Hands up if you have heard of Tonle Sap?
No? Well you are not alone but Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is found between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, extending 250km in length and 100km in width at its maximum points. Its size varies at different times of the year as during the rainy (monsoon) season from June to October the lake is filled by water flowing 115 kilometers from the Mekong via the Tonle Sap river to an average depth of 14 metres extending over 10,000 square kilometers. However in the dry season from November to May the water flows out of the lake to the Mekong and its size is reduced to just 3,000 square kilometers averaging just two metres in depth!
Tonle Sap is one of the worlds richest inland fishing grounds and is surrounded by freshwater mangroves described locally as ‘flooded forests’ and the largest settlements on, or in close proximity to the lake are Cambodias third and fifth largest settlements of Battambang and Siem Reap. There are over 300 species of fish in the lake which provides for more than half the fish consumed in Cambodia and over 100 varieties of water birds live on or around the lake.
Siem Reap is translated as ‘Defeat of Siam (Thailand)’ – not only an excellent example of how to piss off your neighbours on an ongoing basis but allegedly a reference to an historic Cambodian victory in the centuries lasting (and still ongoing) series of conflicts between these neighbouring countries.
Today Siem Reap is both famous and synonymous with one thing – the memorable Khymer temples at nearby Angkor Wat, arguably the most famous visitor attraction in South East Asia, with hundreds of hotels, resorts, restaurants and businesses closely related to tourism. As far as visitor numbers go, the cultural attractions of Angkor Wat and the Beach resort of Pattaya in nearby Thailand are almost certainly the most popular destinations in South East Asia and the road from Siem Reap Airport to the centre of the City reminds me of Las Vegas, one hotel after another.
Angkor Wat should be on everyone’s bucket list of destinations to visit, as the over 30 different temple complexes situated in the Jungle are all different and justify at least three days of exploration. In 2005-06 I was fortunate enough to visit three of the worlds most famous attractions for the first time within 12 months. Machu Pichu in Peru was a fine conclusion to a trek along the Inca Trail in Peru and I enjoyed visiting the Great Pyramids in Cairo when spending two weeks in Egypt after climbing Kilamanjaro with our daughter Lisa and nephew Daniel, but it was Angkor Wat that really had the ‘Wow’ factor and for me was on a different level.
Indeed I was fortunate enough to visit Angkor Wat twice in 2006, once as the leader of a charity group on a Bicycle Trek through Vietnam and Cambodia and secondly as a tourist with my friend Ampai from Thailand.
99.9% of visitors to Siem Reap come to see the magnificent temples but eleven years later in November 2017 when I found myself back in Siem Reap, and again with my friend Ampai, it was for a different reason.
Although I have owned a home in Thailand since 2013 I have never bothered to get a Resident’s or Retirement visa, which means every 30 days I need to either extend my Tourist visa or leave the country and visit one of the neighbouring nations before re-entering Thailand with a new 30 day tourist visa.
I have never considered this a hardship as all the countries of South East Asia have much to offer and on this occasion in 2017 after a very busy preceding six months hiking in the Alps (see here and here), visiting Greenland and Baffin Island (see here and here , taking the train across Canada and hiking in the Philippines (see here) before arriving in Thailand I was up for nothing more than relaxing in a nice and inexpensive hotel (of which Siem Reap has many) when it was time to leave Thailand and renew my visa.
So Siem Reap it was, but a return exploration of the Angkor Wat complex could wait for another day, as I was more than happy to relax and read by the pool, discover a range of excellent dining options that reflected every international cuisine possible (Mexican in Cambodia anyone? And yes it was so good we went twice!), visit the street kids Circus and catch up with my friend Tony’s brother John, who had married a Cambodian girl and was building a house in Siem Reap for his new family.
However I did feel a little ‘guilty’ that we were not making much of an effort to travel any further than our hotel grounds and the busy and the colourful downtown area, which reflected both French colonial and Chinese influences in its architecture, in the evenings for dinner.
So I checked the Travel app ‘Viator’ on my phone which lists many local attractions and found a half day excursion to Tonle Sap, which included being picked up at our hotel in a minibus, transferred with a local guide to the river, a private boat which stopped so we could explore the village of Kampong Phluk which is normally built on the water but as the water levels were low we could walk amidst the houses all constructed on stilts, an exploration of the Mangrove forests in a smaller canoe vessel powered by a multi tasking local woman who minded her baby as she skillfully navigated amidst the waterlogged trees and roots (everyone is allocated work by rotation so all families benefit from the tourism) and eventually, after transferring back to our ‘bigger’ boat, we reached the lake itself where surprise surprise we were met by floating shops selling drinks and snacks.
We then retraced our way up the river to the starting point, rejoined our minibus and 6 hours after we began, were back at our hotel. The only other participants were a charming Filipino couple and for the princely sum of $20 each (plus $5 for our excursion through the Mangroves) we had a most interesting and enjoyable six hours.
So when you go to Siem Reap to visit the temples as you must, remember also to allow yourself half a day for a visit to Tonle Sap and discover how the human occupation around Tonle Sap is very distinctive and characterized by floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps and an economy deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters!
Enjoy the photos!
© Michael Bromfield