The Tonle Sap is a large freshwater lake linked to the Mekong River. Every monsoon season, the Mekong reverses its flow, filling the Tonle Sap; the Mekong is the only river in the world to fill a lake by reversing its flow. The water, as with most waterways in Cambodia, is rather impure, and murky in appearance.
Home to a submerged forest and diverse population of birds and fish, the Tonle Sap has also become a centre of cultural diversity. Besides Cambodians, there are also a number of Vietnamese fishing families, living off the bounty in the depths of the lake. Except for those living near the tour boat wharf, the population live in floating houses. Some of these houses are gaily coloured and stand on sturdy bamboo pontoons, others are shacks floating on masses of plastic drums, and some are no more than old boats with corrugated tin for shelter from the elements.
Floating schools exist offshore on the fringes of the submerged forest, along with very elevated temples accessible by long stairways from shore. In recent years, above flood level, near the tour boat terminals, concrete schools and health clinics have been erected. These permanent structures are a reflection of the increasing permanence of settlement on the lake.
Though relatively costly, the boat ride is a lovely experience, and one which I’ve always looked forward to. Beware, though, that the boats can be rather noisy; at peak times, the lake echoes to the cacophony of single cylinder diesel engines. The traders on the water are quite special, too; they seem to appear out of nowhere the moment the boat enters open water. For the breadth of wildlife, and witnessing how the inhabitants have harnessed the lake for living, learning and working, it’s well worth a visit.
Cambodian Cultural Village, Siem Reap
I’ve seen the Cambodian Cultural Village in Siem Reap a few times now. For a whirlwind tour of Khmer culture, and a good chance to see traditional dancing and ceremonies, it’s worthwhile. However, I feel it pales in comparison with getting out there and actually experiencing the things you’re seeing in miniaturised form. That being said, it is a good way of putting things you see elsewhere (such as at the temples) into the context of the wider culture, and may also be a way of finding things you’re interested in exploring further.
Phnom Kulen is approximately 20 km out of Siem Reap. It may take a while to travel there, as the roads are quite rough in some places; I have seen some four wheel drive trails which are less arduous to traverse. Phnom Kulen is the founding place of the Khmer Empire, and predates Angkor Wat. There are three signposted attractions: the Reclining Buddha, Thousand Lingas, and waterfall.
The Reclining Buddha is a large carving of Buddha lying down. The carving is protected by a building which was erected around it, as the carving itself was made at the top of a large sandstone outcrop on the mountain. It is accessible by a stairway, though you must ascend and descend barefoot. A path through the jungle leads you around ancient caves, including one which was used in later years by the Khmer Rouge as a mountain hideout. Due to the historical presence of the Khmer Rouge in the area, it is unsafe to venture off clearly marked tracks through the jungle, as there is a risk of encountering land mines which have yet to be cleared. On that point: there are still a wide range of animals, including large lizards and snakes, living in the jungle. I can tell you from personal experience that encountering a hissing lizard is a mutually terrifying experience. Best to avoid that situation…
The Thousand Lingas are carved into the bedrock on the floor of the stream, which runs from the sacred spring. The spring is still very active, as seen in the eruptions of fine silica sand as water erupts from the earth. Water from the spring is sacred, and viewed as having cleansing properties, amongst others.
The waterfall used to be my favourite place to visit in Cambodia; hundreds of butterflies and dragonflies filled the air, landing on rocks and trees around the cool waters of the stream. Sadly, since my last visit four years ago, the numbers of these have dropped dramatically, as additional infrastructure (walkways, platforms, stalls, huts and swing seats) has been constructed to cater for increasing tourist demand. It’s still a lovely place to visit, make no mistake; it’s just unfortunate that progress has had such a marked ecological cost in such a short space of time.
Battambang (and its namesake province) is the largest rice producer of any area in Cambodia. Two vestiges of Cambodia’s days as part of French Indochina are overt: the railway line and the architecture.
The railway line is no longer in commercial use, leading to it becoming overgrown in many areas. One area has been kept relatively clear for the Bamboo Train. Originally (and still) used to deliver rice and goods between outlying villages and Battambang, the train is now able to be ridden by tourists. The Bamboo Train consists of a platform with a motor, resting loosely on two axles. Several platforms are in use on the single line, and they travel in both directions, usually at the same time. Fortunately, crashes are avoided, as one driver caves in and removes their platform and axles from the line to allow the other to pass. Due to the simplicity and (relatively) low weight, yielding occurs fairly quickly. Primitive and dangerous as it sounds, it was terribly good fun, and surprisingly safe.
Before I move on to the French architecture, I absolutely have to mention the brick kilns. Battambang is the only region in Cambodia to use beehive-shaped brick kilns, heated by burning rice husks. Besides a chimney to the rear, the kilns have a large vent hole in the roof to allow smoke to escape. They are beautifully constructed, and meld into the landscape more inconspicuously than the large sheds seen elsewhere in the country.
A large number of buildings in Battambang have existed since the French colonial days. Narrow balconies, gentle curves, delicate plaster castings, and elegant profiles are the order of the day. By night, the French connection becomes more obvious, with the majority of hotel signs consisting of squares with individual letters descending the side of the building in a typically 1960s font. This inadvertently retro aesthetic appeals to me, but is a sad reminder of how much was lost when the country underwent its turmoil some decades ago; it’s as much a vestige of the past as it is a monument to how much was lost in the darkest days of the country’s history.