Sunrise. A paw-paw colored ball makes the sky smoky mauve and the tiny
clouds burnt pink. The land and sea are the same temperature. There is
no wind. The water is still. This is a place of two skies, the modest
orange sun and its paint box sky reflected in the floodwaters of Tonle
Sap Lake. The birds are hardly awake, but at the water's edge there
is a frenzy.
Most of the tourists here at this time have only one motive, to run the
gauntlet of locals selling everything from egg baguettes to anti
land mine t-shirts and climb onto the roof of a floating aeroplane
fuselage without wings that will blast them across the lake and down
the river to Phnom Penh. As they are shepherded past the merchants
in their chequered krama they might get the idea that this part of
Siem Reap is different from the Angkor temples they have clambered
over for the last few days. As the boat engines roar to leave the
floating village in its wake, a few photos of an upturned boat in
a bamboo dry dock or a saffron robed monk under a black umbrella
in a canoe are rattled off.
Thirty minutes south of Siem Reap and Angkor is Tonle Sap Lake.
The lake provides not only an antidote to temple fatigue; it also
gives extra insight for travelers into the strength and tradition
of the Khmer empire. The Tonle Sap monsoon cycles had particular
significance within the religion of the ancient Khmer. New Year
is celebrated in the spring equinox. In March when the sun rises o
ver Angkor's central tower, the flows begin to fill the Tonle Sap,
bringing rich fishing harvests that supported the Khmer. The ancient
Bayon and Angkor temples depict in exquisite bas-relief how the
life along the lake affected all walks of life.
To ensure access to the lake no matter where the shoreline is, the
houses of the fishermen, who depend on the waters for their livelihood,
are designed to float on the lake's surface. Chong Khneas provides an
excellent opportunity to experience the way these lakeside dwellers live.
The village is home to 200 Khmer families, 250 Vietnamese families and
another 200 who are Muslim. In the still morning, the call to prayer
sounds over loudspeakers scattering dozing cormorants. Everything floats.
Students tie their canoes to the rail alongside the floating school.
The campaign headquarters for the local politicians, the barber's shop,
the gambling dens and boat builders float. The floating barge markets
sell local delicacies like Elephant fish, which has developed the ability
to last for several hours out of water, in case the fast receding waters
leave it stranded in the mud. The boats hang a sample of their wares on a
pole to indicate what they are selling.
For US$ 10 you can get on a boat to putter through the impromptu gaps
between houses. The boat moves slowly, a bit too fast to take decent
photos, but it feels right to see a floating village this way. You
can make up your own mind about getting off the boat at the tourist
fish farm to see specially bred catfish, as well as a collared gibbon
a caged porcupine and a python around a smiling girl's neck. A few sick
looking pelicans are chained in the sun for visitors to photograph here too.
Some of the village can be explored on foot via thin roads that are
inches above the waterline, so ask your motorbike or car driver to
give you some time to walk around. While you are strolling, drop in
at the Gecko Environment Centre for further information about the
environment, people and culture of the Tonle Sap.
In the wet season the village lies at the base of the only hill for miles,
Phenom Krom. Shooting across Tonle Sap on an express boat,
the hill is the only landmark above the water level as far as the
eye can see, so a climb provides great views back towards Siem Reap
and Angkor and over the vast lake. Three weathered ninth century
towers dedicated to the Hindu deities, Shiva Vishnu and Shiva await
you at the top of your 140-metre climb. From here, as the practicing
monks chant their prayers, you understand the ancient relationship
between the stone towers of Angkor to the north and the
life giving Tonle Sap.