Tonle Sap is a unique lake. Its level rises and falls by several meters based on the season, and the lake’s area increases by 10x in the rainy season! I visited on July 22nd.
In the dry season, the lake drains into the Mekong river via a tributary. But in the rainy season, the level of the Mekong river rises enough that the tributary reverses flow, filling up the lake.
My guide, Saron, advised me NOT to give any handouts to the children begging near the lotus fields. If you do, it teaches them they can earn more by begging than by going to school, perpetuating the problem to future generations.
At the dock, we loaded onto one of many waiting tourist boats. These drivers earn $6-8 of the $15 fare you pay. Only 2 rides a day in high season; 2-3 a week right now. Note the steering wheel. It’s connected to the rear rudder assembly by two ropes.
You might think, “this is the definition of ghetto.” But this boat was actually in the top 10%; a lot of them looked far worse. It did drive pretty well, and the prop/rudder system keeps the propeller out of the mud.
People living on the lake have floating houses, and there are multiple villages (for example, there are separate Cambodian and Vietnamese clusters). The villages move with the season, to stay relatively close to the shore without being beached. Some even have gardens…
Villagers raise and catch fish, and (sadly) farm crocodiles. I do not buy any crocodile products.
Here’s a fisherman casting his net in the canal:
Could you imagine living with your whole family in this much space? All your appliances are powered by batteries, charged intermittently by the one family with a generator.
Some of these scenes of poverty are just heartbreaking. I’d suggest if you visit and want to help in some small way, take 10kg of rice (worth $5 USD) with you on your boat ride. Give it directly to one of these families. That guarantees no fake charity keeps some or all of your donation.
Just outside the port are some village areas on stilts, where the water should fill in during rainy season. This year the river’s flow is not properly reversing, most likely because of a dam China built. But everyone in ASEAN is scared to say that out loud; they don’t want to piss off China.
To end with something more positive, I went to the local market with Saron. He picked out a special kind of local herb that is commonly served with fried beef. It’s a favorite of locals, but is not served much in restaurants (and certainly not tourist restaurants). I’ve lost the name, but will post it here if/when I find out.
My hotel, Angkor Spirit Palace, prepared the dish for me using the greens I bought. Delicious! That nice blur is what you get when you’re up close with an f/2 prime lens.
I also bought 10kg of rice at the market, and donated it in person to some poor families living near my hotel. I encourage every visitor to Cambodia to at least make this small effort – it’s $5 for you (2 cocktails at a tourist bar), and equals a month of rice for them. Thanks again to Saron for another amazing and enlightening day!