Angkor Wat and Tonle sap lake

Trip Start Sep 03, 2006
Trip End Jul 21, 2007

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Angkor Wat is on the tourist map

There are only 170 km to Siem Reap but the road condition is poor (still we've been told that the road has been mended recently) and it took us an afternoon to get there. The road is so dusty that trees and houses along the road are covered with a thick red layer of dust. By the road, many rice paddies.On the road, many overcharged pickups and motos: the prefered and most common means of thransport for Cambodians.

Siem Reap is not at all the village it used to be. It is now the most touristic place in Cambodia and the city is invaded by big hotels of western standard, a bit of a shock when you are coming from the countryside.
A quick stop at the brand new cultural village, a complex with expositions and live performances representing the customs of several Cambodian ethnic groups didn't make a big impression on us.

The following morning, we are heading for the famous archeological site of Angkor Wat. It's indeed a beautiful temple and rather well preserved. Maybe we heard too much about it, but we didn't find it as awe inspiring as it supposed to be. Still worth going though! We were more pleased with the Bayon, a temple in the ancient city of Angkor Thom, very close to Angkor Wat. The Bayon is very famous for its many towers composed of four budha faces respctively looking towards the four directions. The next temple, I can't remember its name, with its gigantic trees covering the old ruins was not disapointing either, the only problem there was making a picture good enough to reflect the real beauty of the site! We visited many more small temples disseminated on the site but the list is too long to describe them all!
At the end of the day, like all the other hundreds of tourists, we went up a hill to the Bakeng temple, where you can see a beautifull sunset... if you can take the crowd! We couldn't and didn't take the beautiful snapshot of the sunset "de rigueur" on that spot: so unprofessional ;-) !!
It was a very long day, but it was worth it, as the site deserve its reputation.To relax a little, we decided to treat ourselves with a cocktail at one of the tourist bars near the main market in Siem Reap. Our driver, the cousin of Saoyuth's mum, that Patrick dubbed "Monsieur Lein", never had a cocktail in his life. After tasting the ones we had ordered, he strictly couldn't get the point of paying so much money for a bit of alcohol mixed with fruit juice! I have to admit they were not the best cocktails ever.

Crocodile farms and water houses on the Tonle Sap (the freshwater sea)

The next day, our guides (aka Saoyuth's parents) arranged a boat trip on the Tonle Sap lake. A short ride later we were by the lake on a strip of sand with slum like thatched houses (on poles above the water) on each side. The place is buzzing with people loading and unloding their cargo to and from the boats. It's dirty, smelly and of course there is neither running water nor electricity. Not the kind of place where one expects to find a house with a home cinema! Yet one of the houses open onto the "street" had about twenty kids packed in front of it and some hollywood action movie being played on a rather small TV, but the sound was definitly coming out of a 5.1 system! Mad...

The Tonle Sap river forms a huge lake in the center of the country that varies greatly in size depending on the season. During the dry season, roughly 2/3 of the lake maximum size is uncovered; that's when people cultivate this very fertile soil. At the edge of the lake, in the shallow waters of the dry season, trees, bushes and proper aquatic plants form a forest which is covered by water when the rainy season comes: the water level goes up several meters. How these plants survive is a mystery!
As we are visiting in the dry season, our "captain" must find his way through the lacustre forest,following narrow channels until we reach the open waters of this huge lake. The waters are so still that the sky merges with the lake in the horizon. On our way, we disturb hundreds of cormorans who start running on the water, flapping their wings before actually taking off.
We finally make it to a floating village which consits of houses on each side of a central canal near the shore. Houses are built on bamboo rafts. Each year they add new bamboos as the old ones loose buoyancy. Only the village pagoda , the high school and the area preservation center are built on firm land, but elevated not to be flooded, all the rest is floating: primary schools and their recreation courtyard surrounded by chicken wire, church (not very common in a buddhist country by the way), shops etc.

For lunch we stopped at our captain's family home. At the back, there is a platform used for repairing fishing nets or any other activity of the sort, but this platform is also a floating box... containing crocodiles!! They are raised mainly for their skin, and fed with farmed fish. They have a resting place on the side of the platform covered with chicken wire to let the light in.

Another funny thing are the floating gardens: using the same bamboo raft techique, some houses have a patch of soil with herbs, a few vegetables, we even saw floating papaya trees!
Floating houses have unsuspected advantages: for a wedding, the house of the groom is pulled besides the bride's, and an additionnal function room can be added to accomodate the guests and the banquet! Nice init? All the inhabitants paddle their way through the village, and that is also true for school children. Once school is over many of them paddled their school mates in small canoes! Lovely!

A good night sleep and we were hitting the road again towards Battambang. Next destination, the capital city, Phnom Penh.

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