We didn't quite know what to expect as we headed off to Lake Tonle Sap, we had read about it in various guidebooks, and knew it was a UNESCO Biosphere, and that it was Cambodia's "larder", providing up to 60 percent of Cambodia's protein. We had also read that "there isn't much to see", and it was "an over-rated tourist trap". But Narin really wanted us to visit Tonle Sap, and we had learned over the course of the morning that he would not steer us wrong. And we did enjoy the ride down to the Lake.
And it was during this ride, that the Missus snapped what is one of my favorite photos.
It got quite dusty as we approached Tonle Sap. Approaching the boat docks, we saw huts lining the side of the roads.
A bit flimsy you say? We arrived in the midst of the dry season when the lake occupies about 2500 square kilometers. During the rainy season the lake expands to 16,000 square kilometers. When the water rises, all of these huts are disassembled, and the village is moved to higher, dry ground.
As we approached the lake, this hut drew our attention.
A generator was running full blast and car batteries were being charged up. It seemed a bit strange to us, but we'd understand soon enough.
As we approached the boat dock and causeway, the heady stench hit us, a combination of rotting organic matter and gas fumes. A sudden thought went through my mind....."this is where all the fish we're eating comes from?"
As our boat was steered backwards using a combination of the motor, pushing, and strategic bumping of the other boats, we had a chance to look at the surroundings.
Seeing how people live here was a humbling experience. And tourism is a mixed blessing for these folks; on one hand it brings in much needed income. On the other, the pollution, invasion of space, and noise create problems of there own. Life here is hard, and you can't help but wonder what effect you're having.................
Right now, it's the rainy season, and all of this is now underwater......quite an interesting thought.
Here's a large fish trap.
We saw 3 schools on our way to the floating village. One sponsored by Koreans, one by the Japanese, and one by the French. The most interesting thing was the enclosed basketball court.
As we motored out to Chong Khneas floating village, we passed many boats delivering various goods and necessities. These blue jugs which contain drinking water.
And there's no minimum working age here....
As we approached Chong Khneas we could see floating houses dotting the great brown "plain" of water.
I'd heard and read of people being mobbed by children in buckets asking for money, but we were never bothered. We ended up docking at one of the Fish Farms, and Narin took us around to check out what was being raised.
You don't want to slip and fall into this pen! Many homes have large "pens" built along the bottom of their home/boat. And it looks like the rest of Tonle Sap....brown water. But throw in some "chum", and you'll be startled. There are thousands of fishes in these pens. Fish is the lifeblood of Cambodia, in fact Cambodia's currency, the Riel is named after a fish.
As we strolled around the floating fish farm/convenience store/restaurant, we noticed shrimp being dried everywhere.
Stepping gingerly up a ladder to the roof, we had a nice view of the surroundings.
Droves of Korean tourists were being boated out to places like this.
It's a floating Korean Restaurant!
After a half hour or so, we re-boarded our boat, and Narin gave the young man steering some instructions. We headed off into the heart of Chong Khneas.
The population of Tonle Sap is interesting, 60% Vietnamese, 20% Cambodian, 20% Cham. And seeing such squalid conditions can be a bit disheartening.
But something interesting happened after a few minutes. We started really noticing those little touches that make the place you live "home". Whether it's your own little flower garden.
Or the herbs and greens you're growing, under the wood pile.
And then there's the neighborhood electronics store:
Remember the car batteries being charged? Narin joked that the one thing people in Cambodia cannot do without is television. Even on Tonle Sap Lake...every houseboat, no matter how small, had a television.
We were constantly reminded of the strength and resourcefulness of the people living on Tonle Sap. Check out the pigs.
I guess some people just can't do without their pork!
And instead of people trying to sell us stuff, they were throwing kisses our way.
In some strange way we were deeply touched. And on a more practical level, I can imagine how many boatloads of tourists pass through here. Now I don't know about you, but if truckloads of tourists came driving up and down my street, taking photos, putting my daily life under a magnifying glass, I'm not sure I'd be waving and throwing kisses at them.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not over-romanticizing life on Tonle Sap Lake; it is a very, very, hard life. But there's something to be said about people who live in such challenging conditions who can still manage a smile and wave at the end of the day.
We were pretty quiet on the ride back to Siem Reap. Once we got into the city we started discussing options for the next day. Narin had also started to understand, "my peculiarities" by this time. As we were dropped off, he promised to take us to his favorite noodle stand for breakfast. We were told that the stand served some very special Khmer Noodles. Alright...no more Fish Amok!
Well, at least that's what I thought. After a quick shower, we took a stroll down to the Old Market (Psar Chas) area. We had intentions on checking out one of the typical Khmer eateries surrounding the market. But while walking through "Pub Street" we were charmed by a young lady into stopping for a meal at Khmer Family Restaurant. The menu was pretty much typical tourist Khmer fare, but that was fine. The young lady who served us was named Akin, who as quick with a smile, very warm, and quite funny. She kept having problems remembering where we were from, so we kept quizzing her; "now Akin, where aaarrrre we from?" At which time she'd go down her mental list, "ummm, no, can't be Australian....."
Most of the dishes at Khmer Family restaurant are about $3, and there are special 3 item "sets" for $8, which would save you a dollar. We didn't want the "set" items, even though Akin seemed dead set on saving us that buck. We managed to order what we wanted. After taking our order, Akin charmed another couple into the restaurant. This couple was from Sweden, and were very nice, and fun. We usually don't socialize much with other tourists when on vacation, but this couple we simply fantastic; mellow, well traveled(the husband had been to San Diego!), and they had a great sense of humor. During one of our conversations about our homes, they asked us what we new about Sweden, which was less than zero. If I were a bit faster, and perhaps wittier, I could have come up with, maybe ABBA...or Ikea? But the Missus beat me to the punch with; "oh, MEATBALLS!" Which sent the couple roaring with laughter. Yes, the two rubes from the States, the only thing they new about Sweden were Swedish Meatballs.
The meal was somewhat forgettable, the Missus got, duh.....Fish Amok!
We also had a Khmer Curry:
The vegetables were severely undercooked.
The most interesting dish of the evening was Somloo Caco (Samla Kako):
Very much like a mild green fish curry, it had a nice mild salty savory flavor. The dish supposedly had Prahok in it, but it didn't have a particularly strong fishy flavor.
During dinner we got to know a bit more about Akin, she's 19, and goes to school during the day. When we asked her if she's from Siem Reap, she told us she came to Siem Reap 10 years ago to work! As it dawned on the Missus and I that 19 minus 10 equals 9, we looked at Akin, and asked her what her parents thought about this. To which she replied, "no, no mother or father, grandmother, or grandfather." Oh my, Akin was an orphan. What do you say? "Akin, we're so sorry...." And her reply stays with me, and I repeat it almost everyday, "no worries, no worries, I'm Happy-Happy every day!" The sincerity of the way Akin said that short phrase melted every little snarky, sarcastic bone in my body. We got another surprise when we got our bill, she only charged us $8 instead of $9...she really wanted to save us that buck! As for our $2 tip? She chortled, "oh, for me, thank you, thank you." The Missus had Akin write down her name in both English and Cambodian:
It reminds me of that simple, but noble goal, to try to be "Happy-Happy every day".
Read about Wandering Chopsticks experience at Tonle Sap Lake here.