The Big Trip: Day 9 (Pt. 3): Tonle Sap, CambodiaI had spent a good morning at Angkor Wat on my last full day in Siem Reap. After a cloudy sunrise and a wet excursion at the temple itself, I went to Angkor National Museum for a bit of historical and cultural background which, in hindsight, I probably should have done before exploring the temples of Angkor. By lunchtime, I was pretty much done with the temples. Sure, there were still a few lesser temples and far temples that I could have seen, but after three days, I was all templed out. Besides, at least it gave me something to return to, just in case.

I was all out of ideas on what to do for the rest of the day when my tuk-tuk driver Mr. Bill suggested that I go check out the lake, Tonle Sap. I was only vaguely aware of what to expect there, with my knowledge coming solely from a single episode of “The Amazing Race” set in Siem Reap. When Mr. Bill mentioned experiencing sunset at Tonle Sap, I was sold.

My last afternoon at Siem Reap was spent on a good meal, followed by a little bit of shopping (for school supplies, mainly, as the envelope that carried my documents was starting to fall apart), some ice cream at this great French ice cream shop called The Blue Pumpkin, and swimming at my hostel, The Siem Reap Hostel. It was great; after three hot days of temples, splashing around in a cool pool was a refreshing respite. It energized me for whatever was left of the day.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Bill arrived to take me to Tonle Sap. He warned me that the roads would be rough, but I wasn’t prepared for what I had experienced. The moment I saw an advertisement for dirt buggy rentals, I knew I was going to be in trouble. The tuk-tuk moved slowly on the rocky dirt roads, but it didn’t help stop the vehicle from bouncing up and down. I had to make a conscious effort to stay in my seat and not get thrown off the tuk-tuk, or worse, hit my head and get a concussion.

After that long and rough ride, we finally arrived at the riverside pier. I didn’t realize that I would have to rent a boat from the river to the lake itself; I was expecting to be dropped off right by the lake. The fee itself was quite pricey, and as a solo traveler on a budget, it made quite a dent on my travel budget. I noted that this trip would probably be best with a big group, as to split the high rental fee. On the upside, I had a boat all to myself.

view on the boatMy boat driver was a nice Khmer fellow, whose name I now have regrettably forgotten. (My excuse is that it was probably an uncommon and native Khmer name which I would never have remembered unless I wrote it down. Also, I suck at names.) The boat started off quite slowly and noisily, and it took a while before we were at cruising speed. Eventually, we got a rather consistent pace going, even if other boats were passing us.

my boat driver on Tonle SapThe boat driver explained to us that people lived on the river and lake. They had all the amenities of a small village, or even a small town. He would point out to me boathouses which would serve as a school, or a floating church. It was all very fascinating to me. I’d known much of this already (again, thanks to “The Amazing Race”), but seeing it firsthand was quite another thing altogether.

The boat trip itself was generally a peaceful ride, save for the loud motor and the occasional commentary from my boat driver. It was great to see a different side of Cambodia, apart from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, or the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, or the glories of Angkor Wat, or the tourist trap that is Pub Street in Siem Reap. The river was by no means clean, but it didn’t seem too polluted, either. There weren’t many houses or communities by the river, and I didn’t see any high-rises or industries there, either. It was, for the most part, just you, nature, and the loud motor of the boat.

Of course, just because you’re in the middle of a large body of water, it doesn’t mean that you’re free from the vendors and hawkers of the town proper or the temple complexes. After all, they did live just like any other town, with the only major difference being that they were on water. Thus, I was briefly stunned but altogether not surprised when a boat cruised right beside our boat, and a young Khmer girl hopped off their boat and into mine. She had a small cooler with her, and once again I heard the familiar refrain of “cold bee-ah, one dollah.” I thought I had heard the last of it at Angkor Wat that morning; clearly, I was wrong. I politely said no (although it probably would have been nice to drink cold beer on a boat) and showed my still-full water bottle. The girl then hopped off my boat and back to her own boat, which then sped away. (“Sped” being relative, of course.)

Eventually, I arrived at Tonle Sap. I saw that people really did live in boathouses on the lake.

people living on Tonle SapAmenities were similar to any small town; there was a school, a church, some stores, even a basketball court. Perhaps most amazing of all was a pigpen in the middle of the lake. Seeing that drove home the point that these people were living normally, and there really was no reason to feel sorry for them, or worse, treat them like anomalous freaks.

pigpen on Tonle Sapa shop on Tonle Sapa floating store on Tonle SapMy boat driver suggested to pass by one of the floating stores to buy school supplies, so I could donate them to the floating school. It was hard to say no; indeed, I couldn’t think of a reason why I would say no. (It’s hard to think of a reason even now.) The store was guarded by a monkey which I tried to take pictures of. The monkey then “attacked” me, scratching me and knocking off my glasses. Thankfully, my glasses didn’t fall into the water; that would have definitely been more than a minor inconvenience.

the guard monkey at Tonle SapSaved from the clutches of the guard monkey, I went into the store and bought some pencils and notebooks for the school. From there, I was brought to the school, which seemed to have just finished classes for the day.

a school on Tonle SapI went inside to talk to the teacher. I gave him the school supplies, and he seemed genuinely thankful for the donations. I looked around, and saw that the school seemed to stay afloat (pardon the pun) on the strength of others’ donations. I wondered how many other tourists and travelers dropped off school supplies and other donations here, then decided that it didn’t matter. My boat driver insisted that he take a picture of me and the school teacher, so we did.

me with the school teacher at Tonle SapI was then taken to another big structure on the lake. It held a freshwater fish sanctuary and exhibit, some crocodiles, a souvenir store, and a restaurant. It appeared to be a regular stop for tourists exploring Tonle Sap, and I would become one of many who stopped by on that big boat.

freshwater fish exhibition on Tonle SapThere were only a few crocodiles, and it seemed that the fake crocodile models inside the pit outnumbered the real crocs. The freshwater fish exhibition was also a bit of a disappointment, as the tanks didn’t look like they were cleaned very often. Even the souvenir shop was also disappointing; pretty much everything they sold was also available at the markets in Siem Reap, and at a cheaper price, too. Perhaps the best thing about the big boat was that it gave you a good vantage point of Tonle Sap. It was a breathtaking view, and if you could tune out the ambient noise from your fellow tourists, it was also a peaceful experience.

Tonle SapI made my way back to the mainland via the river, and I experienced sunset on the river boat ride back. It was an awesome experience, especially since I seemed to be seated right in the middle of things. On one side, the sun was setting; on another, the moon was rising. It was a spectacular natural experience, which more than made up for the cloudy sunrise in Angkor Wat earlier that morning. The sunset added a soft golden glow to the waters, and added a romantic hue to the skies.

sunset at Tonle Sapsunset at Tonle SapMoonrise was also spectacular, especially since it seemed like we were in the midst of a full moon. The pale moon hung like a perfect circle in the sky. On the way back, I passed by some Khmer locals playing volleyball by the riverside. It was a nice glimpse of what the locals did to unwind after a long day.

Khmer locals playing volleyball by Tonle Sapmoon over Tonle Sapmoonrise at Tonle SapWhen I arrived back at the pier, the sun had set and the moon had risen. The tuk-tuk ride back was still as rocky as the ride to the river, but it didn’t matter. I had my magical experience on the river and on Tonle Sap. All that was left was one last night at the hostel, where I would indulge in a few drinks, pack my bags, and prepare for my departure from Siem Reap and Cambodia.