Flying from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, it's hard to miss the enormous sea of brown water called Tonlé Sap. After a good monsoon season, the lake floods and grows five times bigger, eventually covering nearly 10% of Cambodia's surface area with water.
It's hard to develop lakefront real estate in such conditions, but Cambodian villages have devised a few different solutions. For example, the residents of Chong Kneas live in houseboats
which follow the shore of the lake as it moves each season.
A nearby village, Kompong Phluk, opted to build each house atop twenty-foot stilts, just above the high water mark. Depending on when you visit, Kompong Phluk is like Venice or Manhattan: you'll either paddle around from door to door in dugout canoes, or you'll walk around town with skyscraper-like stilts towering over your head.
For visitors, reaching Kompong Phluk can be challenging. There are no signs or organized trips. Our guidebook provided scant notes
, suggesting that one could either hire a boat from Chong Kneas for US$30 or take a combination of buses/motos/boats via Roluos. We hired a driver to take us to the dock near Chong Kneas, which is now operated by a controversial
Korean business group. The official ticket seller wanted US$100 for the trip to Kompong Phluk, a ridiculous amount of money in Cambodia. He had no interest in negotiating the price, and the boatmen aren't permitted to negotiate directly. Other people
have experienced similar problems here, and many just decide to pay up.
We decided to try the other route, driving through Roluos and towards the lake. Motos began chasing our van as we passed through town, and eventually our driver stopped when the road became impassable. We hired three motos and rode onwards as the road became a rutted dirt and sand track. Half an hour later, we reached a narrow irrigation canal where friends of the moto drivers offered us a (probably overpriced) US$30 boat ride to continue our journey. Puttering along the canal, wondering if this wild-goose chase might lead to any kind of destination, we saw stilted houses appear on the horizon. Victory!
Kompong Phhluk was more like Manhattan when we visited, with low water and towering stilts reaching up from a dry, dusty street. It's wonderfully surreal. Plus, as the only tourists for dozens of miles, we attracted a crowd of 20-30 kids and a few adults, trying to sell us notebooks and pencils (for the children), frozen sugary treats (for the children), and giving us a guided tour of the town. Luckily we had brought a healthy supply of crayons, markers, and pens to share as gifts.
Past the village we reached the edge of Tonlé Sap, where we could finally appreciate the vastness of the lake: perfectly flat and murky brown, as far as the eye can see. Not so great for swimming, but an impressive sight nonetheless.
(a few more photos from Cambodia
are available here