Monday, August 20, 2007

The Nation visits Tonle Sap

The Nation, Bangkok's Independent newspaper has been on its travels to the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia and here's a report from Phoowadon Duangmee on what they found.

Civilisation on stilts
Though the waters of life receded from Angkor centuries ago, they're still rising and falling beneath the Cambodian villages on nearby Tonle Sap Lake.

Twenty kilometres out of Siem Reap we're barrelling south along the road that stretches from the bustling old bazaar in the town. The driver turns left just before a sign that reads "Welcome to Floating Market", and negotiates the potholes on the dirt road. On each side runs a ribbon of small shacks pieced together from odd bits of lumber and scruffy plastic sheeting. Every now and then, raggedy kids poke their heads out onto a veranda - as if in mute hope that Angelina Jolie is passing through again. "Why Kompong Khleang village - are you going to Angkor Wat?" asks the 20-something driver, who can't contain his suspicions any longer as we head further and further in the opposite direction to the crowds. In other words, you have Angkor Wat - what's the big deal about a small village not even your hotel manager has heard of? "Angkor Wat has lost its charm since it was voted off the Wonders of the World list," I tease, forgetting that Cambodian folk can be sensitive about this sort of thing. It's not long since the loose lips of a certain Thai celebrity had the Thai ambassador in Phnom Penh running for his life. Actually, the old temples of Angkor never lose their charm. The fact is, I've visited Angkor four times, forking out more than US$200 (Bt6,300) in entry fees to the Cambodian government. I thought it was about time I turned my back on the famous ruins and explored other parts of Siem Reap province.

Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, is the next best destination after Angkor Wat, and Kompong Khleang and Kompong Phluk - small fishing villages on the far side of Tonle Sap - have caught my imagination. Our small craft, which once served as fishing boat, starts to pick up speed as we near the mouth of the small canal that runs through Chong Khneas - a famous but touristy floating village - and into Tonle Sap. My driver, who introduced himself by bouncing into the boat with his lunch box, asking if I wanted a discount guide, tells me that the floating village has been here for more than a century. Both sides of the canal bustle with exotic scenes of this riverside community. Here, where dry land is at a premium, the locals take to the water, floating everything from crocodile farms to the Christian Church. Our slow boat follows the tourist ferry into the lake, rustic life rolling by as if the everyday scenes carved into the walls of Angkor Thom have sprung to life. A mother is cooking for a family. A pig squeals for its morning feed. A man rows a boat loaded with a huge pile of firewood. Soon Chong Khneas becomes just another speck on the shore, the long trail of our wake submerged beneath the waves. Tonle Sap is simply massive, especially during the monsoon season when a torrent from the mighty Mekong backs up into the lake, which overflows into nearby fields and forests. Sometime in the 12th century the Cham sailed up the Mekong, crossed Tonle Sap and invaded Angkor Wat. Now, together with the boat driver and my car driver-turned-tour guide, I'm trying to picture the violence and drama of a naval battle out on the water. But it's not easy as we chug our solitary way alongside the north-eastern shoreline. Once in a long while the silhouette of a fishing boat and its conical-hatted occupants crosses our bow in the distance.

Around noon we approach a floating market. But rather than a buzzing commercial hub, it's probably the most desolate I've ever come across. The merchants bob together forlornly in boats laden with instant noodles, fruit, tonic drinks, local whiskey and other everyday items. The odd local rows in for a chat with the vendors and a little shopping spree. Our boat turns left and into the mouth of the small river that flows out of Kompong Khleang village. Scattered along both banks are numerous "floating houses", medium-sized boats adapted through the addition of small thatched huts. TV aerials and satellite dishes sit on the roofs while the stern is usually taken up by a makeshift kitchen. Peering closely I glimpse the odd motorcycle on board. Where, I wonder, can they go for a spin - there's no dry land for miles around. Nearing the village, we pass several small boats with huge fish traps. Tonle Sap is one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. More than three million Cambodians live on the fish pulled from the lake. Water is everywhere," my guide tells me. "You can't grow rice, or anything else - there's only fishing." We glide towards Kompong Khleang village's hundred or so thatched houses on the riverbank, which soon tower above us. Amazingly, the houses soar several metres atop a forest of skinny posts. Cruising slowly through, we have to crank our necks to return the waves of children high above us on the decks. "The villagers need these houses on stilts," says the guide as we stroll around the village. "Come October, when the Mekong pushes into Tonle Sap, the lakeside rises nine or 10 metres. The path we're walking on will vanish, so will the low-rise market and the bridges." We visit the village temple, chat with the friendly locals and scare a group of little kids with the camera, before returning to the boat and heading back downstream to Tonle Sap.

On the return leg of the journey to Siem Reap, we branch off up another tributary. Just beyond a mangrove forest a few kilometres inland the stilted village of Kompong Phluk hoves into view. Young Cambodian lads on a house boat passing time playing cards give us a wave with their fanned-out hands. They yell something I don't catch. Probably: "Greetings, Japanese. You're on the wrong road for Angkor Wat." "When the water levels drop, the fishermen move back to the lakeside and build thatched houses, farming fish and even crocodiles," says my guide. "Then, once the water levels start climbing, they tear down the huts and move to higher ground - it's a yearly cycle." Late in the day, racing back to port we're hit by a monsoon squall. The small boat pitches and rolls and we all get a soaking. The bas-relief of the "Churning of the Sea of Milk" at Angkor Wat pops into my head - maybe the celestial powers are getting some practice in. Around 5pm we approach the starting point of our expedition, the canal in Chong Khneas. Behind me is a churning sea of muddy milk. Tonle Sap doesn't have the picture-postcard appeal of other great bodies of water - Kashmir's Dal Lake, for example. But with the help of a slow boat you can discover the charms that lie along its edge - the people of Siem Reap province.
Perhaps you've strolled around Angkor Wat and assumed that this ancient civilisation is rooted in brick and stone. Once you're out on Tonle Sap in a boat, you realise that it's actually the lake that has been the lifeblood for Khmer people down the centuries.
(c) 2007 Thailand

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