On my last day in Cambodia, I visited a floating fishing village on the Tonle Sap lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia. It is about 15 km or 9 miles from Siem Reap. We ride tuk tuks to the dock and it is a loud, bumpy, dusty and exciting ride. Getting around in a tuk tuk in Cambodia is an experience that is not to be missed!
We stopped at a local market on the way and our tour guide bought some local snacks for us to taste on our boat ride.
We bought fruit and a snack called ansom chek. Ansom chek is sticky rice with bananas in the middle. It is either steamed or grilled over hot charcoal. It was sweet and a little mushy. It is popular because it is cheap, filling and so portable.
Scenes at the local market.
Local produce and meats.
The inhabitants of the fishing village live in stilt houses. They are a vibrant community set amidst the mangrove swamps. There are restaurants, schools, hospitals and even a police station in the floating village.
The tour wound around the narrow channels of the river so we were able to view daily village life. The only way to get to the giant lake was through the village and I couldn’t help but feel like we were gawking and invading the villagers’ private space.
I was in a small boat with my tour group but there were also some really large boats with hoards of tourists. Sometimes the tourists on these large boats threw out packages of ramen and snacks to the village children as they motored pass. The children would then scramble and swim out to claim these packages. I suppose this is a way to provide donations but it just seemed so demeaning, dangerous and really quite awful.
This is sometimes referred to as poverty or slum tourism and there are many contentious points regarding this topic and you can read about it here and decide for yourself if this is something you would do on your trip.
I did my tour with Intrepid Travel which supports local communities and practices an eco friendly business philosophy. The guide told us that the boats and all the tourism related business on the lake were community run and directly benefited the fishing villagers.
Is it possible to sight see and not invade or ruin the places that we roam? Would I have done this tour if I had known about the conditions? I really don’t know. I feel so conflicted about the issue. Is it beneficial or exploitative?
I recommend that you talk to the tour operator before deciding. How large is the tour group? How involved is the company in giving back to the community? Poverty tours when done ethically can dispel stereotypes and give visitors a view of the local culture and people.
This whole experience really just served to reinforce again, the importance and need for responsible and informed tourism. See previous post about responsible tourism.
It was so peaceful and calm when we got out to the majestic lake. We sat quietly and ate our snacks. In the distant, there was a boat with a woman and a child who were steadily fishing.
Life on the lake is hard and the people I think, just want to have the opportunity to continue their traditional lifestyle. We can and have a responsibility when we visit, to help these communities sustain and continue their way of life by traveling mindfully.
We are a global community so let’s truly start living globally because our actions inadvertently effect everyone even if we just happen to be passing briefly.
Helpful tips for visiting Cambodia:
I highly recommend wick away moisture and wrinkle free back packing styled clothing. It is very dusty and khakis blend well and do not show dust!
Pack insect repellent because malaria is prevalent in rural areas.
Make sure to stay well hydrated and I am pleased to let you all know that the general state of the restrooms were actually quite good especially around the major tourist sites. Bottled water is cheap and plentiful especially in town and at the temples.
The most popular items for purchase are Cambodian scarves, fabric and silver. There are some fair trade souvenir stores scattered in Siem Reap’s Old Market which is located in the center of town. They are easily identifiable by their Fair Trade sign and chatting with store personnel always provides good insight into the artisans and products.
There are also Government approved sterling silver shops in the market which have the official business seal and purchasing from these stores will ensure that you are getting the real deal.
It is common to haggle when purchasing items but please always bear in mind the national GDP of the local population when you’re bargaining. The average income in Cambodia is still around US$1 a day.
Have you been to Cambodia? What were your favorite sights? If you haven’t been, what would you like most to see?