Of course when Siem Reap Cambodia is mentioned, you instantly think of Angkor Wat and time visiting the temples. Something that we did enjoy, but we also wanted to explore other parts of the area during our 3 week visit to Siem Reap. We did just that when we took a 1/2 day tour with Tara Riverboat.
Tara Riverboat Tour
We selected the half day tour of the Chong Khneas Village and the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. We figured this would give us a better feel for more of the local life outside of the standard tourist areas. I know we are going on a tour and not wanting to be tourists, but sometimes that is the best option for us.
There were a few choices for departure times 8 am, 10 am or 3:30 pm for a sunset tour. For this family 8 am just wasn’t an option. I am having a tough time getting the family up by 10 am for the included breakfast at our hotel. While the sunset tour sounds ideal, I wanted to be sure we avoided the key mosquito time on the water, and of course we recently enjoyed a sunset dinner cruise in Hoi An. So there you go, we selected the 10 am tour.
Promptly at 10 am our driver and guide picked us up from our hotel. Our guide, Socheat, spoke English perfectly so this was a bonus. We knew we would be able to understand everything. We all loaded up in the van and off we went on a 20 minute journey out-of-town. Our first stop was at the Cambodian Chong Khneas Village. This is a small village built along side the road over the lake.
Cambodian Chong Khneas Village
It was a simple village that lives their daily lives without electricity, so everything is battery-powered or in rare cases solar-powered. As we stepped out of the van, we walked along a path that slopes down from the edge of the road. We noticed a few posts up near the top of the hill, where one my tie off a horse or a boat perhaps. We weren’t really sure, as it was all so intriguing, but confusing too.
All of the homes and structures are built on stilts about 20 feet above ground level. There were kids running all around playing with each other and looked as happy as could be. Many of the village adults were hanging around in hammocks, sitting in the shade under their homes or cooking outdoors. There was even a two-story school down at the base of the homes, which appeared to be built up on a platform with pontoons under it.
All of this of course made us very curious and we were full of questions:
- Why are the homes on stilts?
- What is going on with the local school?
- Why is the playground the second story?
- Why did we pass a post that appeared to be for tying off boats or horses?
We took our tour in January, which is the dry season. The lake levels are very low this time of year and for about 6 months out of the year, this village is “on land”. The remaining portion of the year all of these homes are IN the lake. Yep, this is one of the villages where they need to take a boat from their home to the side of the road. That is what the post for tie off was for; to tie up their boats. This is why their homes are on stilts as the lake’s water level rises up so much.
Just so you know, the lake’s edge was so far away we couldn’t really see it from where we were, so it is difficult to imagine this entire area under water. We weren’t wrong about seeing happy kids, they were excited to have ground to run around and play on.
Oh and the school that appeared to be grounded. Ha, it floats! Yes, the kids need to take a boat from their home to their school, during the wet season. Amazing.
When it is dry season and the lake recedes, the locals can now use the land for farming. As far as we could see there were farms and rice paddies. They use 6 months for farming and the other 6 months for fishing. It is amazing how they adapt to their surroundings and live their lives with nature.
We just fell in love with a couple of the kids running around us, especially this little boy. He was instant love for me. Oh his smile just melted my heart. I made funny noises with my mouth and made raspberries with my lips and he thought that was the greatest thing ever.
It was great fun and so cute to hear the kids break into giggle fits, but at the same time we felt a bit awkward just looking at all of these people and taking photos.
Note and Warning: When researching options for a visit to these villages, we read a review where it was stated the locals in Chong Khneas Village charge $20 per person to view their village. This review was entered by someone who went on an organized tour. This made us very uncomfortable and we reached out to Tara Riverboat to find out the details. We were assured that all fees were included in our tour. They were, so we didn’t have to pay anything extra with Tara Riverboat. Please do keep this in mind if you are booking tours with any other company.
On to the full-time Floating Village
It was time to hop back in the van and head to the port and get in our boat. Again, with the lake levels low this time of year. We were transported in one of the small Tara boats. This was for about 6-8 passengers.
The remainder of the year, their big Tara boat would be at the port waiting for you. Off we went on a fun ride in the small boat.
At first we went through a stretch of lake that was less than pleasant smelling. We all had a bit of a giggle and tried to find ways to mask the smell. Luckily it was very short lived or we just got used to it.
According to Gma Bev, after 2 minutes you get used to a foul smell and it no longer bothers you. Hmmm? Does anyone know if this is true?
We were able to go along the lake, through mangroves and then we arrived at the floating villages. The first set of villages we found, were near the shore line and were Cambodian villages. The next set a little further away from the shore and closer to the mangroves was the Vietnamese floating villages. Apparently the two communities get along well, but do keep their floating homes, markets, water stations, etc. separate.
It was amazing to see how people lived on their own little floating islands. Everything they needed was on their floating home. Some were made from a boat base and a platform with walls and roof built above. Some were actual houseboats and others were platforms floating on pontoons. Once in a while we would pass a market or shop floating as well. There was a station to purchase drinking water or fuel for their boats.
We even saw a couple of large floating churches! They had two floors with the bottom floor used by the congregation, and the upper floor was the “playground”. Near the shore was a modest building on stilts, and a long set of steps leading up to it. That was the Spirit House, which is used by the Buddhists, and is intended to provide a shelter for spirits that could cause problems for the community if not appeased. People leave offerings of food and/or drink and light incense.
All of this was amazing, but there was something troubling about it all as well. They don’t have any form of running water or a receptacle for sewage. They don’t really have any way to collect their trash either. Much of their discards just end up in the lake. The very lake where they bathe, swim, wash clothes, and even fish. Socheat said that the lake water is not fit for drinking, but it is okay to eat the fish. Not for us!
On a side note: As we were going along in our small Tara boat and a bigger boat passed, we of course had a bit of a wake to splash over. The lake water would sometimes splash into the boat. Each of us would have a quick little panic, as if acid was hitting us and going to dissolve our skin. You see we didn’t want the lake water touching us. I know it sounds crazy and harmless, but after a while it became very comical. Poor Socheat didn’t understand all of the commotion and we didn’t have the heart to tell him.
It was none the less fascinating to see this way of life. As the lake water lowers, the villages move in closer to the center of the lake. They don’t typically move all together, just one by one as they see fit to move. Our next stop was the crocodile farm!
Crocodile & Fish Farm at Chong Khneas
What? Crocodiles in the lake? I know, we had a little issue with this as well. Until we arrived and realized they are captive crocodiles. This was more of an education center with 6 contained crocs and also another enclosure full of catfish. The catfish are raised to feed the crocs.
The local people do enjoy eating crocodile meat and use the skins as well. There was also a souvenir shop and a museum area in the back. All of this was of course floating on the lake! We walked up a few flights of stairs to the roof for a beautiful view. Just about 200 meters away was the Big Tara boat, anchored and awaiting our arrival for lunch.
The Big Tara Boat
After leaving the crocodile farm it was on to the big Tara Boat. This was a real treat. When we arrived we were greeted with our choice of cold drinks and a personal wet towel to wipe our hands. The boat was all ours and was wonderful. On the main floor there were many tables and chairs for dining. I would say it could easily seat 100+ people. Along the back of the boat on this level was a “chill” area with hammocks.
Of course the kids instantly gravitated to this area, enjoying the breeze coming off of the lake, and looking at the nearby floating villages.
Upstairs was a massive deck and garden area. Again with more tables and chairs to just sit and enjoy the views. This was all outdoors and the decks were beautifully lined with potted plants, to provide a garden feel. You can tell much care goes into the maintenance of the boat. We each ordered our lunch from the menu and just explored the big boat.
Within 15 minutes we were all served our lunch and it was wonderful. We were also provided with another round of cold drinks, which was welcomed by all. The service was outstanding and they made us feel like we just belonged there. We enjoyed every minute on the boat and about 1:15 or so, it was time to load on to the small boat for the return ride.
We ventured back through the floating villages and returned to the port. Our drive home in the AC van was very nice and Socheat was great to answer any questions we had. He even provided us each with a local gift (scarves), wrapped with a bow!
We had such a great time and we would highly recommend a tour with Tara Riverboat. They have many tours to choose from, but if you are looking for just a half day this one was perfect for us. If you are interested in checking them out, their contact information is provided below.
Tara Riverboat Siem Reap Cambodia
Phone: +855 (0)92 957 765
Photo Gallery of our day out to the floating villages with Tara Riverboat
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Adventure333 (3 Generations, 3 Months, 3 Countries)
Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia
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Disclosure: Tara Riverboat was kind enough to sponsor our half day tour of the floating villages. All opinions are our own, we share it all with you..