Floating Village of Kompong Khleang
After two days of exploring Angkor Wat, Victor and I were starting to get a bit templed out so we started perusing the brochures at our hotel. We zeroed in on one from Tara Travel: Kompong Khleang Tour. The brochure promised a visit to a fishing village, stilted homes and a flooded forest, plus lunch, transport (car and boat), and guide. So without knowing much about where we were going we decided to go. At 8 a.m. our guide, Sophon, and driver met us at the hotel. It turned out it was going to be a private tour. Sophon spoke terrific English with a hint of an Australian accent. I asked him if he had learned English in Australia and he told me he had never left Cambodia in his life and had learned in school. Sophon was very open with us, answering all of our questions and indulging my desire to sample some street food. He told us how he had lost a sister to the Khmer Rogue and how his lifelong dream is to go back to his village and open a school there.
As we drove out of Siem Reap, we were surrounded by farm fields intermingled with jungle and cows grazing. As we approached Kompong Khleang the dirt road turned red and Sophon showed us a brick making yard that uses the dirt.
While walking, I spotted several long tables covered with small shells. Sophon said this is favorite snack in the area. I could see and smell the salt and spice mix that was mixed in with the shells, but it was too early in the day for me to be craving shellfish:
We weren’t able to see the flooded forest because it wasn’t the right time of year, but after seeing the stilted high homes, it was easy to imagine that all the roads we were walking would be flooded in a few months:
Before driving to get on the boat and visit the fishing villages, Sophon said that part of our tour cost was a charitable donation. Before I knew what was happening, he led us into a small building and gave us binders and pencils to hand out to students. I was incredibly uncomfortable. Not only were there not enough supplies for the students, my mind kept returning to an Op-Ed piece my friend Kennedy wrote in college about ‘slum tourism.’ Although this wasn’t slum tourism, I felt like we had intruded into a classroom, interrupted its flow and were setting up a strange dynamic of white people popping in and giving things out and leaving. The students all said thank you and as we left I snapped a photo from my hip (because I didn’t want to point my camera at the students). I wasn’t sure if I should share this photo or not — in the end I decided to put it here to show the classroom conditions. Victor and I talked about this a lot over the next few days. We didn’t think Sophon was coming from anywhere bad. He was so excited talking to us about improving education in Cambodia. He used the classroom we visited as an example about how there aren’t enough books and too many students and not enough money supporting education. That’s travel for you, you end up in some situations that make you squirm and think about inequalities.
After the school visit, we drove to the river and boarded a boat near an old colonial school and temple:
As we traveled down river we saw people towing their river houses, shrimp fisherman, and people going about their daily lives. Sophon said that there had been, and still is, some tension on the river because many of the people who live here are not Cambodian — they had escaped Vietnam and ended up living and fishing here.
It was hard for me to imagine what it must be like to live, cook, and spend your life living on a boat. On our way back to land, we passed a boat full of young students who were commuting home after school:
Our last stop of the day before returning to Siem Reap was a crocodile farm:
This was not on the brochure! We learned that a lot of high-end brands buy from these kind of farms. The owner told us business had dropped off a lot following the recession. But, if anyone out there wants a croc for whatever reason, I asked the price: $500 for an adult.
Below is a photo of a beautiful little shrine at the crocodile farm. Honestly, I would probably have a hundred of these if I owned a crocodile farm, especially since there was no netting covering the top of the large cages with adult crocs down below.
After Sophon and our driver dropped us off at the hotel, they invited us out with them that evening to see an area of Siem Reap not frequented by tourists. Of course we accepted. More coming soon…
Tour information: Tara River Boat Tours. Our tour was $72 a person — one of the more pricey tours offered. There are others for around $30.
Guide Information: Seang Sophon, HP: (855) 12 58 02 84, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.