I had already spent 3 days at Angkor Wat, but my inquisitive spirit and a sense of adventure were telling me that there was more to discover in Siem Reap than just the famous ruins.
“I can take you to some floating village, maybe good to see” – suggested my amazing tuk-tuk driver, who was by far the best thing that ever happened to me in Siem Reap. He knew everything and was the kindest and most genuine man I have ever met. I wasn’t going to question him.
“Perfect. Let’s go!”
We were dropped off at the shores of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, located a short drive from Siem Reap. Boats of all sizes and colours lined the shores, boatmen patiently waiting to take passengers to Kampong Phluk, a floating village built on stilts on the Tonlé Sap. It’s $1 for a local to get across, but for us, a group of 3 curious backpackers, the price is $20 per person for an afternoon “tour”.
Floating through the mangroves we passed by herds of cattle feeding on the grass (or rice?) growing out of the water. I was taken aback by the peacefulness of the calm waters of Tonlé Sap lake.
Life in Kampong Phluk throws you back a few decades. Here, just a short tuk-tuk ride away from the flashing lights, and 5 start luxury hotels of Siem Reap, is a village that has no streets, no shops, no restaurants, no cars, and no tuk-tuks. But in this village life goes on as it would anywhere else in Cambodia.
While floating along the canals in Kampong Phluk, I wondered what it would feel like to live your life in a floating village. Would you miss being able to run around the streets as a kid? Would you struggle with the constant need to get around by boat? Would you struggle to go to school? Or work?
There are over 3,000 people living at Kampong Phluk. Many are fisherman, but some ,whose houses are located a bit further out, also farm. There is no running water in the village so the residents rely on the water in the lake for all their washing and cooking needs. They have what they need to get by.
Many argue that a floating village experience in Cambodia is a tourist trap. Some of the floating villages along Tongle Sap, particularly Chong Kneas, have lost its authenticity and has become nothing more than tourist traps, charging visitors steep entry fees, coercing them into buying bags of rice for the “poor villagers” and begging for tips and further donations along the way.
In 2012, Kampong Phluk was still rather untouched by tourism. There was a small cafe where one could grab a bite to eat, and mangrove tours, offered by local women in small boats. The rest of the village went about their lives without so much as a blink in our direction. They had seen enough visitors passing by their village to not drop what their doing and stare, yet the influx hasn’t yet sparked the tourist scams and traps, as some might expect.
Visiting a floating village of Kampong Phluk is certainly a unique experience that exposes you to the hardships and tribulations facing the locals on a day to day basis. For me, it was a window into the realities of Cambodian life that helped me get just a little bit closer to understanding the complexities of life in this beautiful country.
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Have you ever visited a floating village in Cambodia? What surprised you the most?
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