Day 4: Kompong Phluk & The War Museum
Our last full day in Siem Reap started with a crazy ride on Mr. Rain’s tuk-tuk. Our adventure would take us 16 km out of town with a visit to the floating village of Kompong Phluk. We whizzed through crowded streets, watching traffic dissipate as we transitioned from city to countryside. Most people in Siem Reap use motor bikes as transportation. We were amazed by the giant loads of goods that could be transported on the back the tiny vehicles: bundles of wood, groceries, and child-sized sacks of rice. We eventually turned on a dirt road towards our destination: Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia.
A Tour of Kompong Phluk Village
Mr. Rain dropped us off at the small shack and said he would wait for us while we took our tour. We faced a bit of a language barrier while purchasing our tickets—the office was nowhere near this great lake we hard heard so much about and we wondered if maybe we were in the wrong place. We paid the entrance fee and a man on a small motorbike drove up and gestured for me to mount the back seat. There was only room for one and I was a little hesitant about being separated from my husband. The driver saw my concern and pointed to another motorbike coming around the corner. It became clear to us that each guest was individually brought to the dock—now we could experience being the cargo carried on the back seat! I climbed on (don’t expect a helmet), took a deep breath, and endured a fun, but bumpy and dusty 8-minute ride through tall grass to Tonle Sap Lake.
We were greeted by a boatman at the lake’s landing and boarded one of the blue, traditional motor boats that lined the dock. It took a little while for our captain to jump-start the old engine and edge his way out of the pier. We drifted through aisles of curly-leafed water hyacinth and aquatic grass while the captain explained that we were heading to the floating village of Kompong Phluk. The term “floating” is a bit misleading: the houses are actually built on very tall stilts around 8 meters high (approximately 26 feet). During the rainy season, the lake rises drastically and covers the stilts, giving the illusion that the homes are floating in the water. We learned that these types of villages are built in the middle of the lake to make it easier for fishermen and rice farmers to gather during harvest season. As we neared Kompong Phluk, we encountered many children paddling and women selling produce from wooden, canoe-like boats. We thought this was the extent of the tour, but our boat was docked on a tiny portion of dry land and we were told we could disembark and explore.
We tentatively strolled through the tiny village, gazing at children playing ball in the dust and rows of tarps filled with shrimp laid out in the sun to dry. At the end of the main—and only—road was a striking temple painted in warm ochre, poppy orange, and cyan blue. It was fascinating to get an authentic glimpse of everyday life. But perhaps because it just the two of us, the experience also felt a bit voyeuristic and intrusive. We smiled and greeted people in the village, but definitely stood out as outsiders who felt awkward interrupting daily life as we roamed the street with our cameras.
We returned to the boat and headed to the mangrove forest. Once we approached the center of the lake, the captain turned off the engine so we could fully appreciate Tonle Sap’s vastness. In the stillness, we listened to spot-billed pelicans squawking overhead and attempted to spot the lake’s legendary Mekong giant catfish without success. After our moment of solitude and reflection, the engine was started back up and we returned to the dock where we were motor scooted back to Mr. Rain and his tuk-tuk.
Avoid the Floating Village of Chong Khneas
A Visit to the War Museum
We stopped back in Siem Reap for a quick lunch then headed towards the airport to tour the War Museum. The museum is located outside on a former mine field that now displays decrepit old war vehicles, weapons, and ammunition. What made the experience special was meeting our guide who walked us through a history of Cambodia’s civil war and showed us how some of the equipment worked. He was a young man in his 20s who had lost his arm and family to a landmine while collecting scrap metal when he was a little boy. With nowhere to turn, he lived as a monk for a long time until the museum offered to employ him and allow him to collect donations towards an operation to remove the leftover shrapnel still stuck in his body. The museum displays aren’t much, but it is admirable that the entrance is only a few dollars with tips going straight to its employees. The owner makes a point to hire injured veterans or landmine victims who are considered unemployable because of their afflictions. It offers them an opportunity to make a living and visitors to talk to a Cambodian’s experience during this time of tragedy.
Last Night in Siem Reap
We pampered ourselves once again to aromatherapy massages at Bodia Spa. The spa sold herbal balms and sugar scrubs that made great souvenirs and gifts. For our final meal, we enjoyed a tapas style dinner at AHA, the gourmet restaurant adjoined to our hotel. Though considered upscale, a three-course vegetarian meal was only $5 USD. With prices like that, we splurged on gazpacho starters and decadent desserts. Over dinner, we discussed how attached we had become to Cambodia—the land, the warmth of its people, and its palpable feeling of hope and perseverance. The experience imparted a sense of lingering and longing to return and see more. The next day, as we checked out of the Hotel Angkor Be to continue our journey to Thailand and the Philippines, the staff at the front desk gave us a heartwarming and genuine farewell. They told us how grateful they were that we chose to visit their country—tourism created jobs and growth that would improve quality of life for their families and the nation. They told us they were proud to share the beauty of Cambodia with us. We were the ones who felt honored to have it shared with us.
Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 25 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of seeing the world. In addition to being the founding editor of En Route Traveler, Lara also works as the Art Director for the branding firm, Belmont Inc., in Alexandria, VA. In her spare time, she instructs high-energy Zumba dance classes, contributes as a Local Expert to AFAR, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, dabbles in photography and, of course, travels as much as possible.