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14-21 January 2013. Chong Khneas is a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake. Since it is the closest floating village to the major tourist mecca of Siem Reap, and the most accessible, it too has become a tourist destination. We’d read that it has become a bit of a show put on for the tourists, and that there’s various scams going on if you take a tour there. Our friend Paula said we could just go rent our own boat and have the boatman take us around the village but in the end we chose not to do that. We’d also read that you could stay overnight at Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and we wanted to do that so we could get up early for the “dawn chorus” which is the best time to see the birds. Our friend Don at Bliss Villa called the contacts he had there and apparently it was not possible to stay overnight, but he could organize a day trip for us – to the bird sanctuary, and to Prek Toal floating village.

There’s a canal that runs from Siem Reap down to the lake. Here on the canal in the early morning light everyone gets ready to head out for the day

while kids play amongst the fish traps.

We head down to, then across the lake, and down a channel into the marshlands. The channel gets narrower and narrower until we are completely surrounded by foliage and it becomes almost impossible to know which way to go. It is a slow journey heading deeper and deeper into the marshlands. Cormorants, pelicans, egrets, a fish eagle and teeming hoards of white-winged birds, all take flight as we cruise by. The sun is shining, the air is clear, we have nothing to do but enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings and the birds putting on a display for us. We are happy.

Somewhere in the swamp

Don’s photo – pelicans and a cormorant


Turning the boat around. At this time of year the water is very shallow.

Returning to the lake we come to Prek Toal village

where we are rowed around in a small wooden boat, much like this one.

The village dress shop – so people don’t have to go all the way into Siem Reap when they need new clothes.

We are shown a crocodile farm. The crocodiles are held in a cage in the water directly next to the owner’s floating house – right there by the living room under the deck. They do not seem to be in any kind of distress. The owner makes a good living raising crocodiles and selling them for their skin. So next time you buy a crocodile belt or purse or shoes you’ll know the skin probably came from a farm somewhere in Southeast Asia. We also saw a crocodile farm in Vietnam.  Imagine that for a life – living in a floating house in a lake in the tropics. The water level in the lake rises and falls by many meters with the change from the dry season to the wet, affecting pretty much everything. And you make a comfortable, if not ostentatious, living raising crocodiles next to your living room. Not something I’d ever imagined really.

Water hyacinth is a free floating aquatic plant native to tropical South America. It’s an invasive plant in the waters of Southeast Asia and we saw it everywhere. If the darn stuff is going to grow like weeds, literally, and astonishingly it doubles its population every two weeks, you’d better be finding a use for it.

These women are going to harvest it.

The stems, about two feet long are dried and used to weave hats, baskets, bags, boxes, furniture, footwear, and floor mats. Another thing I’d not have imagined – that the short stems of a water plant could be used in such a practical and beautiful way. We were really impressed with the quality of the work. People amaze me with their creativity!

About fifty kilometers from Siem Reap – village life at Phnom Kulen

Almost everyone in Cambodia has a motorbike. Well everyone who can afford any vehicle at all. Few can afford cars. Motorbikes are much cheaper to buy, and use far less gas. This is a Cambodian gas station – a great way to recycle all those whiskey bottles.

At the temple on Phnom Kulen, a sacred mountain

On the way home we stopped at the palm sugar village. The entire village seemed to be involved in the production of palm sugar. I’d only tasted palm sugar once, and had never heard of it before coming to South East Asia. Here we got to try some candies, and to see how it was made – a long laborious painstaking process. They shimmy up the palm tree and put a nick in the end of each long ‘branch’ of the palm flower, and then put a bamboo container over each flower branch and collect the ‘sap’, which is then heated slowly in huge wok-like vessels over equally huge mound-like concrete fire pits, for hours, and then stirred, for hours. Eventually you end up with palm sugar, and palm sugar candies. Very like maple candy and really good. There’s also palm fruit that comes in a big purple ball and the inside looks a bit like mangosteen but without the lovely taste.

Stirring the liquid sugar

Peeling palm fruit

Selling palm candies

And so we came to the end of our time in Siem Reap, and the end of our time in Cambodia. We flew from Siem Reap to Vientiane and a began whole new adventure in Laos. More to come in the next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.