Friday, March 14, 2014

Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia

The Tara at its mooring on Tonle Sap Lake
During my trip to Cambodia I booked a 'sunset cruise' on Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. Since I knew nothing about the lake and the people who live on, or around its perimeter, I was constantly surprised by the amazing resourcefulness of these people and their way of eking out a living in what appear to be the most trying circumstances.

The Tonlé Sap (Khmer for "Large Fresh Water River", but more commonly translated as "Great Lake") is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. The Tonlé Sap Lake is linked to the sea via the Tonlé Sap River, which converges with the massive Mekong River in Phnom Penh (see my earlier post: Phnom Penh River Cruise).

There are around 170 floating villages with some 80,000 inhabitants living on, and around Tonlé Sap Lake. The GECKO* Environment Education Center, which I visited, is located in Chong Khneas commune, and consists of seven villages housing around 5,800 residents. The Commune, has some of the largest floating villages on the lake. Among the facilities and services to be found in the Commune and other floating villages are schools, fish wholesalers, gas stations, restaurants, churches and pagodas, police stations, medical services―and karaoke bars!

Floating classroom under construction
Information panels at the GECKO centre provide some background information to life on Tonlé Sap Lake. For instance, in a typical floating village life expectancy at birth is 54 years. Twelve percent of all children die before the age of five, and one out of two are malnourished. Average annual income of most households is less than $500USD. Annual population growth is 2.4%, while the literacy rate is 46%, which is 17% below the Cambodian national average.

In the video we get glimpses of this floating village life. We see children playing in the lake, people fishing, a floating restaurant, a shop, a crocodile farm, and more. During the trip on the lake, we were told the two partially built wooden structures that I have includes images of, were destined to become floating classrooms. Note also the numerous television aerials attached to village homes. Televisions and other electronic devices are powered by car and truck batteries.

Part of my meal on the Tara
My trip on Tonlé Sap culminated with a meal on the Tara, which is marketed as “The Biggest Boat on the Tonle Sap Lake”. At more than 41 metres in length, I can confirm that I didn’t see any other craft on the lake that came even close to the size of this vessel. Despite the claims on the company website that the Tara can carry more than 250 passengers (elsewhere it states 300), there were just four of us on this outing.

Using the services of my hotel, I booked the US$33.00 Sunset Tour direct through the Tara website, and experienced no problems from hotel pick up, during the tour itself, or subsequent return to my hotel. I point this out, since some of the reviews on Trip Advisor are highly critical of similar tours, especially those booked through other agencies. Visitors report being approached by beggars, and feeling pressured to donate a bag of rice (at a cost of US$80), to an ‘orphanage’ they were taken to visit. Other reviewers have complained about the conditions of the crocodile farm, and other places visited during similar tours.

I’m not sure what they were expecting. Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, and the people living in these floating villages, and around the perimeter of Tonlé Sap are among the poorest in Cambodia. If you are expecting flush toilets and pristine facilities in a floating village, you will quickly realise that you are not going to find them either on this tour, or in many other places outside of your hotel or one of the major cities.

Floating restaurant and store on Tonle Sap Lake
Reading through some of the Trip Advisor reviews, it is also apparent that some visitors made their own ad hoc arrangements to tour on the lake. Using unregistered and unqualified ‘tour guides’ is simply asking for trouble, whether in Cambodia or anywhere else for that matter. Clearly, dealing with authorized guides and tour operators is the best way to avoid many of the problems some reviewers complain about.

It is also worth pointing out (since the Tara website doesn’t) that the vessel remains permanently moored during your visit and meal while on the boat. The actual tour and journey that eventually gets you out to the Tara is on a much smaller, faster boat similar to the small craft seen in the video.

The Tara Boat Sunset Tour is sold as a four hour tour (3:30pm-7:30pm), which begins when visitors are picked up at their hotel or guesthouse around 3.30pm―in a much appreciated air-conditioned vehicle―and returned to their accommodations at the end of the tour.

During the tour to the Tara we made two stops. The first to the already mentioned GECKO Environmental Education Centre, and a second stop at the village Crocodile and Fish Farm. I don’t know if the crocodiles in the crocodile farm are the same species as the rare Siamese Crocodile, which are an endangered species, or a different species of crocodile, but either way, I found the whole trip on the lake to be one of the highlights of my Cambodian visit.

Sunset Tour Price Includes:
Pick up at 3.30pm, 4 hour tour from time of pickup to time of drop off
Free Pick up & return in A/C Taxi
English speaking guides
Meal and drinks included on the Tara
Tour of floating village of Chong Khneas
Tour of Gecko Environmental Education Centre
Tour of Crocodile & Fish Farm
All Check Point fees included in Price
Children 12 or under, half price. 5 or under FREE
$33.00 Per Person - Tours from 3.30pm to 7.30pm

*GECKO―Greater Environment Chong Khneas Office

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