Touring the temples of Angkor prompts this question: Why did the ancient Khmer Empire choose to build its cities and temples in this seemingly unremarkable area in the midst of a flat Cambodian floodplain? The key to this mystery lies just to the south of Siem Reap. Here lies the wonder that is Tonlé Sap Lake.
Designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997, Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. The lake is unusual in that its flow changes direction twice a year. During the dry season Tonlé Sap spills its waters into the Mekong River. In the rainy time of year, when monsoons swell the rivers, the Mekong backs up at a bend and pumps countless gallons of water into the lake. Over a year, the lake varies in area from about 1,000 to over 6,000 square miles.
The ever-fluctuating waters rich with nutrients produce a remarkably productive ecosystem high in biodiversity. Indeed Tonlé Sap is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. This single lake produces 75% of Cambodia’s inland fish catch and over 60% of the country’s protein intake. It is no accident that ancient Angkor was located nearby.
Riding in the back of Mr. Panha’s tuk tuk we made the journey over Cambodia’s marginal dirt roads from Siem Reap to a boat dock on the December edge of Tonlé Sap. Our visit in 2011 came at the end of a record rainy season. The lake water’s were near their high point. Visiting at high water it is hard to imagine Tonlé Sap when the water is low. The Tonlé Sap experience depends on the season; over a year the water levels of the lake cycle more than thirty feet.
Getting off of Tonlé Sap’s flat floodplain and onto the lake required a boat. Boats are easy to hire. For 23 US dollars we chartered a long tail boat at the docks. Soon we were in a narrow wooden craft splitting the gentle waves heading out to the lake.
Long tail boats are one off affairs. No two boats are identical. Large automotive engines wedged into the back of a handcrafted hull provide the muscle. The power is transferred to the water by a long shaft that extends to a propeller well past the stern of the boat. The Tonlé Sap version of Southeast Asia’s iconic long tail boat uses a rudder mounted behind a propeller. This rudder is controlled by a rudimentary set of cables that connect to a simple drum at the base of a shaft connected to a repurposed steering wheel. Our boat’s pilot controlled the engine by applying pressure with his calloused bare big toe on a thick strand of wire that served as the throttle cable. No need for the more expensive and more complicated gas pedal! The whole arrangement looked precarious at best with the nylon steering cables tied off at various points, remnants of many repairs and adjustments. Indeed, the next breakdown looked imminent. Not that it would matter much. Any failure of the steering or the throttle assemblies would take no more than a couple of minutes to rectify. It was all so simple.
On the boat we headed to Kompong Phluk. Kompong Phluk is a floating village. The “floating village” term is a misnomer; all of Kompong Phluk’s permanent buildings are fixed to the ground on high stilts. Though they sometimes appear to, the village’s houses are never actually suspended on water even when the central road is part of Tonlé Sap Lake. In the dry season, when the main street is parched and dusty, even less floats in the village.
Kompong Phluk’s streets were waterways when we visited. For us it felt odd to cruise through the middle of the residential area on a boat but for the villagers life goes on. Smiles greet the endless stream of tourist boats. Here tourism is not burden; it is economic lifeblood. All around children frolic and play in the water. The screams of kids having fun are a universal sound; everywhere in the world it is the same. In Kompong Pluck, with Tonlé Sap’s waters lapping at the house’s stilts, the life of a child seems particularly simple and idyllic. A visit brings a longing for a return to the innocence of youth.
Not far past the village, through channel cut through a healthy flooded forest, is the open lake. Though large fishing boats worked to find their catch in the open waters it would be a good guess that many fish were hiding amongst the partially submerged trees. Perhaps it is this seasonally protected fish habitat that has kept Tonlé Sap as viable fishery for eons.
Later when we returned to Siem Reap we were sure to try the fresh fish plucked from Tonlé Sap in a Pub Alley restaurant. The boney fish was delicate with the slightly dirty flavors typical of freshwater fish.
Our meal came with an unintended bonus. We ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino, a luxury item in Siem Reap. The bottle came to the table and was opened. The first sip left a funny aftertaste. Another try confirmed that something was not right. The water tasted alcoholic. We called to the waiter to the table. He was confused. It was San Pellegrino like Perrier, right? After some confusion we finally convinced our server to try the water. Two sips latter and he too realized there was a problem. It turned out that we’d inadvertently been served a bottle of homemade hooch that had been bottled in a San Pellegrino bottle and brought to the restaurant to share with the staff. With a laugh and an apology the bottle was replaced with authentic San Pelligrino.
After dinner we walked over to Siem Reap’s night market. Four US dollars bought two 40-minute foot massages. The price was right. We’d return each night for more; we needed to. With a lot to see in Angkor, temple viewing was taking a toll on our feet. But the truth is at the price we definitely didn’t need an excuse to get a foot massage.