Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and its ecosystem is unique in many ways. During the monsoon, the lake’s surface area becomes six times bigger compared to its size during the dry season from November to May. As if this was not impressive enough, the lake changes its flow twice a year (and this is not a result of an old-style Communist experiment…).
Moreover, it is estimated that over 1.2 million ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people inhabit the floating villages around the lake, mainly living from fishing (and tourism). More than half of Cambodia’s fish supply comes from this lake, so the lake’s importance for the entire Cambodia, economically and otherwise, cannot be exaggerated.
From Siem Reap it takes less than 30 minutes to reach the harbor (see the first picture) where you hop onto a private boat which takes you to the closest floating village from Siem Reap: Chong Kneas. For 20USD per person, you have a private boat with a captain and a guide. The entire trip lasts about one hour and thirty minutes. After a fifteen-minute drive you enter the actual lake and start seeing water dwellings: private houses, shops, garages, churches (see the photo of a Catholic church), temples (see the photo of a Buddhist temple), schools etc floating around more or less in harmony.
Basically, what you see is a floating slum. The water is so dirty that you may not want to eat any more amok… Surprisingly the lake does not smell bad, but it is clear everything gets thrown into the lake, and that the sustainability of this ecosystem is in danger as much as inhabitants’ health…
I understand and agree that Chong Kneas offers some nice photo opportunities (early in the morning or at sun set!) and therefore it cannot be labeled as “waste of time”, but I did not appreciate the obvious and overwhelming commercialization of the trip. At one point our guide informed us that we will stop at a communal shop “to buy some food as a donation for a poor local floating school”. We should have just said “no thanks” right away, but blame it on the sun or jet lag, and we didn’t say anything. We were brought into a floating shop and the seller expected two of us to buy a huge bag of rice, that cost more than a similar rice bag costs in the Litte India of Paris…. We only purchased water and lollipops, and left followed by “a look that could kill you”……
We then visited the famous school. It was like entering a temple: in front there was an altar where the offerings were placed. There was a huge bag of rice but I bet it was there to make others like us feel guilty. The pupils did not even notice us, and I don’t mean they should have performed a dance to thank us, but yes, I expected some kind of acknowledgment of our existence (or rather arrival of those lollipops at least). The lack of any sign simply gave me an impression that these children knew none of the rice, water, juice, noodles etc was meant for them!
The same evening I was reading The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide (January-April 2013) and found something on page 55 that confirmed my impression: “Rice scams: Tout tells you orphanage/school needs rice for kids. Takes you to market where you buy wildly overpriced rice to donate. Tout/vendor split profit.” (FYI: This same scam actually happens with women wanting you to buy milk for their babies)
I am not saying don’t visit the Tonlé Sap lake and Chong Kneas, but I do recommend you to visit other floating villages that are a little more far away but much, much nicer. Kompong Pluk, Kompong Khleang and Me Chrey are all mentioned in Cambodia, the Lonely Planet. Cambodia & Laos by Eyewitness recommends Kompong Pluk (“an authentique insight”) and Kompong Khleang (“the largest floating settlement”). The French guide book Le Routard Cambodge + extensions Laos puts it most bluntly: “If there is one (floating village) to visit, it is this one (Kampong Khleang)”.
PS It is extremely easy to organize a visit to any of these villages, but should you want someone friendly and reliable with a car, read my previous post about Siem Reap and Mr. Chhor Chamnan.