Lake Tonle Sap Floating Village, Cambodia (11 Dec)

Lake Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, but its really remarkable features are 1) its flow changes direction twice a year and 2) it shrinks and expands dramatically with the seasons. As the rainy season progresses, the lake floods and expands from 1 meter deep and an area of about 1700 square miles to 9 meters deep and almost 10000 square miles. We had the opportunity to take a trip to visit the lake’s floating markets and villages and see how life is lived on the lake. We found it fascinating to see how the people around the lake interact with the water and adjust their lives as its banks ebb and flow.

On the hour drive from Siem Reap we stopped at a roadside sticky rice stand. There is a stretch of the highway that is lined one after another with sticky rice stands. The sticky rice is packed, along with black beans, into short lengths of bamboo and cooked over an open fire. It is amazing how many vendors there are on this stretch of road. I would estimate they go on for about a mile. I could not help but wonder 1) who buys all this sticky rice and 2) how do you know which vendor is the best? So, I asked our tour guide, Dara both of these questions. According to him, if you are coming to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh and you show up without sticky rice in hand, you will pretty much be sent back where you came from. As for the question of choosing the best vendor, this one really perplexed him. I thought maybe I wasn’t expressing myself clearly, so I tried rephrasing the question a few different ways. In the end, I realized he understood my meaning, but had no idea why I would ask such a silly question – for, alas, he told me the vendors are all the same. Exactly the same! Here’s a video Suhail put together that explains a bit more about this treat:

As we approached the lake, we drove past houses on stilts, designed to deal with the rise and fall of the water level with minimal impact on their residents. At this time of year, their backyards were full of water and their frontage on the road prized real estate. It was rice harvest season, so the shoulder was covered with tarps full of drying rice. Space was really at a premium, kids were playing in the road and people – and their dogs – were using the ramps up to their front doors as makeshift porches.

After setting out on our cruise, we saw dozens of people out on the water in boats of all sorts. The locals clearly grow up on the water and are unafraid and unintimidated by it. The “captain” of our boat looked about 16 and his sidekick was maybe 13. We saw younger boys and girls out on their own, probably running errands for their parents.

We stopped on an island (which was accessed by docking at a small pier and taking a very steep flight of stairs up to someone’s living room and then proceeding to walk through their house to the street). The kids we passed were thrilled to have visitors and all shouted hello to us and then giggled and ran away. Their bashfulness was in stark contrast to the children working as souvenier vendors at the temples in Siem Reap; I definitely got the sense these kids really didn’t see too many outsiders.

Once back on the boat, we headed to the market, which was really just a cluster of boats where people sold a variety of things – fish obviously one of the main things, but also vegetables and cold beverages, among other things. We also passed a village of houseboats. Dara told us the people living there were Vietnamese. It turns out we would see similar dwellings in the Mekong Delta and Halong Bay, but this was the least touristy exposure we had and a nice preview to the way of life we would see again in Vietnam.

You can come aboard with us through Suhail’s video here!


  1. Donna Kepnick wrote:

    This was so interesting. The text and the videos really helped to understand the way of life in this area.

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