and is literally a floating village with small houses floating on the river, and changing elevation with the water level. The setting sun taints the wooden houses, serving us a warm and scenic treat.
The Princess Tara lands parallel to the much bigger Queen Tara from where we watch the sun sinking into the lake in an orange sky. While enjoying a drink on deck and savouring a delicious meal, I wonder how it must be for the inhabitants of the floating village, to always be on the same small raft, cooking, sleeping, studying, washing, raising children and taking care of the elderly. It is a different world… Just a stone’s throw away from Siem Reap…
- Both floating villages can easily be visited on a half-day trip from Siem Reap. As Kampong Phluk is less touristy, we recommend you to visit this one for a more authentic experience.
- Contact Tara Boat to arrange half-a-day guided visits to the floating villages. Their tours of the floating villages are excellent, and they give back to the community.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!