The amazing stilt houses of Kampong Kleang

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April 1st 2013
Published: June 18th 2013
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A mini bus arrived early next morning to collect Jerry, Ginny and myself and take us to the main bus station in Siem Reap where we boarded a larger bus for the trip to Kampong Thom. We were travelling there to spend the night and surprise my mother and sister Suzie, who were also going to be staying there enroute to Siem Reap from Phenom Penh. They were not expecting to see us - Ginny and I had managed to acquire a room six weeks earlier at the hotel they were staying in.Two and a half hours on the bus passed by quickly as we chatted and laughed together and before we knew it the bus had stopped for lunch.

We had needed to purchase bus tickets through to Phenom Penh even though Kampong Thom was only half of the distance and we followed the crowd off the bus when it stopped. By chance, as we were wandering whether to eat or not, I noticed the name of the restaurant and realised that we had actually arrived at our destination! The bus driver knew where we needed to go but had not informed us that this was actually Kampong Thom. The only reason I recognised the restaurant name was because I had been checking out eating options for that night in the guide book ten minutes before...

We quickly hired a tuktuk - one that actually had rows of seats as apposed to the usual single seat - and headed off to our hotel, the Sambor Village Hotel. After checking in, and checking that our family hadn't already arrived, we adjourned to the cool waters of the hotel swimming pool. A couple of hours later I spotted a hot pink suitcase (Mum had excitedly told me over the phone that she had purchased a new bright pink suitcase for the trip) behind all the bushes which surrounded the pool and realised that Mum and Suzie had just arrived. They were really excited to see us - and we were just as excited to see them as three months had passed since we had left our family in Australia. They were travelling with a guide and had another temple though to visit before nightfall. After a drink together Mum and Suzie left with their guide to visit Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre Angkorian temple complex nearby. We had not visited it previously and in hind sight should have accompanied them but didn't think about it until after they had left (a little reluctantly - I think they thought we might disappear whilst they were away!) We didn't have any trouble filling up the time swimming until their return.

That evening was fabulous - lots of chat and laughs. We were interested to hear Mum and Suzie's impressions of Cambodia and Phenom Penh. We enjoyed a meal poolside and Mum relaxed enough to eat in her swimming togs and sarong - something out of the norm for her. The hotel was very comfortable and though over our daily budget still very affordable. Jerry chatted to Mum's guide and arranged for us to spend next day with them when they visited the village of Kampong Khleang, on the shores of Tonle Sap, enroute to Siem Reap. Had it not been possible to go with them we were planning on hiring our own taxi for the day and following them. After breakfast next morning we climbed into Mum's comfortable mini bus and headed out of town.

First stop was at Kampong Kdei Bridge (it's original name is Spean Preah Toeus) a Angkor era bridge situated on the main highway, though today there is a small bypass around it to a more recently built bridge. Today only motorbikes or pedestrians use it. The ancient 12th century bridge spans the Chi Kreng River and is 86 metres long, 16 metres wide and 10 metres high above the level of the river bed. It has 21 arches between 20 columns making it the longest stone arch bridge in the world after it was constructed. The handrails of the bridge are made of sandstone in the form of the body of the nagas, at their ends each has an impressive nine-headed naga. We spent half an hour here taking photos and people watching before heading off to visit Kampong Kleang.

It was a totally fascinating village, reached via a dusty dirt road through the marshy countryside surrounding Tonle Sap. Kampong Kleang is 55 kilometers from Siem Reap and therefore sees many less visitors then the lake villages closer to the city. We were visiting at the end of the dry season so would see the village houses high above the ground on their ten metre high wooden stilts - exposed during the dry season but under water in the wet season. We've seen water villages before but nothing to compare with the sight that greeted us. We appeared to be surrounded by a forest of stilts, all with steep ladders leading upwards to their living areas. Kampong Kleang, with it's permanent population of ten thousand, is the largest of all the lake villages.

The economy of the region centres around fishing - Tonle Sap also has many permanently floating villages. Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia though for most of the year the lake is fairly small, around one metre deep and with an area of 2,700 square km. When water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, it increases its area to approximately 16,000 square kilometers, with a depth of nine meters. The lake is home to 150 different species of fish and reptiles, including the nearly extinct Siamese Crocodile. Ginny and I had seen examples of this crocodile in a shallow pond in the foyer of the swank Victoria Angkor Resort in one of our early morning walks the previous week. We weren't expecting to see any today in the lake..

The minibus drove us down to the boat terminal on one of the inlets which cross the flood plains into the main lake - though during the floods the whole plain becomes the lake. The edge of the inlet was lined with rows of towering, fragile looking timber houses. There was a rickety wooden bridge across to a permanent tiny island which is always above the water. on this island were a couple of pagodas and many houses. We watched a couple of boys happily scooping rice, in buckets, from a pile on the ground into a plastic lined trailer. The guide organised a boat to take us along the shallow inlet into the lake proper - though we were warned that it might not get into the actual lake due to the extremely low water level.

The wooden boats were long and narrow with plastic seats and each were operated by a local family. They all had a long pole from the end of the boat with a tiny propeller on it which churned up the muddy water as we set off. We had a young driver and a much younger boy guiding the propeller at the back of the boat. The young boy seemed very unhappy and was scolded regularly by the driver. We spent over an hour on the boat and spent the entire time mesmerised by the passing river and village life. Whenever we passed children we received cheery waves from there - there were plenty of kids using the moored boats as playgrounds. We watched them scramble like little monkeys up the ladders to their houses.

Many men were fishing in the murky waters and below the floors of the houses we could see hundreds of small fishing net baskets. It was a really enjoyable trip but we were all getting a little concerned with the amount of mud being churned up by the boat's propeller and the fact that weeds were constantly getting caught in it. We mentioned to our driver that we were happy to turn back and eventually the boat driver admitted he could take the boat no further upstream. By then we were well passed the stilt houses and close to the entrance of the lake proper. We could see never ending water across the horizon. The edge of the inlet was lined with low bamboo and brush houses and the surrounding fields were busy with people harvesting their soya bean crops. Though we would have loved to actually go into the expanse of the lake - more for Mum's and Suzie's sake - we certainly didn't want to damage the boat. We therefore didn't see the smaller floating village on the lake where Vietnamese fishing families lived.

Ginny had visited the lake six weeks earlier with Deb and was amazed at how much lower the water was - they had been able to go onto the lake proper. Jerry and I still had the memory of Lake Titicaca to fall back on and we had certainly seen plenty of floating villages before.We returned back to the forest of stilts and collected all our small currency notes to give as tips to the driver and his helper. The young boy got the lions share of it, all hidden inside a lolly tin, and we were rewarded with a quiet smile. We walked the length of the village and the houses seemed so much higher above the ground when you were actually standing beside them. It really was a fascinating place and we were so pleased that we had visited. We left the village with regret but only after we had bought bottles of orange juice for any of the village kids we met.

Another hour of driving through tiny traditional villages took us to the outskirts of Siem Reap. Just as we arrived it started to rain heavily - Ginny got excited as it was the first rain she had seen in the three months she had been there. Our friendly driver took us all to the Frangipani Hotel where we paddled through the rain into reception. After settling in, the rain stopped and we all headed downstairs to the swimming pool. We were to spend a lot of time around that pool during the next few days. It had been a long day for Mum and we decided not to venture from the hotel that evening. Deb and Petra turned up, armed with swimming togs, and the fun continued....

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