After the monastery and temples, we boarded our tuk-tuks again and left for the Tonle Sap Lake (and river) and a chance to see the floating villages that line the channel to the lake. The Tonle Sap is the largest body of water in Cambodia and is essentially a VERY wide area in the Tonle Sap River that joins the Mekong near Phnom Penh. It’s richness in food, varying water levels, and the way it spreads nutrients across the countryside when it floods makes it a remarkably important resource for the nation. The land is so flat in this area that the river actually changes flow direction based upon the amounts of and location of rainfall. Flooding from the lake every year provides fresh soil to the rice fields that are cultivated mostly during the dry season—110 days from seed to mature rice according to Kean.
When we arrived after the very dusty ride, we saw dozens of boats along the banks of a channel that, during the dry season connected villages to the lake itself. Kean told us that the water was just beginning to rise since we were early in the rainy season, but that all but the tops of the dikes and roadways would be covered by September. Dozens of long, narrow Mekong-style passenger boats lined the shoreline and Kean bought tickets for us at the main counter. We all went down the steps from the high-water berm to the current lake level and boarded the sturdy boat 5786 with its intrepid captain working to get the engine started. Kean helped push us from the shore once the motor was running—and also away from the other boats so that we could navigate our way into the main channel. We were told that the water was only about chest deep, but the propeller shafts that stuck out almost horizontal from the backs of the boats had bottom guards to keep them from choking in the muddy bottom.
We were soon off for our two hour cruise along the channel that became increasingly congest with boats, houses, and plant growth until we reached the current effective terminus with the lake aobut 25 minutes later. Along the banks we saw children swimming, men and women throwing fishing nets, families on small houseboats watching TV powered by car batteries, repair shops, mini-marts on barges, pigs in floating stalls, dogs, cats, and more than I could imagine. There were floating schools sponsored by Vietnam and a safe drinking water station funded by USAID.
The channel effectively ended at an area choked by plant growth, but home to a floating village that included a crocodile farm, restaurants, markets, and observation platforms, From that point to what appeared to be the open water of the lake, it looked a half kilometer of water lilies and other growth was choking the route. Some boats charged through, but Kean told us that there really wasn’t anything exciting about being on the main lake itself—just a flat expanse of brown, muddy water—so we stayed at the terminus and watched the other boats from the platform.
The return on the boat was largely uneventful once we got the motor started again—this time requiring one of the village mechanics to give us a jump start. Oh, and I forgot to mention… as we were departing in the first place, our captain suddenly just let go of the wheel and ran to the back of the boat. It seems that he’d forgotten to attach the ropes that connect the rudder to the steering. We approved of his actions!
Once back to our tuk-tuks, it took us about 40 minutes to return to the hotel. We were caked in dust, but we had time for a shower and clean-up before checking out of the hotel and getting some lunch.