There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 21 February 2014

Siem Reap (3) Tonle Sap Lake: Part 9 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos


It is 15km from Siem Reap to Tonle Sap Lake, the huge body of water that occupies much of central Cambodia. The road has tarmac most of the way and we reached the dock in about twenty minutes.

Village near the dock, Tonle Sap Lake

It is a busy place where dozens of boats pick up hundreds of tourists.

S quickly acquired a boat which, as usual on this trip was too big, though this time with a meagre half dozen surplus seats, and we joined the procession of tourist boats heading down the canal towards the lake proper. We passed the occasional fisherman and several fish traps.....
Fish traps awaiting deployment, Tonle Sap Lake
 .... but there was little to see until we emerged into the lake by the village of Chong Khneas.
Chong Khneas, Tonle Sap Lake
Although it is called a village, the dwellings of 6000 people, many of them stateless ethnic Vietnamese, either float on the water or stand on stilts along the shore. Supported on bamboo rafts or oil drums, the floating houses are basic, lacking electricity, clean water and sanitation.

Chong Khneas, Tonle Sap Lake
French missionaries made little impression on Cambodia, but there are many Vietnamese catholics and their spiritual needs are catered for by a floating church.
Catholic Church, Chong Khneas (or Khnies)
We stopped at a larger house, further out than the village, bobbing above a crocodile farm. Lynne disapproves of keeping crocodile just for their skins - though she would have no problem if they were kept for meat – but in another sense she disapproves of the very existence of crocodiles. She found this a very morally ambivalent place to be.

Resident at a Crocodile Farm, Chong Khneas
Leaving the farm we pottered southward keeping a couple of hundred metres out from the shore. At its lowest, in May, the lake covers 2500 square kilometres, draining via the Tonle Sap River into the Mekong at Phnom Penh (we had disembarked at the confluence when we reached Phnom Penh from Vietnam). The arrival of the rains, in late May, coincides with the peak flow of Himalayan melt water down the Mekong, which then becomes higher than the lake and the Tonle Sap River changes direction. By October, when the flow re-reverses, Tonle Sap Lake has increased its area fourfold and its depth by five or six metres – hence the need for houses on stilts.

Once beyond village we left the tourist hordes behind and our captain put the boat in cruise control - i.e. he tied the piece of string he was pulling on to open the throttle to a stanchion. Meanwhile, at the stern, the crew was hard at work.
The crew hard at work, Tonle Sap Lake

We continued for an hour with jungle and mangrove swamps to our left and water as far as the horizon to our right. Crossing the smooth milky coffee coloured surface was relaxing and the breeze caused by our movement provided natural air conditioning.

Nothing much happened until we passed a substantial scaffolding by the water's edge, destined, according to S, to become a restaurant. The captain untied the cruise control and headed for another canal. At the mouth was a floating restaurant, full of lunchers though it was not yet eleven, and beyond that a boat house where we disembarked.

Into the canal, Tonle Sap Lake

Taking a 'canoe through the mangrove swamp’ had sounded exotic when we had read about it at home, but we arrived to find thirty or so canoes waiting like taxies on a rank and tourists embarking and disembarking only a little slower than on a Disneyland ride.
A taxi rank of boats among the mangroves, Tonle Sap Lake

All the paddlers seemed to be women, and some had brought their daughters to work.

Among the mangroves, Tonle Sap Lake
We set off, paddled by a young lady sitting at the front of the canoe. She made just the right speed through the mangroves and, to be fair, most of the time we did not feel part of a convoy. We passed several fish traps and a couple of fishermen tending them, wading through the knee deep water.

Fishing among the mangroves, Tonle Sap Lake
Sitting at home the thought of wading in mangroves swamps is horrifying. What about the water snakes and the spiders, and are there leeches? Being there, seeing it done takes away the fear, the water is merely shallow and muddy, it is no longer mysterious or dangerous.
Into the mangroves, Tonle Sap Lake

It was sad, or perhaps worrying, to see how many plastic bags were nesting among the mangroves. The curse of the plastic bag - too cheap, largely indestructible and rarely disposed of properly - is evident all over the developing world, this was just a particularly stark example.
Among the mangroves, Tonle Sap Lake
(I seem to have missed the plastic bags - which makes a better picture, even if it fails to make my point)
Our trip over, we returned to our boat and continued up the canal passing through a village of houses on stilts overlooking the river. We did not need to be told the houses have no proper sanitation to know it was a poor, scruffy and dirty place.

Village beside the canal, Tonle Sap Lake

The village went on long enough to start looking like a town and the canal became narrower and narrower. Eventually we emerged the other side and docked beside a dirt road where, almost miraculously it seemed, Gung was waiting with the car.

Village beside the canal, Tonle Sap Lake
 We drove for 15kms along a red dirt road. Despite its lack of tarmac it was well-made and we made good speed, throwing up a cloud of dust behind us.

The road to Roulos
We passed through paddy fields, flat and green as far as the eye could see. In places, desperately thin cattle grazed on the stunted grass at the field margins. ‘It’s the dry season,’ S explained, ‘they will fatten up when the rains come.’ [It was the dry season in Laos, too, but their cattle were in fine condition]. An outbreak of houses and shops suggested we were entering the small town of Roulos, known by the rather pleasing name of Hariharalya (pronounced Harry-harra-lier) when it was briefly the capital of the Khmer empire in the early Angkorian period.
Paddy fields beside the road to Roulos

We reached a tarmacked road and, by it, a restaurant set in a garden among trees and shaded from the sun by awnings.

It was a beautiful spot and had, inevitably, collected all the tourists in the region (except for those who preferred to eat at 11 o’clock by the lakeside). We ordered spring rolls, steamed vegetables and a 'local fish' curry in a rich coconut sauce.

Lynne was less impressed by the fish curry than I was
I thought the fish was wonderful. Lynne, whose idea it had been to order it disagreed; it was 'fish messed about' in her view, which, I think, means 'too little fish and too much sauce'. She had read the menu, so she only had herself to blame.

The Roulos group of temples is 'one for the specialist' according to the Rough Guide, but as we were there we might as well take a look.
Lolei Temple, Roulos
We started at Lolei, originally on an artificial island in an equally artificial lake. It now sits on a mound among paddy fields, flanked by a pagoda on one side and the monks living quarters on the other. Dedicated to the parents and maternal grandparents of Yasovarman I (ruled 889 - 900) and consecrated to Shiva, there is not much of the temple left, though it boasts some well-preserved Sanskrit inscriptions detailing the work rotas of the temple servants.

Monk's dwellings beside the Lolei Temple, Roulos
Five minutes driving brought us to Bakong, the state temple of Indravarman I and consecrated to Shiva in 881, though the central sanctuary - which is in good repair - was added 250 years later and restored in 1940.

Bakong Temple, Roulos
 It is a temple of trunkless elephants....

Lynne and a trunkless elephant, Bakong Temple, Roulos
and cheeky-bottomed lions, some so cheeky they have split.....

Cheeky-bottomed lion split almost in half, Bakong Temple, Roulos
but the view from the top is pleasing.
On the top level of Bakong Temple, Roulos
 Nearby Preah Ko was built in 1179. Built on a platform, patches of the stucco that once covered the whole of the temple still remain.
Stucco (not original), Preah Ko Temple, Roulos 
In front of the platform Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva, looked up hopefully. Somebody (not in this picture) did try to mount him. As they were not Shiva, and Nandi is frail now that he is in his
ninth century, they were, quite rightly, shouted at.

Lynne and Nandi in front of the platform, Preah Ko Temple, Roulos
We returned to Siem Reap and miraculously found ourselves in Pub Street at exactly beer o'clock, though Lynne decided that a restorative gin and tonic would do her more good. I paid the exorbitant US$2 price tag, which meant I could only afford a 50¢ draught beer for me.

You do not have to wait long in Pub Street for entertainment and a young man soon came along with some magic tricks, juggling and fire eating before diving through a hoop of knives and fire, sadly to the general apathy of the crowd. I thought he was worth a small donation. Lynne thought he was worth more and called me 'mean', ignoring the fact I was the first person to stand up and offer anything.

Entertainment, Pub Street, Siem Reap
Behind the acrobat, as the photograph shows, is a Tex-Mex restaurant and a sushi bar. Siem Reap is not your average Cambodian small town.

We walked back to the hotel arriving just in time to go out again to find some dinner. We chose one of the many restaurants near the old market. Earlier Lynne had been so convinced of her return to health that she had rather overdone it. Unable to face rice, she wanted something simple and went for some noodles with vegetables while I chose the ever palatable pork and ginger. Lynne complained, with some justice, that her noodles were far too sweet – a problem, we have found, with much Khmer food.


We spent the morning pottering about Siem Reap before our late afternoon flight to Luang Prabang.

The Royal Independence Gardens were a short walk along the shady riverside past the modest Royal residence.

Shady walk beside the Siem Reap River
 A shrine to Ya Tep - a local spirit who gives protection and brings luck - sits on a traffic island. Ya Tep has a steady flow of visitors and collects an array of offerings.
Ya Tep shrine, Siem Reap
The shrine to two sister deities sits on the other side of the road where caged birds are sold so that people can gain merit by releasing them. One woman had a large cage packed with sparrow sized birds. With an intense look in her eyes she was thrusting her hands in and grabbing the birds three or four at a time and throwing them into the air. Clearly there was a matter of great importance that she was trying desperately to influence.
Gaining merit by releasing birds, Siem Reap
There is an obvious problem. Gaining merit by releasing caged creatures is fine but, as they have only been caged so they could be released, she was effectively causing the caging and thus, I would have thought, losing as much merit as she gained. Taking into account the birds that did not make it - several collapsed onto the pavement and expired at her feet – she was in negative merit for her morning’s efforts. I don't think this has been thought through.

He's got some birds, too
A flower stall on the corner does good business with those coming to the garden for their wedding photos - there were four or five such groups while we were there. S later confirmed that, as in China, wedding photographs are not actually taken on the wedding day. The clothes, like the photographer, are hired by the hour and an appropriate location chosen to commemorate an event that was weeks, or even months ago.
Three wedding groups, Royal Independence Gardens, Siem Reap

Wandering back towards the hotel we stopped at the Bon Café, ‘your one stop coffee solution’ (they can import our language if they wish, but do they have to import our gibberish as well?) Khmer coffee is respectable enough but a touch ordinary, lacking the power and chocolaty flavour of its Vietnamese cousin.

After a stop to send some emails we made our way to one of the restaurants near the old market. Lynne had perked up while we were at Lake Tonle Sap but had now relapsed and picked at a piece of fish, looking sorry for herself. I had pork and lotus roots. I like lotus roots and we had seen many in the market but not, before this, on a menu. In China the roots are sliced across so you get something that looks like a showerhead and has a similar taste and texture to a water chestnut. These however had been sliced the other way into 2cm strips, thus losing the crispness. In November 2012 by Lake Inle in Myanmar we were shown how it was possible to twist the filaments in lotus into a usable fibre. Cutting the root this way left those filaments a little longer than was comfortable.

Later our Vietnam airlines flight to Luang Prabang left Siem Reap's small airport - small but still the busiest airport in Cambodia - ten minutes early and arrived at Luang Prabang's even smaller airport over an hour early.

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