Choose where you sleep
The Great Lake that forms the centrepiece of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap, is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and an ecological hotspot that has been designated an UNESCO biosphere. Swelling by a factor of up to six during the monsoon season, the river that connects it to the Mekong River at Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap River, is the only river in the world that reverses is direction of flow as the heavy rains, swollen by melting snow from the Himalayas, tries to escape to the South China Sea through the Mekong Delta.
The Tonle Sap, together with the mighty Mekong River, define the lives of the Khmer people, providing the irrigation, needed to grow rice, and the fish that provides the protein. Without these, the great Angkor kingdom could not have flourished, and what was once the world's largest city, Angkor Thom, perched on the northeast side of the great lake next to the present day city of Siem Reap, would never have been built.
The first half of this colourful river journeybetween Cambodia's current capital and Siem Reap, depending on the direction of travel, follows the Tonle Sap river from Phnom Penh to Kampong Chhnang, one of the largest fishing ports on the Tonle Sap. This area is famous for its hand made pottery, unchanged in style for centuries, a cottage industry that produces sufficient quantities to supply the entire country. Wherever you go in Cambodia, you are likely to stumble across a cow cart, laden with the wares of Kampong Chhnang, as it pursues upon a sales trip that could last up to 3 months.
Other famous products not to be overlooked, for which this area is renowned, come from the Thnot tree (sugar palm tree), an iconic feature of the Cambodian landscape that abound in the area: palm sugar, a mellow tasting, caramel-coloured sugar sold in large cakes, and palm wine, the favourite tipple of rural folk.
Sailing on to the Great Lake itself you come across Kôh Chen, an island whose village inhabitants specialise in silver and copper smithing. They craft ornamental items including the delicately engraved tropical fruits used in traditional ceremonies at the pagoda or for marriages.
The floating village of Chnok Trou is a real floating village with a large population of Vietnamese fishermen. Almost totally overlooked by tourists because of its remoteness and difficult access, the village is completely self-sufficient. Floating school, factories to make ice for fish preservation, church, pagoda, service stations, pigsty, stores, boat or television repair shops, video club, karaoke bar, police station... all except for car showrooms… everything is on the water. All trades are represented and everybody from children to grandparents travel by boat through the network of canals that cross the towns. Fishing, of course, is the primary industry.
Depending on water levels in the lake and rivers, it may be possible to visit Cambodia's second largest city, the elegant, French colonial-era town of Battambang to the west of the lake. Undergoing an artistic renaissance, Battambang is the proud home to many artists and to the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a talented NGO supported circus troupe,
This river cruise is an ideal way to explore hidden parts of Cambodia at a deliciously relaxed pace, while travelling between the must-see destinations of Angkor Wat and the capital, Phnom Penh.