Two rivers meet at Phnom Penh – the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap. The Tonlé Sap is unusual because the flow of the river changes twice a year. The river empties out into the large freshwater lake many have made their home.
We hired a tuk tuk for the day, who picked us up from the hotel and drove us out of Siem Reap towards the lake. Mr. A and I had originally intended on renting bikes and cycling out there, but the rental company weren’t able to supply us with helmets or locks, so if cycling is your thing I’d definitely recommend bringing your own!
The two of us arrived at the lake and were taken to the ticket office of the boat company to buy a ticket for a boat tour. For $20, I found it fairly steep, but it seemed as if one company had a monopoly on the boat tours. As we thought that the steep fee might be due to the fact that these fees may contribute to the preservation costs of the lake, we paid anyway and were given our own boat and guide.
Mr A and I had arrived at Cambodia in the height of the dry season. This meant that the water wasn’t clear, but it was interesting to see the difference in water levels during the rainy season.
It was a fascinating experience to see all the floating houses on the Tonlé Sap lake. During the rainy season, the residents of the lake move themselves further upstream using little tug boats. You could see residents swimming and jumping from house to house, and there was a real sense of community. A good friend of mine has a houseboat in London, and I wondered how she’d find it with her little boat out on this expansive lake.
The white rag at the top of the tree in the photo above is where the river is during the rainy season.
The residents all depend on the river for fish. Our guide informed us that children aren’t allowed to go to school until they have learned how to swim – which seems sensible, as I’m sure the desire to push classmates into the water is a strong one! The whole experience reminded me of Venice. The lake is so large that you couldn’t see the end, and was more like an inland sea.
Although the lake was stunning to see, and an experience I honestly don’t think should be missed, I have to admit the boat trip wasn’t a pleasant one. When we first arrived on the boat our driver and an English speaking guide seemed friendly enough, and took us around the houses. As the boat trip went on, how ever, things began to take a turn. We were taken to a fish and crocodile farm on a boat, where these crocodiles were kept in a horribly cramped cage. Our guide began insisting that we have a look around the souvenir shop and was extremely insistent that we buy something. This method of selling never works on me, but Mr. A and I had budgeted $25 each for the day – $20 which ended up going on the expensive boat ride and $5 each promised to our tuktuk driver who was waiting for us up on the bank. After we expressed our disinterest in the souvenir shop, our guide then told us we would be going to a community store to buy food for orphans. I am against orphanage tourism, and being marched into buying something was really making me feel uncomfortable. Mr. A and I were forced into the community shop, where the shop assistant were insistent that we buy something for the orphans. The two of us had 100 riel to spare between us, and offered that as a donation but were told the minimum we could spend was $30 on a bag of rice. At this point we had enough, and asked to skip the orphanage tour.
Orphanage tourism is very exploitative and NGOs really advice against supporting this practice. Children are taken out of school in order to be paraded round for the tourists, and are often not orphaned at all. It’s really damaging to communities and unproductive. To make a difference, why not try donating to a charity such as Friends International.
Once back on the boat, things were tense. Mr. A asked if we could take the boat through the houses once more, but our request was ignored. We had originally intended on giving the guides a tip but as we approached the bank they both suggested we give a tip of $10 each. We tried giving them our 100 riel but they refused. It was such a sad way to end such an interesting cultural experience, and was one of the only negative experiences I had in Cambodia.
It was an experience I don’t think should be missed. For those of you thinking about making the trip, I’d suggest doing research to see whether other boat companies operate on other parts of the lake. If not, prepare to stand your ground.