Beyond the temples lies a rural landscape which is often little changed since the days of Jayavarman VII. To depart Siem Riep having seen only the temple ruins is to miss contemporary Khmer culture. As infrastructure and technology encroach upon the countryside, this opportunity will very well soon be lost. It is well worth the effort to explore the rural landscape that reach villages where mass tourism cannot follow and to the more genuine stilted villages of the Tonle Sap lake for an understanding of contemporary lake life.
HUNTERS & GATHERERS
The great Tonle Sap lake is the richest fresh water fishing ground in the world, a national treasure producing an ever-changing landscape. Five provinces circle the area of Tonle Sap, more than three million of the population inhabit areas around the lake and 90% of them earn a living from agriculture or by catching fish. The lake dimensions change depending on the monsoon and dry season. The communities that live around the margins of the lake cope with huge seasonal variations in water levels by building their homes on floating bamboo rafts or 30 foot stilts! We took a boat ride to explore the stilted home community, the floating community, and the Tonle Sap.
The Stilted Home Community
On our water adventure, we had the unique opportunity to pause at one of the stilted homes to learn how a subsistence fishing family lives, before we continued on to other margins of the lake. These families depend on this water for everything (capturing food, for bathing, cooking/cleaning dishes, etc.). And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s neither clean nor sanitary. But this is all they know. The women and children usually stay home during the day, cooking and preparing fishing nets for the men. If the children want to go to school they have to travel into the city of Siem Reap.
Sidenote: I think it’s interesting to watch the reaction of other foreigners when we travel. Some won’t try the countries cuisine, some won’t visit religious places because it’s not what they believe, etc. Here I noticed that many wouldn’t even use the Cambodian toilets before embarking on this journey with their own groups. (The Cambodian’s have a toilet or a “squatty potty” much like the Japanese, but there is no toilet paper and no flush. You splash yourself with water that is in a bucket next to the toilet using a scoop that sits on the top). It just reminded me about how advanced and lucky other countries are to have what they have. It also made me think about how so many people would be miserable and maybe not even be able to survive if they had to endure situations like this because they are so close-minded. We are very spoiled. Yet, we are also extremely lucky to have things such as clean water and education!
Farming & Agriculture Area
The Floating Community
The Open Waters of Tonle Sap
A short drive from Siem Riem, we visited a colorful contemporary pagoda to learn about the importance of Buddhism in rural communities. Cambodia is largely a Buddhist country, with 95% of the population practicing this religion. Here we were able to partake in a water blessing from the monks! (Note: You don’t have to be religious to seek out spiritual experiences, but you should keep an open mind).
After exploring the beautiful exterior and surrounding views of the pagoda, we were welcomed inside by three monks. After removing our shoes, we stepped up onto a small platform, making our way to the men with shaved heads dressed in saffron robes. They waited patiently until we sat on the floor in front of the oldest monk who was sitting on a pillow behind a small bowl filled with water. He began to chant parts of prayers in Pali, occasionally flicking water on us with what looked like a wooden or straw whisk of some sort. The continuous chanting was calm and rhythmic. It sounded beautiful even though I couldn’t understand the language. The blessing didn’t last long and I didn’t take any photos inside (not wanting to offend anybody and not having a chance to ask if it was acceptable). However, it was an amazing feeling just to be able to participate in an important ritual of another culture.
Afterward, we were free to ask the monks questions if we wanted. We found out that the monk who performed the blessing was 27 years old. He chose the life of a monk because like many families in this country, most children cannot afford to go to school. So he studied to become a monk. Upon leaving we sat on our knees, brought our hands into prayer position, then bowed to the floor while placing our palms on the ground. This is repeatedly done 3 times for respect and gratitude.
Backyards and Countryside Lifestyle
Onward to the rice paddies and through woodland and back gardens. There was so much to experience in Cambodia’s countryside! Wandering through the fields we caught glimpses of different families and their homes, were invited to enjoy seasonal fruits and coconut water straight from the trees, and spoke to a family who has specialized in baking sticky rice in bamboo stalks for over 30 years!!
We bounced our way through the rest of some typical villages on an ox-cart ride to reach the Western Baray.
An impressive engineering feat, this man-made reservoir was once integral to the complex Angkorian rice irrigation system. Cruising around on the waters made for a relaxing end to the day!
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!