Sipping cocktails and watching the sun set from the top deck of the Toum Tiou II, a 14-cabin luxury river boat, it’s hard to imagine that travelling in Cambodia is anything but blissful.
On this journey, the 38-meter-long wooden cruiser is on its way to Phnom Penh, from Siem Reap. As the boat cuts through the waters of Cambodia’s Great Lake, waves splashing against the hull provide a melody to the rhythm of the purring engines. Silhouettes of dugout canoes and small canopy boats pepper the vast waterscape around us. And as the last amber rays of sunlight fade to dusk, the warm glow of French wine helps wash away any lasting tethers to the mainland.
Of course, not all travel in Cambodia is quite so easy.
In fact, most travelers miss the Great Lake all together, either flying over it or driving around it. Yet the Tonle Sap, as the lake is known locally, defines Cambodia’s land and its people every bit as much as the Kingdom’s world-famous temples of Angkor.
THE GREAT LAKE
During the dry season, the Tonle Sap covers a mere 2,700 square kilometers, and its waters flow downstream to feed the Mekong River. During the monsoon months, however, the lake acts as a reservoir for the overflowing Mekong, and the Tonle Sap reverses direction – the only lake in the world to do so – swelling to more than five times its dry-season size.
Upwards of 1 million people live in the greater Tonle Sap River basin, which consists of the lake and its floodplains. Fish hauls from the lake provide roughly 75% of the country’s protein, and its nutrient-rich soil accounts for more than 10% of rice production.
The Tonle Sap’s reversal also defines the biggest celebration of Cambodia’s annual calendar. During the Water Festival, millions descend on the capital to cheer as long boat racers from around the country compete in the swift waters in front of the Royal Palace.
CAMBODIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Aboard the Toum Tiou II, the journey across the Great Lake takes a leisurely three days, with several daily excursions planned along the way.
On the first morning, we climb into a 36-seat wooden cutter for a visit to the floating village of Chhnouk Tru, where roughly 8,000 people, many ethnic Vietnamese and Cham, live on the water.
The homes, the schools, the gas stations and stores all are built to float, and the sole means of travel is via the water.
Monks float from home to home to collect their daily alms. Children take the boat to school. Vietnamese women in pointy hats ply the waters selling coffee, snacks and colas.
After our cruise through the village, we drop into the boat captain’s home. His wife greets us with a big smile and welcomes the group of nearly 30 strangers into her humble but well-appointed floating wooden A-frame.
Family photos hang on the blue painted walls. Frilly pink curtains and burglar bars adorn the windows.
The furniture – couches and chairs and foot stools – is all lacquered solid wood, and there’s enough of it that a Belgian on the trip surmises that in addition to ferrying tourists around, the family may do a brisk side business selling living room furniture.
Further upstream, we visit artisan pottery makers whose skills have been passed from mother to daughter for generations. We wander through rice fields and around the market in Kampong Chhnang, where many of the fish caught in the Great Lake make brief stops on their way to dinner plates around the country.
In oxcarts, we visit Wat Kampong Tralach.
“This wat is special for two reasons,” explains Toum Tiou II’s chief guide, Sam Jaton, a blonde, 28-year-old native of Switzerland who switches effortlessly between English, French and Khmer.
“First, it’s one of only four or five wats to survive the Pol Pot regime intact, because they made rice wine here,” he says.
“Also,” he adds, “the murals inside the wat are painted with a special vegetable-based resin, which no one knows how to make anymore.”
Like all the places we visit, Wat Kampong Tralach is fairly well-removed from the Kingdom’s overland tourist trail. Perhaps because of that, its history is not particularly well-known.
Yet the wat’s story is a strong reminder that Cambodia is so much more than Angkor Wat. The rest of the country, though perhaps not nearly as well-travelled, is no less magnificent.
As the Toum Tiou II pulls into the dock at Phnom Penh, the chaotic traffic and neon lights of the capital stand in stark contrast to the bucolic scenery of days past.
The anchor descends and the engines go quiet. But I am not ready to get off.
By R Starkweather