“Want tuk tuk? We go to Angkor Wat!” touts a few enthusiastic tuk tuk drivers as we strolled out of our hotel. It is assumed here that Angkor Wat is the sole purpose of all tourists who come to Siem Reap, after all, the town has been receiving foreign visitors for 120 years, acting as a gateway to the Angkor temples.
We had different ideas however, and stayed in Siem Reap a little longer to get a sense of what else there is to see beyond the famous temples, for with such a scenic town with such lively people, there had to be something.
And there was. After explaining that Angkor Wat was not our main objective (any more) in Siem Reap, we were given a few more options to explore in this part of Cambodia
, especially around Boeung Tonle Sap.
Tonle Sap lake is said to be the heart and soul of Cambodia
, as it is the dominating lake and the main source of water and food for many nearby communities. Its river runs all the way to Phnom Penh where it merges with the Mekong. When the lake floods during wet season it becomes the largest fresh water lake in Asia which provides for the numerous water-side residents from floating to stilt communities on the lake.
This intrigued me, and after consulting with our tuk tuk driver Sonnam, we decided to pay a visit to the largest and least visited of the communities, Kampong Khleang.
It is about 35Km outside of Siem Reap, and on the tuk tuk running at around that per hour, it took us a while to reach the Kampong. The drive itself was an interesting experience and on the roads there seem to be only one rule: those who are louder and larger gets to go first, and needless to say, a small tuk tuk was often pushed aside by trucks and 4WDs going past, at the same time, pushing aside school children on push bikes en-route to school.
“It’s a big fish eat small fish environment!” Sonnam laughed, as he gets pushed aside by yet another passenger bus going towards Phnom Penh.
Approaching Kampong Khleang
As we get closer to the community, the scenery changes. No longer were there sealed roads and the tuk tuk was slowed down often not by larger vehicles, but having to stop for cows, dogs, chickens and pigs crossing the road. The rural we got, the more friendlier and cheekier the children, many run along the road with the tuk tuk, waving and shouting ‘hello!’ as we drive by. Just as I was starting to feel this drive could go on forever, it appears. Tall, slender and fragile stilt structures that are the housing for the residents of Kampong Khleang, so built because during wet season, the Tonle Sap can flood to five meters above ground level and the road we were driving on actually becomes part of the lake.
I asked to be let off the tuk tuk to stretch my legs and to explore the community on foot. As I turn my head toward the more populated areas, a row of glitter caught my eyes. “Fish. These are the best dried fish you can get in Cambodia!” Sonnam exclaimed, and walks over to purchase a bag. Sonnam was born in a nearby land village and had been eating the dried fish of Khleang for all his life. “This is their speciality ” he said, referring to Kampong Khleang “in the wet season they can catch so many fish, that they can’t have all of them fresh. So they dry them to keep for the dry season.”
Friendly locals, reluctant good byes
That made sense, and curious about the other aspects of this community, I nosed into a shop to take a look. That’s when they caught me. Three girls tagged me from behind, one excitedly shouted in Khmer and all three runs away to hide behind a nearby pole. I smiled and waved and went back to inspecting the goods of the shop before being tagged again.
“They want to play game”, Sonnam explained and pointed. My reaction to their game must had been hilarious as the three girls were rolling about, laughing merrily on the ground. Many of the adults who have come out of their houses also started to laugh as they realised what was going on.
“They are curious. Not many foreigners come this far. Many just go to a closer water village.”
It was getting late and Sonnam did not want to risk an accident tuk tuk’ing around in the dark, so I made one more face at the three girls, who hung around as we toured the village, occasionally tagging my legs for good measure, and made a reluctant exit. The sun was lowering behind the stilt houses creating a hue of light that followed the silhouette of the houses. It had been a good day and I was happy to have found what was beyond Angkor Wat.