High and Dry: Cambodia’s Floating Villages

[Jonty] Siem Reap, Cambodia, was the destination of choice for our first family holiday following the travel bans of COVID-19. We had been recommended a guide to take us around and we had a lot of fun riding on the remorque – a motorbike driven carriage, remorque being the French word for carriage. Riding along the newly surfaced roads of Siem Reap was smooth – wind in our hair. It was a totally immersive experience – the roadside stalls felt closer; we would smell the cattle crossing the roads; we could feel the morning atmosphere as we rode past paddy fields being harvested.

We had planned four days of touring quite intentionally. Day one was our temples day. Siem Reap is well known for its temples – particularly Angkor Wat which has such a reputation that it is often assumed it is one of the seven wonders of the world, even though it is not on the list. We crammed in 4 temples into that first day as we wanted to keep our children’s interest levels high. Our second day was relaxed, feeding and walking with elephants for the morning. Day three was a jaw dropping visit to Phnom Kulen, where nature showed off with waterfalls and one of the most panoramic views I have ever experienced. For our fourth and final day of touring, we chose the floating village of Kampong Phluk.

We stopped at a roadside shack to purchase our tour tickets. Opposite the shack was a wide wet ditch – perhaps 2 metres deep and about 10 metres wide. The other side of the ditch were paddy fields, the green shoots growing out of the glassy reflection the cloud speckled sky. Our guide, Samuth, shared that the ditch was in fact a dry river – we were only at the start of the rainy season and that in September – just two months away, the tour boats would ride all the way up to the ticket hut, but today we needed to ride a further 10 minutes before the river was deep enough for our boat to take us out.

The long, straight road that took us to our starting point seemed to have risen out of the wet paddy fields that stretched out either side of us as the remorque bobbled over the dusty red dirt beneath us. Beached tour boats were, on closer inspection, lying on their sides, being fixed before the waters rose. We were introduced to our driver and climbed a rickety ladder, made with old bits of driftwood, onto the slim, blue boat. A narrow aisle was winged with rows of single seats, gracing each passenger with a clear view of the banks of the river. The engine purred loudly, initially distorting the sounds of the peaceful river. After a few minutes, I realised the engine sound strangely harmonised with the surroundings, creating a unique atmosphere.

As the boat sat low in the river, pushing the waters aside as we drove forward, we began to see buildings high on stilts. Some of these looked quite sturdy – a police station and a hospital stood on thick wooden legs. Other stilted buildings looked weaker – they resembled lanky old men at the beach in the British summer. Long skinny legs, knobbly knees, short shorts and an off-white vest with the finishing touch of a bucket hat. But the bucket hat was an iron roof.

We stopped at pontoon that bobbed upon the brown waters with the help of bamboo trunks, old car tyres and big clusters of littered plastic water bottles, all collected together in old fishing nets. To our surprise, half of this pontoon had been built to house a collection of river crocs, once native to this area. Over the years the people had culled them for the sake of safety and now, this mini farm is all that remains of these prehistoric lizards.

We decided to take a slight diversion – a gondola, not too dissimilar to the iconic Venetian boats. These were flatter and were steered and driven by middle aged ladies who sat at the front of the boat, navigating mangroves and underwater shrubs with a wooden pole that tapered out into a flat paddle at the end. It was quiet in the mangroves. No “pap-pap-pap-pap-pap” of the motor boats, just the sound of the water washing around the paddle. Our driver was dressed in bright colours and spoke no English, but would say something to us every now and again in Khymer – the local language in Cambodia. Towards the end of our 30 minute ride, she began pulling giant snails out of the water to eat later.

We returned to the pontoon and to our long, blue boat that then took us out to experience a giant lake – so large we would see the horizon. Clusters of sticks shot out of the water – for houses that wanted to anchor in the lake to spend time fishing. Our boat driver took us back to the rivers and brought us to the bank, where we disembarked onto dry land. A few small homes were close to the bank and I wondered why they were situated further away from the rest of the village that was another 50 metres away. A couple of teenagers on motorbikes rode past us. The village opened out – one straight dusty road with homes either side, high on stilts. Upon the nest of electricity wires were birds nests, the birds having taken advantage of these ready-made foundations. Villagers sat in their homes, looking out at us as we walked past. Their children shouted “hello!” in English and we returned the greeting. Every person I made eye contact with smiled back – a beautiful smile that I now see as a trait of the Khymer people.

River shrimp and clams cooked on metal sheets in the sun outside the blue painted homes – I wonder if they used the same paint as the boats, perhaps a way of preventing rust on the tin roofs. Big lush, leafy plants furnished the road. A lady was shaking a rattan tray of dried shrimp. Her circular movements brought snail shells to the top, so she could separate them and each throw lifted the shrimp shells off the tray – leaving orangey-pink de-shelled shrimp on the tray. Samuth, comfortable in this setting, spoke with the lady like they knew each other (they didn’t!) and helped himself to a handful of these dried shrimp, sharing them with the kids, Millie and me. The lady let me have a go at separating the shells – she laughed at my attempts and I was glad to have entertained her!

We continued down the straight road, imagining what it would look like when the waters rise. Motorbikes, bicycles and furniture would all need to move upstairs in the weeks to come. We learned that the frail elderly live inside the homes all year round – the stairs are too many and the homes too high for some to navigate. At the end of the village was a temple and a school. Children played outside in white shirts. Simple games brought so much joy – there were no smartphones in sight. One group of children were jumping over a string made with rubber bands tied together. Two children would hold the string and each child would decide how high they wanted the band. At one point it broke and they took a minute to fix it before starting again. I asked them whether I could have a go too. They openly let me and our daughter Aspen join in their joy and it has left me with a wonderful memory.

It was time to get back onto our boat. The 30 minute ride was not long enough to even process the wonderful morning we had. Along the way we stopped to pick up our driver’s wife and daughter. They walked down from one of the smiled homes. His daughter must have only been two or three years old. As we descended for our final time onto dry land, I carried the little girl off the boat. She was comfortable with me – happy to be held and trusting of this stranger. I loved how the community they have meant that a child felt safe with an adult – even one she had not met before.

This morning, I am sat in a cafe writing this blog. Even now, two weeks after our incredible trip to Siem Reap, I can’t quite put into words how our visit to the floating villages impacted me. I loved it. I hope to share a little more of our trip with you here. Watch this space.

If you are planning a trip to Cambodia, please check out our YouTube videos of our trip on our channel, WONDERLUST – YouTube.com/WonderlustWorld

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