Monday, October 29, 2007

Escape to Kompong Phluk

Penny Watson reports on her visit to one of my favourite places outside Angkor, the floating village of Kompong Phluk.

Escape in Cambodia to a floating village - by Penny Watson, posted at The Contra Costa Times (USA)

In the jungle and farmland surrounding the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the famous Angkor temples punctuate the landscape. Remains of the ancient Khmer empire, these magnificent edifices, numbering more than 1,000, vary in scale, design and state of repair. They also attract thousands of visitors each year. While the attention for such antiquated wonders is justifiable, at times the crowds are a bit too much. Tourists descend on the complexes particularly during the dry season, starting in October. But for an escape from the Angkor audience, you can take an easy side trip to the nearby floating village of Kompong Phluk. We traveled only 25 kilometers via motorbike, boat and tuk-tuk, a type of motorized rickshaw, to leave the busy tourist hub far behind. In its wake we found a place remote and wondrous, a landscape devoid of Western faces and familiarities.

Our wooden longboat slipped through the narrow waterways, past ravaged banks battered by the wet season. The root systems of dead trees clawed at the eroding soil in a final bid at gripping the bank. As we stared in awe at this strange landscape, our guide explained how Kompong Phluk came to be. "Its existence is the result of an inland tide," he said. "Each year, when the Mekong overflows into the Tonle Sap River, the Tonle Sap Lake (Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake) can rise nearly 10 meters and expand from 2,500 square kilometers to almost four times this area." The result is nature's own anomaly - a sunken mangrove forest, home to a curious species that survives almost completely submerged in water, and Kompong Phluk, a floating stilt village, ebbing and flowing with the coming and going of the seasons. Kompong Phluk means "harbor of the tusks," and it derives from the village's elephant-trading history -- hard to picture as our boat was drifting, the motor cut, past fishermen in wooden canoes and floating bamboo cages where baby crocodiles writhed in the sunshine. We pulled up beside a crude looking jetty servicing a row of stilt houses 26 or 30 feet above us. The jetty led to a strip of dry road running up the middle of the village. In the worst of the wet season we would have been treading water, but at the start of the dry season we had the advantage of being able to explore on foot. We climbed a bamboo ladder to the abode of a wiry old man, who was happy to receive guests for the customary exchange of a small tip. His hut was made of ad hoc bamboo scaffolding and sheets of rusted, corrugated iron. Inside, barely there walls made of overlapping palm leaves separated three small living areas, home to a family of six, maybe seven. Through the wide slits in the bamboo floor I could see the water lapping yards below. In the wet season, it would have been within reach.

Further along the street, a carpet of tiny shrimp dried in the midday sun. Shrimp harvesting is the main source of income in Kompong Phluk, with shrimp paste being a staple part of the Khmer diet. The bright-orange squares stood out against the browns and grays of makeshift houses battered season after season by flooding water. The upside of this relentless quest of nature is the abundant fish supply in the area. The lake, combined with the dense mangrove forests, provides a rich feeding ground. In the wet season, the fish and shrimp are spread out to dry on canopies strung between the houses. We continued our walk to the pagoda, one of Kompong Phluk's few concrete buildings, where two smiling monks were biding their time, smoking and talking. Come the flooding waters, this small patch is the only dry land in the village, the only constant in an environment where water dictates a way of life. Our boatman picked us up at the far end of the village, and we set off on the return trip to the Angkor temples, and Siem Reap, where tourists and ancient temples promised us completely different civilizations, yet again.
Penny Watson ( is a Lonely Planet author who has traveled widely in Southeast Asia. Read about my own 2005 visit to Kompong Phluk here.

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