Say you popped down the road to pick up the paper and a coffee, and found that the corner shop had moved overnight. So, in fact, had the post office, waterworks, school and…yikes!! …when did the cops set up shop next door to me???
Jumping off a tuk-tuk from Siem Riep at Cheong Khneas Jetty, we climb into a shallow-draught boat and putter down a narrow inlet. Our destination; a village where moving is a regular chore, especially when it’s rainy season on the Tonle Sap.
Sitting bang astride Cambodia, the Tonle Sap’s a huge geographical oddity. In the dry season, it’s a shallow freshwater lake draining into the Mekong. Then, in June, the Tonle Sap pulls off its annual spectacle. The surging Mekong brings in so much water that the lake’s flow actually reverses. It puffs its chest up mightily, swells to almost eight times its size and turns a sizeable part of Cambodia into a gigantic inland sea.
So, since they obviously can’t live by the Tonle Sap, the folks in Chong Khneas very sensibly live afloat it.
The river quickly widens; it’s a short inlet leading to the lake. On both banks, Chong Khneas village begins to appear. Our visions of a motley collection of houseboats evaporate. This is a proper village, albeit rather poor, with all the things a village has – its own government offices, shops, restaurants, churches and temples. There’s a floating USAID water-purification plant, a school and a fair-price ration shop much like those in Indian villages. A cop snoozes in a hammock in front of the local police station, while traffic darts about. The villagers grow up in boats and, like their counterparts on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, some of the kids paddling about are definitely too young to drive.
A dab hand with a boat’s necessary for a culinary reason, too. If you like fish, you’ll literally dive into the Tonle Sap. The surge and ebb of water from the Mekong fills the lake with an amazing diversity of freshwater fish. Much of the local population isn’t Khmer, but Vietnamese and tribal Chan fishermen. As the banks quickly disappear, we see them – small fishing boats speckled across a vast sheet of muddy water that stretches as far as the eye can see.
But, the fish are waiting. Back in the village, we’re soon demolishing a huge pile of rice and amok, Cambodia’s national fish curry, which goes excellently with Angkor, Cambodia’s national beer (‘My Country My Beer’ is its proud tagline). The restaurant’s atop a fish farm, home to some humongous catfish, Next door, though, are some larger neighbours – pens of huge crocodiles. Croc farming’s legal in Cambodia, and croc leather shops abound in Siem Riep. Bloody expensive, though; I’ll stick to humble cow leather, thank you.
And, I’ll groan my satiated way back into my boat and back to the jetty. My day isn’t done; up next, I’m off to tick a box that’s long been on my ‘must-see-before-you-die’ list.
Angkor, here I come!