A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Cambodia: A village on stilts

Cambodia: A village on stilts on the Tonle Sap Lak.

Neeti Mehra, Mumbai Mirror | Oct 9, 2011,

Explore Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, home to a charming floating village with rustic and colourful double-storied houses

It was a warm, sultry day. The boatman signaled for us to move our chairs to the center of the motorboat. On cue, prickly twigs whipped the skiff savagely as we drifted through mangroves lining either side of the narrow Kampong Canal. Sometimes a quaint canoe or another tourist boat roared past us. This journey to Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, a bewitching pool that ebbed and waned with the seasons, was magical.

The mysterious lake

After three astounding days of exploring temples in Siem Reap, I drove a couple of miles outside the city and caught a boat from a tiny pier to Tonle Sap, a Khmer word, meaning large, fresh water river, or even, Great Lake. But this quirky water body doesn't retain its size throughout the year. Fed by the Mekong River starting in the Tibetan Plateau, in the dry season, the lake drains out back in the river and shrinks. But in the wet season, fed by the river and the rains it swells, nearly five times in size, to a whopping approximate 12,000 square kilometers informed Bros, our Khmer Guide. In the swell, the silt gets deposited on the floodlands. When the water levels recede, paddy fields and acres of green beans, corn and watermelon, scent the landscape, sprouting up like magic.

I peered in the water to spot some of the 200 freshwater fishes and handful of snakes present in the lake that Bros had mentioned. But the humidity seemed to have had a soporific effect on all, including my companions, whose gentle snores wove with the water's melody. As the canal gradually widened, a pagoda on stilts shrouded by wild grass came into view. Soon enough, rows of houses on stilts, and then, an entire water civilization emerged in the middle of nowhere: Kampong Phluk - a floating village, hidden to the outside world.

The floating village

Kampong Phluk was a melange of pastoral, water scenes: women wrapped in colorful scarves paddled lone boats; cheeky naked children swam like fish; a few villagers snoozed on hammocks tethered on stilts; boats with fishing nets rushed about; and even pigs rested peacefully in floating pens! Interestingly, the village didn't float literally; much of it stood on stilts, and the rest was tied-up and bobbed around.

Home to nearly 500 families, Kampong Phluk's rustic double storied homes soared to nearly six meters above the ground. Hewed from special wood, the colorfully painted hamlet, decorated with kitschy fake flowers sat in sharp contrast with the mud-coloured, silt heavy water flowing by.

The sloping roofs made from sheets of corrugated tins were a recent addition, replacing palm leaf roofs that were once de rigueur. And almost each home had a lovely view of the Great Lake. Itsy-bitsy balconies were trussed out in hammocks, deck chairs, and rocking chairs, all to watch life float by.

Our boat slowly ground to a halt at the makeshift pier. We stepped on to a sliver of magically dry land, dotted with homes on stilts that appeared to float when the area flooded. Stopping by a shop to gorge on steaming tapioca cakes, I climbed a rickety staircase and peeped in a garishly decorated guesthouse, popular with adventurous tourists, available for just a couple of dollars per night.

But the strangest home in the village was a Lilliputian machan. It had a bird house attached to it with a mug of local brew, incense sticks and a couple of bananas placed on it for good measure. The water spirit house, the locals prayed here before they left for fishing, explained Bros. By then it was already dusk, and, Tonle Sap and its wondrous floating village had already cast its spell.


Getting there: SilkAir, the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, flies from 7 cities in India to Singapore, with 10 convenient connections a week to Siem Reap, one of the 34 exotic destinations it flies to across Asia. (www.silkair.com)

Visit to Kampong Phluk: A day trip to the village and Tonle Sap Lake costs approximately 40 USD. Contact Exotissimo Travels which organizes exotic holidays in Cambodia at www.exotissimo.com.

Best time to visit: The best time to visit Kampong Phluk and Tonle Sap Lake is between July and January, when water levels in the canal are high.

Neeti Mehra @timesgroup.com

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