Miguel Jerónimo wanders through the intricate landscape of houses on stilts in Kampong Khleang on the Tonlé Sap lake, a short ride from Siem Reap, to see one of the best sunsets in Cambodia.
“When the water rises the fish eats the ant, when the water recedes the ant eats the fish.”
This is one of the most well-known Khmer proverbs, somehow related to the Buddhist concept of karma and, perhaps more importantly, intimately connected with the Tonlé Sap lake.
This enormous body of water, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, has a seminal influence not only in Cambodia’s annual cycle in terms of agricultural or fishing industries, but also a huge impact on the country’s culture. From spiritual festivities to livelihoods, the Khmer lifestyle follows the water’s unique annual cycle. Each year the direction of the Tonlé Sap reverses towards the end of the monsoon rains which cause the lake to swell.
The lake’s low water level marks the Cambodian dry season, the perfect time to visit one of the most iconic villages on Tonlé Sap: Kampong Khleang.
In contrast to the more touristic Chong Kneas and Kampong Phluk, which are well on their way to becoming tourist traps, Kampong Khleang still maintains its original charm. Here it is possible to observe the authentic daily life of residents and their close relationship with the lake and the rise and fall of the water.
Waking up early at 3.30am is rewarded with a long-tail boat ride through the main canal towards the lake. At 4am, it’s time to start fishing in order to transport the hauls to the market by 7am.
It is also possible observe the dak lob – a traditional fish trap in form of arrow – being put to use as the boat snakes along the waterways. On both sides rise high wooden pillars that prop up the houses made in line with the traditional architecture in this area: strong geometries that can survive the radical changes in the water level.
Indeed, by the beginning of June the whole ecological system reaches a perfect equilibrium and the Tonlé Sap river stops flowing. From mid-June to October, the water flows in reverse coming from the confluence with the Mekong in Phnom Penh, starting to fill the lake again with the region’s monsoons, raising the water by almost ten metres and offering the perfect conditions for the mating and reproduction of fish.
Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997, the lake hosts about 150 different species of fish. However, many risk extinction due to over-fishing, environmental issues and the threats posed by the construction of dams along the Mekong.
Fish is the main source of protein in the country’s diet, even Cambodian currency is called riel to pay homage to the small carp so often caught in this lake and populating the dishes in so many households.
In Kampong Khleang, the fish caught feed markets as far away as Siem Reap, with a large percentage also allocated to the production of prahok, the fermented fish paste ubiquitous in Khmer cuisine. Nothing gets wasted and the fish fat is burnt to create soap, while the heads are often used for making fertilizer.
It’s pleasurable to appreciate local life throughout day, with countless women seated in the shade on side of the roads during dry season, causally chatting while fixing their husbands’ fishing nets. While this quotidian might be in danger, many are pinning their hopes on tourism as a way to help these communities out of poverty. Numbers are growing and the current fad of travellers in search of more authentic experiences will continue to improve the numbers of tourists arriving in the village.
Meng Hieng, an entrepreneur living in Phnom Penh where he manages a popular restaurant, was the first one to setup a homestay in the village as a way to provide a livelihood for his parents.
“I see the positive impact of tourism, everybody trying to clean the environment if they can get some income from tourism,” he says. “Now kids want to go to school, they want to make a business in the future or get a job related to tourism. They want to find something more.”
Three years ago, he refurbished a traditional house on stilts in a stylish manner, with two swing double beds and a balcony overlooking the canal, where his family also serve local food. Now there are almost 10 homestays in the village. Meng believes this new source of income can help the community, while still maintaining a good atmosphere and not overcharging visitors for boat rides and other activities.
He adds the most popular attraction is travelling from Siem Reap for a day trip and renting a boat, rounding off the day watching sunset from the middle of the lake. The golden colours and dusty landscape create a mysterious atmosphere that invites a special kind of pleasant languor and dolce far niente so often needed in a weekend getaway.
Situated about 50km from Siem Reap (roughly one hour by road), Kampong Khleang is the largest community on the lake, being about 10 times larger than Kampong Phluk. During dry season, the beautiful labyrinth of houses on stilts can be explored, as well as the floating houses that sit at the entrance of the lake, with schools, homes and tiny fish farms sitting on the water.
The market in the mainland area of the village is also an interesting sight, and a match of petanque – the traditional French game – at the local café will be welcomed. There is also a large temple where friendly monks and locals greet guests with the charming Cambodian smile.