This is a final installment of a 4-part blog post of our Laos and Cambodia trip. If you haven’t read a previous post, you may read it here [Exploring Laos and Cambodia (Part 3) — Revisiting Siem Reap].

Tonlé Sap Lake

Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. At its southern end, Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River. The lake is one of the world’s most varied and productive ecosystems. It has played an important role in Cambodia’s food supply, capable of maintaining the Angkorean civilization, the largest pre-industrial settlement complex in world history. It was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997. [Wikipedia]

A map of Tonlé Sap showing its large floodplain [from Wikipedia]

On our second day of sightseeing tour in Siem Reap, we spent an afternoon visiting a community of floating village at Chong Khneas on Tonlé Sap. We took a boat from the pier outside of Siem Reap. After about 20 minutes ride on the water channel/river that connecting the boat pier to the lake, we were at the floating village. From what our tour guide told us, these people in the floating village community do live here. They temporarily move in land when the weather and the water is rough.

A fisherman working in the Siem Reap River
A young man working at the floating village
A group of villagers on Tonlé Sap
Kids using a plastic container that was cut in half as a boat for getting around

When you do research or read reviews about Cambodia floating village tours, you might have come across stories about floating village scams. People talked about their encounter with being overcharged for the tour or stopping at a “local store” to purchase expensive merchandise that probably doesn’t benefit the locals. Since our private tour was pre-arranged by our agency, we didn’t have the experience similar to what I read in those reviews. Our trip to the floating village was more of a boat ride to observe what the community was like. We did stop at a crocodile farm that is nothing more than cages on a floating platform. Other than that the whole experience was good. The floating village tour was one thing David and I didn’t do in our first visit.

In case you wonder, I did ask our tour guide about how toilet works in the floating village. Would everything just go directly into the lake? His answer was yes. Good to know.

Battambang, no bang in Battambang

Last morning in Siem Reap, we said goodbye to our friends who flew back to Bangkok and on their way home in Switzerland, while we continued our journey to Phnom Penh by a van with a stopover in Battambang. Battambang is the capital city of Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia. The name Battambang is pronounced more or less like Bat-tam-bong. Yes, no banging involved. The city of Battambang is the third largest city in Cambodia, following Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, with a population of about 150,000 people. As this is just a stop en route to Phnom Penh, we didn’t do much sightseeing while in town. Nevertheless, we had an opportunity to do what many tourists do in Battambang, that is riding a bamboo train and watching bats leaving a cave en masses at dusk.

A bamboo train is actually a flatbed on wheels, driven by a small motor. The platform is just sitting on two axles. The whole setup could be dissembled in a few seconds.
Watching a cloud of bats leaving the cave. There were so many of them. It probably took at least 30 minutes for most of them to exit. We, of course, had alcoholic beverages to cool down while waiting for the bats to take flight.

According to our tour guide, a walk-up price to ride the bamboo train is $10 for a whole car, which easily seats 4 people (Yes, Cambodia has dual currency system — U.S. Dollar and Cambodian Riel). The distance is about 7 km to the other end. The ride lasts about 20 to 25 minutes depending on whether you run into another bamboo train coming from opposite direction, thus have to remove one train from the track to let the other go. I posted a short video of our ride to give you a sense of what it’s like. You can watch it here on Vimeo.

While preparing this post, I came across a blog post that mentioned a high-pressure tactic of selling beverages and souvenirs from vendors at the other end of the ride, including overt and constant reminder the visitors to tip drivers. This kind of behaviors, the writer of the post said, left bad experience of the bamboo train ride for them. We didn’t encounter anything of that extent, fortunately. It may be partly because we were with a tour guide. Vendors at the place where the train turned around clearly wanted us to buy something. I wouldn’t say that their behaviors were inappropriate. During my conversation with our tour guide about the price of the ride, he did mention that he would tip the driver. And he did.

Phnom Penh

We left Battambang in the morning with a quick lunch break, then back on the road. About 8 hours since leaving Battambang, we arrived in bustling Phnom Penh. You may wonder how to say the name of the capital city of Cambodia. It’s not Nom-Pen. It is pronounced Puh-Nom-Pen with a very short “Puh” as if you just say P-Nom-Pen.

Next morning, we had a city tour with first stop at the royal palace. It was a hot day. Any opportunity to step in the shade was welcome. To be honest, I didn’t think that both David and I were in the mood for another royal palace tour, especially when the weather was that hot. However, we did try to get the most of it.

Mural painting at a temple inside the royal palace. It’s intriguing to see the Ramayana characters on the same painting with what looks like western soldiers.

Then, things got heavy. After the palace, we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing field at Choeung Ek.

Between 1975 and 1979, Khmer Rouge, the name given to members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and its regime were responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians (25% of the country population). The Genecide Museum at Tuol Sleng used to be a secondary school. During the Khmer Rouge regime, it was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21), one of many torture and execution centers. Having an opportunity to visit the site was quite eye-opening.

David and I were so fortunate to be accompanied by our guide during our visit to Tuol Sleng. Our guide is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. She told the story of her and her family when Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh and forced residents into the country to work as farmers for the regime. How her family tried to survive and was separated. The tragedy was heartbreaking, and even more so when you heard from the very person who lived through it.

The whole time we were at Tuol Sleng, I didn’t feel like taking photos of the place where at least 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured. A photo above of a building with barbed wire is a picture of one of buildings at Tuol Sleng from a book that we bought written by a survivor.

After Tuol Sleng, we went to the killing field at Choeung Ek. Site of a former orchard, Choeung Ek was used by Khmer Rouge, among many other throughout Cambodia, as execution site and mass grave of victims. A few mass graves were visible above ground. Not all of the mass graves were excavated. Our guide mentioned that for some visitors the experience and sadness of walking through the killing fields and the mass graves were too overwhelming. The site provided more information about the Khmer Rouge regime and how innocent people met their end here. It’s such an educational and saddened experience.

At Choeung Ek, there is a stupa built as a monument for the victims. Some of the skulls and bones were kept in the stupa.

That evening we took a boat ride in the rivers. There were fishermen working and people living along the rivers. Water is important to life in Cambodia as we have seen over and over during this trip. We spent a couple of more days in Phnom Penh, mostly walking in town and relaxing before flying to Bangkok.

Fishing in the Tonlé Sap River
Houseboats on the Mekong River
Last sunset in Cambodia. We flew back to Bangkok the next day.

We visited Cambodia today and saw a country and its people try to emerge from the painful past that set the country back. Along the Tonlé Sap River and the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, people are still living in the traditional way. At the same time, the city is full of new constructions of high-rise buildings. The change in way of life is taking place in the country. I’m glad that we made the trip here and grateful for the experience we had, the people we met during this journey.

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