Thursday, February 2, 2012


15kms before reaching Siem Reap, the road sign KAMPONG PHLUK was staring at us. This was the village visited by an earlier cycling group, which we have had knowledge of. Though we were looking forward to reach Siem Reap, we were also looking forward to visit this village. Siem Reap could wait. It was only noon. We were still early.  We had seen pictures of this village. We ought to see it ourselves.  The detour of 8kms was through a pleasant tree-lined secondary road, surprisingly well surfaced for most of the distance. 

Loads of tourist were either returning or going towards the same direction we were headed for. Judging by the number of tourists, this destination must be something special, but hoping it was not too touristy. 

The detour to Kampong Phluk
Arriving at the take off point, we noted dozens of passenger boats moored at the river. Again, judging by the numbers of boats, this tourist destination must really be a popular site. Our excitement grew. Fortunately there were no ticket touts and the process of booking a boat was rather orderly. We got to park our bikes in a covered shed and left our panniers on the bike, somehow feeling safe. We did however locked our bikes together.

We paid US$15 each for the boat ride. We thought it was a little bit steep and since there were only 2 of us, we guessed we had to wait for the boats to be filled up. Each boat could sit 20 passengers. We were directed to a boat and to our surprise, we were not waiting for other passengers. That explained the dozens of boats moored. This did not make economic sense, but this is a very convenient arrangement. One boat per entourage - big or small! US$15 did not seem pricey anymore.

The journey started through a very narrow tributary. It was more like a dug up canal to allow 2 boats just enough space to pass each other.

A minor "traffic jam" occurred when 2 big barges took up almost the entire river. Skilled maneuvering honed for so long make it look easy.

There was a barge fully laden with all kinds of goods. These were supplies to be brought to the same kampong we were visiting.

There was also a group digging sand from the river which were later transported to the same village. Digging the sand served two purpose - the activity deepened the canal at the same time served as landfill in the water village.

We were now heading into the Tonle Sap, the largest lake in South East Asia. Tonle Sap, however is a unique lake.

An extract from Wikipedia below explains about the Tonle Sap.

The Tonlé Sap  ("Large Fresh Water River", but more commonly translated as "Great Lake") is a combined lake and riversystem of major importance to Cambodia.
The Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.
The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia's dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year's heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake.

Seasonal direction of flow

For most of the year the lake is fairly small, around one meter deep and with an area of 2,700 square km. During the monsoon season, however, the Tonlé Sap river, which connects the lake with the Mekong river, reverses its flow. Water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, increasing its area to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine meters, flooding nearby fields and forests. The floodplain provides a great breeding ground for fish.


Kampong Phluk on the Tonle Sap 
December was the season when the Tonle Sap was filled by the monsoon water from the mighty Mekong. Kampong Phluk sited in the Tonle Sap would therefore be a water village only in the monsoon. It would therefore be correct that fishing activities in this village thrives only during the monsoon. It would also be correct that tourism would thrive during this season. We were therefore at the right place at the right time.

Arriving to the village after about 40 minutes of boat ride, we were greeted with a beautiful cambodian building on stilts. Most likely it was a government building. We had no tourist guide and the boatman is just that - a boatman.

Then there was a school and several children there. School was ending as there were very few children and they appeared to be leaving.

Our boat slowly chugged its way into the village. I was ready with my camera and there were just so many subjects to capture.

First, the houses on stilts captured my attention. In my book, they were unique. This was my first experience in a "kampong air" though there are also kampong air off Kota Kinabalu and also in Bandar Sri Begawan in Brunei.

Next subject, capturing the locals at their activities, captured in their sampans of course.

School Children back from school

Quietly, I admired the people of this village. Tourist boats were criss-crossing the village. The villagers became subjects for photography and almost every tourist was armed with a camera. Everyone were snapping away, me included. The villagers however went around with their daily chores without feeling annoyed at this intrusion into their lives. Occasionally we had them smiling at us, and waving at us.

This kid was just too happy to be photographed. I was sure this was not the first time he became the subject. He could not even see the result of his pose. If it had been on land, I would have showed him how he looked in the picture. But I can't walk on water !

The boat brought us passed the village. A different photographic subject came to view. A water forest. These trees seemed to thrive in water. I imagined myself in a single seater canoe and rowing into this forest, all serene and quiet. Blissful it would be. It was a beautiful sight.

The boat moored at a floating restaurant. Surrounding the boats were little sampans. In the sampans were ladies. I thought they were selling souvenirs. I was wrong. They were offering rowing service. For US$6 an hour, one can opt to go into the sampans to experience the water forest, or wherever one prefers to go. For the same price, one can also just rent the sampan and row into the forest. We did not rent the sampan. It was a decision that I regretted later.

Took me a while to get this girl to look at my direction. Wished I had a tele lens

Next, the boat brought us out into the Tonle Sap. It was immense. It was difficult to imagine that we were in a lake. Small waves were lapping the boat as a gentle breeze swept through. I felt we were in the sea. We could not see the horizon, hence we could not see the edge of the lake. Fishing activities were going on and it was again pure bliss just to be on the boat, gently rocked by the small waves. One could just be in the boat and enjoy the moment.

But nothing lasts forever. We told the boatman that it was time to head back. Kampong Phluk remained etched in my memory. A great experience.

Siem Reap, here we come