October 4, 2023

Shifting Shapes

My article on life on the floating village near Siem Reap, on the Tonle Sap lake… appeared in HT Cafe today…

Shifting shapes

Read the article online here… or here now…

Our very first evening in Siem Reap, we venture tentatively in a noisy boat into the Tonle Sap lake. We are there for a ‘sunset tour’ of the Vietnamese floating village Chong Khneas on the lake. Tourist trap, I mutter darkly under my breath as our boat makes its way across the very shallow muddy waters of the lake. At regular intervals, boats keep pulling up next to ours, with men and children, mostly children, offering to sell everything a thirsty traveler may need, from cold drinks and bananas to massive coconuts for the “sweet coconut juice Khmer special”.

We finally give in when the most daring of them all jumps into our boat from the speed-boat that her dad has got close to ours. The stunt leaves us speechless, reminding us of similar scenes from Hindi movies starring Ajay Devgan; all just to sell us a lukewarm can of Coca Cola. We pay her, mainly out of respect for that kind of entrepreneurial spirit and she takes the money with a shy smile, poses for my camera and jumps back into her boat. And as we watch, father and daughter disappear into the distance, possibly in search of the next tourist boat.

Ten minutes into the water, the village comes into view; homes built on boats and barges, men lazing on hammocks stretched across the breadth of the tiny boats, old women with sharp beady eyes selling flowers and vegetables, little boys rowing across the placid waters in little plastic and tin tubs. Some of the homes seem to have their own tiny pier attached to them, four to five boats tied around the huts; they bobble around in the calm waters, as if in eager anticipation of the evening’s outing.

We pass the floating school (my boatman says the school has a floating basketball court too, though I cannot see it then), and just when I think I have seen – and heard – everything, the floating cathedral, well, floats into view. It is a jigsaw puzzle of colors and geometric shapes all around me, boats painted in bright blues and greens, protected from prying eyes like ours by orange and pink curtains, fading but cheerful.

Right in the middle of the lake, we stop to hop on to a ‘restaurant’ which doubles up as a crocodile farm, and are directed to the roof-top two flights up rickety wooden stairs. And from the top, we watch in silence as the sun sets in the distance, lights coming on slowly in the boat homes all around as women and children light fires to prepare the evening meal.

And suddenly, the clamor of ‘one dollah, mistah’ from a boat that has pulled up close to ours; three children on a small boat near ours. You want to play with snake? they ask, carelessly brandishing the reptiles around their necks like so many rubber hoses. At the same time, wagging their fore-fingers furiously, just in case we couldn’t hear them. The one dollah kids of Cambodia are famous for their insouciant demands from tourists. As we start our way back to shore, the tinny voices – you buy banana, mistah? follow us in the dim darkness of the lake as life floats by casually around us.

General Information

The Vietnamese refugees who have made their home on the waters of the Tonle Sap (translated locally as the great lake), are nomads in their own way, their lives dictated by the rainfall and water levels and currents. It is stunning to see how they have adapted to life on the water; a few homes even sport TV antennae, powered I am told later, by a centralized power-station carrying car batteries!

The Tonle Sap is the largest lake in South East Asia and is said to be home to over 5000 people living on boats or on temporary stilt houses (though estimates vary widely, with some putting the number closer to 8000). The ‘great lake’ joins the Mekong river at Phnom Penh by way of the Tonle Sap river. During the rainy season, the water from the Tonle Sap river flows back into the lake, causing serious flooding, as the lake expands upto four times its length. As the waters of the lake rise, the villagers, and entire villages move inland along narrow channels for the next few months. And by October, when the rains stop finally, they move back ‘home’ to the lake, to their boats and fishing nets. Till the next season of rains.

Getting there and around

Fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok on the fantastically cheap Bangkok Air or take the long way by road from Thailand. You can also fly to Phnom Penh and take a bus or even a boat down to Siem Reap.

The Tonle Sap is about 12 km, an hour’s drive in a taxi or a more exotic tuk-tuk
(local auto-rickshaws) from the center of the city. There are several tour operators inside the city who organize boat trips for $15 – $30 depending on where you get the tickets.

The entire experience is worth the money, especially as a good break to counter the overwhelming templitis that is sure to strike you after a couple of days among the famed Angkor temples of Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the most celebrated of them all and easily deserves half a day in itself. The others, just as alluring are Ta Phrom where overgrown ancient trees compete with the ancient crumbling temple edifice for your attention and Bayon temple inside the once great city of Angkor Thom. The newly created Angkor museum is also worth a visit, if only for the fantastic audio-visual shows scattered along the tour depicting Khmer history and culture through the centuries.

Shifting Shapes

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