Boating Adventures on Tonle Sap Lake

No offence to boating enthusiasts out there, but I’m keen to have a break from it for awhile. In the past month I’ve noodled around the Mekong three times and enjoyed it immensely. My enjoyment of the water kind of petered out during a trip to Tonle Sap Lake, however.

Tonle Sap is a river/lake combo in Cambodia that’s the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. I use “freshwater” loosely here as what I smelled…wasn’t that fresh. It’s unusual because it changes direction twice a year depending on the season – in the dry season, it drains into the Mekong, while in the rainy season it backs up to form an enormous lake. Neat, right?

Well yes, however I went in the dry season. The water was, at best guess, no more than a metre deep, which made boating a tad dicey as boat propellers tend to get stuck in all the garbage in the water. And where’s the garbage from you ask? In the dry season, all the people that live along the river move out into the lake. When it’s the rainy season…they come back to the river. If you live on the water, you don’t pay taxes, therefore it’s a pretty attractive place to live. Minus the fact that there are no amenities for things such as sewage drainage, so in addition to throwing all your garbage in the water…your sewage goes there too.

So it smelled rather unpleasant as it was, of course, a hot day. And when you get stuck in the water and have to untangle a propeller, there’s no breeze to nudge the smell along. We stopped periodically to get untangled, and at one point came upon another boat that was struggling. So we naturally slowed down, but the boat behind us clearly didn’t get the memo and SLAMMED into the back. Therefore, no more propeller for us. And as we sat in the heat, watching our Cambodian drivers wading around in the water trying to work stuff out, more boats appeared. It quickly became a five-boat pile up, blocking the entire river. After a few minutes, Joanne (grandma roommate) made the keen observation “oh, have we stopped?”, as she had apparently missed that time when we got rocked from behind. She was likely wondering about where the children go to school, for she asks questions about schools EVERYWHERE we go. That and social services, medicare, etc. Even in Vietnam, she picked away at the social services available and tried to get our guide to admit that some things were wrong. Seeing how Vietnam is COMMUNIST, our guide was afraid to discuss anything.

But I digress. The boat was stuck, amid whispers of  “what if we sink?!” (again, the water was a metre deep, however I don’t think I got enough vaccinations to cover a walk to shore), and we eventually had to abandon ship and hop over to the ONE THAT HIT US. Enemy territory. Full of Asian tourists (Korean? Or Chinese, can’t remember) who stared at my shorts. Yes, they’re probably too short but it’s 40 degrees.

We got to the lake and were dropped off at one of the floating villages, which happened to have a large crocodile farm:

Which really is exactly what you want to see when you’re in shallow waters.

The floating villages are quite cool – some have small populations, others have hundreds or a thousand, and depending on the water levels they migrate back and forth between river and lake, forever in a nomadic existence. Out on the water there are churches, stores, schools, restaurants and houses. Conditions, like much of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, were quite poor, and several times a boat would speed up next to ours with an entire family loaded on. Sometimes they were selling drinks, while other times…the smallest child would be holding a snake. They charge $1 for photos of the children doing so, and it was such a bizarre site to see a tiny child indifferently holding onto a snake like it was a toy.

For our last stop before heading back to the dock, we gathered together hotel toiletries that we’d stashed away and dropped them off with a few families. I loved this little girl, with the saddest eyes in the world. She perked up when we handed over the toiletries. I wish I’d had more to give her.

After making it back to shore without any further breakdowns, we stopped at a village before returning to Siem Reap. Following a much-needed nap (following a long day and late, late night before) I had my weirdest experience thus far on the trip.

I had a fish massage.

Now before you envision someone slapping fish around on your back, the fish eat the dead skin off your feet, so more of a pedicure really. And as anyone who knows me can confirm, I have a bit of an issue with feet so sticking mine into a tank full of fish SEEMED just ridiculous enough to try. It was as ticklish, strange and hilarious as I’d imagined it would be. 20 minutes of little tiny fish nibbling at your feet while you sit on the sidewalk with your feet in an aquarium, watching the world go by. While I know it’s catching on in some spas in North America, there’s something a bit more fun about doing it in Asia – it’s fairly popular in Thailand as well, so worth checking out if you feel like doing something a tad bizarre!

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The How-To Guide to a Proper Night Out in Cambodia

Step 1: Get up at 4 a.m. to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (more on that later). Ensure it’s a cloudy, rainy morning so that the sun doesn’t appear.

Step 2: Spend the day walking around Angkor Wat and jungle temples in the drizzle and 40 degree heat.

Step 3: Eat curry for lunch. Spicy foods cool you down.

Step 4: Follow lunch with an ice cream. No explanation necessary.

Step 5: Instead of napping upon return to the hotel, have a pool party. Accidentally swallow half the pool when tipped off the shoulders of someone during an attempt at making a pyramid.

Step 6: Dinner. Eat something delicious (easy to do). Again, no explanation necessary.

Step 7: Take advantage of the buy one-get one deals at every bar in town. Celebrate something (such as a friend’s birthday!).

Step 8: Take part in an impromptu tug-of-war match in the street.

Step 9: Eventually call it a night upon realization you’ve been up for 22 hours. On tuk-tuk ride back, witness the near-death of a man on a motorbike as he crashes into your ride.

Step 10: Moderate amount of sleep.

Step 11: Coffee.

Step 12: Take a boat tour to Tonle Sap Lake (also, more on that later). Go in the dry season, when water levels are extremely low. Prepare for the smell of the water (think heated sewage). Get in an accident when a boat speeds up behind yours and crashes into the back, severing the propeller.  Hop onto that boat, full of Asian tourists who stare at your paleness in admiration and your shorts in disapproval. Try to avoid getting the water that’s spraying over the side on your face. Marvel at how ridiculous the last 24 hours have been. Repeat.