Siem Reap is not just the gateway to the temples of Angkor. The city sits near the great lake of Tonle Sap. Most of the year, this lake is relatively small and is around one meter deep. However, during the monsoon season the lake swells to eight times that size and gets to depths of nine meters. This massive flood plain is a huge source of food for the local population, a treasure trove of freshwater fish and a natural rice paddy. Whereas most areas around Siem Reap can only grow a single crop of rice a year, the area immediately surrounding the lake is capable of three.
Naturally, villages have found ways to deal with this large tidal flux. Some are stilted villages and some are actual mobile villages of boats, though all are generally referred to as “floating” villages. As a tourist, there are several to choose from and most can be visited in a single day. Anne and I wanted to try and stay away from the tourist spots, so we veered away from the more common floating village of Chong Kneas and went for Kompong Pluk. Kompong Pluk is also home to the “Floating Forest,” which provided yet another interesting photographic aspect.
There are many outfitters that can provide access to the villages. We chose to book our tour through Beyond Unique Escapes as they offer a range of tours in the area and the owners (Fiona and Anthony) were incredibly helpful in just about every aspect of our visit to the area. It’s clear that Beyond Unique Escapes cares deeply about the local culture, and they have programs that allow you to live a day in the life of the local people.
The monsoons had only recently stopped, so the Tonle Sap was near peak flood. Whereas during some parts of the year you can drive all the way to the village, it took us 40 minutes via boat to reach our destination. The village itself has all the trappings you’d expect: temple, police station, school, homes and shops. Merchants make their way back and forth between dry land and the village such that most people are able to stay in the village for long stretches of time. Some houses even have livestock (pigs) in pins.
Boats here are as common as mopeds and bicycles around Siem Reap. Commerce takes place in boats, boats are used to visit neighbors, and even small children row boats around as if they were riding tricycles. We made our way straight through the village and directly to the forest where we moved from our powerboat to a small, wooden canoe that took us into the floating forest.
The forest of course isn’t floating, most of the year it’s a forest just like any other. However, during the monsoons the forest takes on a unique feel with trees emerging directly from the water. Locals use the arbors to keep firewood and other precious things dry. We canoed through the trees, Anne and I both working to try and capture the unique feel of the place.
After our canoe ride, we hopped back in the power boat and took a short trip to the open expanse of the great lake. I’ve only rarely been on lakes as large. Here you’re incapable of seeing the other side of the lake and I’m sure if you go further out in the lake it’s possible to not see land in any direction. After coming back to the village, we took some time to pause and take in the hustle and bustle along the main channel in the village.
We concluded our visit to the village with a stop at the temple. Unlike most of the village, the temple is built on a plot of land that’s above water level. The hill is manmade, walled up and filled with dirt. Local children have learned that this is the place to find tourists and ask them for candy or other such things. Anne and I didn’t indulge their candy dreams but we did take time to photograph them. I’m not sure how often these children are photographed but it was awesome seeing the light in their eyes when they saw images of themselves. Next thing we knew, Anne and I both had a group of child models dancing around looking for the spotlight. It was a great time, certainly a highlight of the trip.
I’d certainly recommend the village for those wishing to see a floating village but without the normal throng of tourists. If you can, go early in the morning ahead of the crowds. Only as we were leaving did we start to see other boats of tourists on the way in. Also try to stop at one of the local shops and just hang out for a while to enjoy local life. If you just speed through in a boat you’ll miss all the fun.