Rhat and our breakfast orders were waiting for us when we finally emerged from the room. All you loyal readers by now know that Tuna was also awaiting us! After breakfast, we put our tourist hats back on and met Savonn in the hotel driveway for our drive to Tonle Sap, the famed floating village.
Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, ranging in size from about 3,000 square km in the dry season to upwards of 15,000 square km during the monsoon season, when water from the Mekong river is pushed into the lake. In the dry season, Tonle Sap averages about four feet deep, but in monsoon season it can get as deep as 30 feet, flooding fields and forests in all directions.
Our visit in November was toward the beginning of the dry season and the water level in the lake and surrounding fields was relatively low...but from the look of things, you wouldn't necessarily know it. The drive from Siem Reap took us through several villages and along small rivers where houses are clearly built to avoid flooding. When I say, "built to avoid flooding", I mean they are built several feet above the water on tiny stilts that appear hardly capable of bearing the weight of the structure.
Upon reaching the lake, we noticed in-process construction on a large luxury resort overlooking the docks. The modern engineering and sturdy materials of the resort were in stark contrast to the primitive, fragile wood and metal framed homes that sit along the lake's edge only a few hundred yards away. Many of the homes are 25- 35 feet above the current water level, perched on bamboo, wood and in very few places, concrete stilts. Most had loose wood planks, balanced unevenly, from the front door to the roadway nearby. Apparently a fear of heights and poor balance have been eliminated from the population that live there.
Shortly after leaving the dock, a small boat sped towards us. Like a Somali pirate, but far less dangerous, the smaller and faster boat caught up to us and a young girl deftly stepped from the moving boat onto the back of ours and peddled snacks and drinks. After we refused, she quickly stepped back onto the smaller boat, where her father waited, and the two shot off in another direction toward a boat full of tourists. So many places we visited we were approached by children selling things. As difficult as it was to refuse, it is important to in most cases. Many of these children are forced, some by non-family members, to make a living like this. Much of the money they receive doesn't even go to them. It is a sad, sad situation, and trust me, very difficult to turn your back on.
As our boat passed by these "homes", children could be seen playing on the hard wooden floor of the boats or rocking in hammocks that hung inside and outside the structures. Others bathed in the lake water, and we saw one boy just lean over and drink directly from the lake (not a good idea but this is how they live). There were several boats where men and women sat inside a netted structure, smacking small fish as they jumped all around them - we were told they were making fish paste. Other men had clearly just returned from fishing with large buckets full of the tiny fish (regular fishing season hadn't started yet - the law only allows fishing half the year to allow the fish to reproduce the other half). The women we saw were mostly tending to children, or rowing small boats around the lake full of supplies.
As Savonn described it, the "rich" people have gas powered generators so they can power small TVs for short periods of time, while most others either run off of battery power or have no electricity at all. We saw very few TV's, but I was surprised to see a few families gathered around a laptop watching and laughing at something.
The other *crazy* part of the floating restaurant was the crocodile farm. Built under the boat with barriers was a pen holding probably 30-50 crocodiles caught in the river as babies and raised in captivity. We just stared down into the pen in complete awe of these creatures that looked like statues but who would gladly chomp us into pieces if we leaned just a litle too far over the railing.
The entire scene was very surreal, and more than once Jennifer and I looked at each other incredulously and speculated as to how we got here. The people were all very friendly, seemingly not concerned about yet another group of tourists gawking at their homes and their way of life, but it seemed impossible to believe people still live this way.
|Temple at Phnom Krom|
|"Dry Season" at Tonle Sap|
After climbing back down what must have been a thousand steps, we headed back toward Siem Reap for one last lunch with Savonn, a final stop at Journeys Within, and then the drive to the Siem Reap airport. At lunch, Savonn shared more stories about his family and children, and we enjoyed a few more Angkor beers. Upon returning to Journeys Within, we said one last goodbye to Rhat, Alex, and other members of the JW staff...and of course Sophia and Cooper had a tearful goodbye with Tuna, the house dog. As we pulled out of the JW driveway, the staff members all stood waving, and did not stop until we were out of sight. Jennifer cried - OF COURSE. Savonn made the drive to the airport with us, and saw us off to the airport entrance.
So after about 72 hours, 8 temples, 2 boat rides and countless Angkor beers, our visit to Cambodia came to an end. We said a final farewell to Savonn, promising to keep in touch via Facebook and offering to provide a review for him on TripAdvisor. We also made a note to send a supply of Frontline to Journeys Within to help Tuna stay healthy and avoid the Cambodian tics. Most importantly, on this Thanksgiving weekend, we made a promise to ourselves to remember the children and families of Tonle Sap and the other small villages of Cambodia, and to never forget just how fortunate we are to have been born in the United States.
Here are some ways you can help the children and adults of Cambodia:
Journeys Within Our Community
Caring for Cambodia