Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cambodia - Day #4 - Tonle Sap _The End of this Trip

Floating Village of Chong Kneas

Sunday, 12 August, was our last day in Cambodia.  Just because we had an afternoon flight back to Bangkok did not mean that our adventures were over for the trip.  Our guide and driver brought us out to one of the places that was on my list to visit - Tonle Sap.


Tonle Sap Tour Boat
Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia - not that this fact justifies a visit.  Tonle Sap is referred to by the Lonely Planet guide book as the "Heartbeat of Cambodia".  Personally to me, Tonle Sap is the lungs of Cambodia.  The lake provides food and irrigation water for one-half of the people in Cambodia.  Tonle Sap is connected to the mighty Mekong River - one of the greatest rivers of the world.  Tonle Sap's water level fluctuates greatly in accordance to the seasons.  In the rainy season from May to October when the Mekong is at its fullest, water flows from the Mekong into the lake.  In the dry season as the Mekong's flow diminishes, water flows from the lake into the Mekong.  Water levels in Tonle Sap range from a maximum of 2 meters (6 feet) in the dry season and to a maximum of 10 meters (32 feet) in the rainy season.  The flooding of surrounding land during the rainy season provides a great deal of food and shelter for aquatic life making Tonle Sap one of the richest sources of freshwater protein in the world.  Tonle Sap is a nursery for many of the fish of the Mekong River. During the dry season fisherman average a take of 220 to 440 pounds of fish a day.

Tonle Sap grows from approximately 965 square miles in the dry season to just over 5,020 square miles in the rainy season.  The increase in area as well as increased depth presents challenges in terms of housing for the inhabitants in the area.  Man has met the challenges of Tonle Sap by building floating homes.  It was the opportunity to witness this unique lifestyle that attracted me to visit Tonle Sap.  Both Duang and I are interested in seeing how people live in environments and situations different from what we are accustomed to.

The Village of Chong Kneas
Drawing Water in Chong Kneas
We were taken to the village of Chong Kneas which turned out to be where our guide was from.  Chong Kneas, from what we saw, is a collection of woven bamboo huts with thatched roofs where very poor people live on a dike high above the waters of Tonle Sap. The streets were unpaved and the air was filled with fine red dust whenever a bicycle, motorbike, or pick up truck drove by.

Chong Kneas is the jumping off point for exploring Tonle Sap.  It is from Chong Kneas that you can rent a boat to go out to the nearby floating village, go fishing, or go off further to other floating villages.  Our guide arranged for a boat for the three of us and we set off to tour some of the lake.



A Tonle Sap Resident with a Pot of Prepared Food

A Mobile Floating Market On Tonle Sap
The area where we traveled was very busy.  Boats of all shapes and sizes as well as varying degrees of seaworthiness slowly plied the waters.  Some of the boats that we passed were mobile floating markets selling goods and staples to the people who lived on floating houses.  Some of the boats were mobile refreshment stands selling fruit, snacks, and drinks to other boats such as ours.  There were boats carrying grandmothers and children off to some other part of the lake.  Men were in their boats headed back to their home with some supplies to fix their homes or second boat.  We were able to observe many small town activities - but all of them were water borne.  In our travels we even came upon a Christian church.  During the reign of the Khmer Rouge all religions were severely persecuted.  Even the Buddhist religion that dominates all of southeast Asia suffered greatly at the hands of the fanatic Khmer Rouge.  Monks, temples, and monasteries were destroyed.  However the resiliency of religion was not eliminated.  Today once again you can see young Buddhist Monks in Cambodia.


A Floating Christian Church On Tonle Sap

As we passed floating homes we observed babies being fed and bathed on the covered porches just a couple feet above the water.  At other homes young girls were doing daily chores such as washing clothes and washing plates.  Other porches had elderly people relaxing in hammocks strung from the wood columns of their floating homes.  Many Tonle Sap residents were content to just watch life as it passed by them just as Duang and I watched a much different life float by us.  A frequent sight was a toddler standing on the porch or in the doorway of their home wearing nothing but a smile as they waved to the passing boats.  In some areas along the shoreline children played on the beach enjoying swimming and splashing in the water.  I photographed one group as we rode by.  It was only after that we got back to Thailand and started to process the photographs that I realized how happy he was to see us.  I know that he was happy to see us because he had no pocket to keep a banana!  Think in terms of the old joke "Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"  I am not sharing that photo but I am sharing a previous "acceptable" photo of the group.  There is no telling what you will see when you go out and about here in Asia but it is life - daily life that you will find.  The daily life may be very different than what you are accustomed to but isn't that the reason that you travel in the first place?


Children Enjoying the Hot and Humid Morning


Tonle Sap Refreshment Vendors


Snack Boat Coming Alongside
We passed through and by the floating village and entered the realm of the fishermen.  As we looked forward towards the horizon in front of us we could not see land.  We came upon boats of fishermen setting their nets or hauling in their nets.  Despite being a ways from the civilization of the floating village we were not in any danger of starving or dying of thirst.  Soon we were approached and joined by a small, very small boat, manned not by a scurvy crew but a very cute crew selling refreshments.  A young mother and her two toddlers came alongside and offered to sell us fruit, prepackaged snacks, soft drinks, water, and beer.  I was concerned about becoming dehydrated.  I was concerned about eating since it had been over two hours since we had a large breakfast.  I was wondering and concerned as to when I would have a beer while in Cambodia.  The children were so adorable and I became concerned over the family's plight so we bought soft drinks for Duang, the boatman, and our guide.  I enjoyed a can of Cambodian beer and we all shared a couple bags of snack food.  We mid farewell to the vendors as they headed off in search of another vessel in "need".  Childhood is often short and many times nonexistent for the children of Southeast Asia.  Surprisingly they don't seem to mind.  For many of them working with their parents for the survival of the family is not a chore but a part of life.  On some days it is an opportunity to meet strange people who talk funny from a far away place.  I suspect that not having Sponge Squarepants Bob, Shrek, MTV, Disney, and Pixar Studios cartoon characters or video games does not hinder their development into adults that are capable of supporting themselves and being happy. What should the true purpose of childhood be - to be entertained or to become prepared for adulthood?


Snack Vendor Shoving Off on Tonle Sap

After our tour of Tonle Sap, we stopped at "Artisans d'Angkor".  Artisans d'Angkor is an organization established to help restore traditional Cambodian culture and art.  Artisans d'Angkor provides training, employment and marketing for young Cambodians in traditional arts such as weaving, stone carving, wood carving, woodworking, dance etc.  The students become artists and their work is placed up for sale in the organization's shops.

Wood Carving at Artisan d'Angkor
Student Learning Stone Carving
Under the Khmer Rouge you were either a government worker, in the military, or a farmer.  There was no appreciation for art.  Traditional culture was looked down upon and admitting to being an artist could get you murdered. After the reign of terror ended, there were many Cambodians without any viable skills. Young people were unemployed.  A generation had lost its identity and soul.  As part of international efforts to assist the Cambodian people recover, a French group created a place where the new generation of artists could be trained by the few remaining keepers Cambodian culture that survived.  It is a center of hope and testament to the strength of man's desire to be more than a beast of burden.

After purchasing some works, we returned to our hotel, checked out, and took the short ride to the Siem Reap Airport.  Our trust in selecting a guide and driver had been greatly rewarded.  We saw many interesting and unique sights from an insider's perspective without the stress of doing it on our own.  We had a great trip with many fond memories.  We left Cambodia very pleased with our trip and knowing some day we would be back.  I think that there are still some ruins we didn't get to see.



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