There’s some really amazing stuff to do and see in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is home to Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious site. Living in Cambodia on and off for a couple of years, I must have visited Siem Reap a dozen times, and each time took a tuk-tuk out to Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples to witness their splendor. But after a while, even a UNESCO World Heritage site grows too familiar, and so I was often left looking for alternative activities. Sure, there were plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars, and endless shopping, and I even became active in a couple of local charities in the poor villages outside of Siem Reap. So when I heard there was a floating village nearby, I had my hotel set up a taxi and driver for me the next morning to go check it out.
While I was waiting in the hotel lobby that morning, I had a little time because I was early. So I started Googling about the floating villages just to get some historical information and read a few reviews, and boy was I glad I did. What I learned from one obscure article is that there were actually three floating villages. Two of them, Kompong Phluk and Chong Kneas, were the most popular with tour guides because they are closer to Siem Reap, but also basically glorified scams. What you saw there was less than authentic, and everyone was constantly angling to get in every tourist’s pockets, including with fake buy-a-bag-of rice for charity scams.
But the third floating village of Kompong Khleang was the real deal, so that’s where I asked the driver to take me. It was much further, and the road was bumpier, so he was reluctant, but it was well worth it.
What I found there was absolutely mind-boggling. The village is home to about 1,800 families and 6,000 people, built on the banks, on the shores, and actually floating on Lake Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s immense central lake that covers about 7,400 square miles when it floods (Lake Tahoe is only 191 square miles!)
These simple villagers lived on the lake and made their living from fishing, as all the rivers and much of the countryside flooded every single year. So they built these stilted villages and floating communities to survive the monumental ebb and flow of the water each season, sometimes rising 50 feet or more. Everywhere I looked, there was evidence of the villagers working and fishing to survive, with fisherman coming home from a long day, pulling up their nets, cleaning and selling them in local floating markets, and drying fish and crustaceans on big racks.
Going out on a boat across the lake, I saw remarkable and picturesque views like never before, of people living on boats and floating structures. There were people hanging their laundry out on their floating homes, lighting cooking fires, and groups of women bathing in the shallows. These villagers even sent their kids to school on special boats, and there were small churches or temples and a floating medical clinic.
It was truly one of the best side trips I’ve ever taken, and the best part was that other than flipping a few coins to the fun and curious kids and tipping my boat driver, no one was trying to get in my pockets at all. In fact, they were smiling, hospitable, and really accommodating – an experience I’ll never forget.