Cambodia-Around Siem Riep and Tonlé Sap

Entrance to Tonle Sap

Padi field-farmer with water buffalo ploughing padi(rice) field

Cambodia has always fascinated me, particularly the ancient temples (called wats) at Angkor and their early Hindu and later Buddhist influences. Along with Macchu Picchu, the enigmatic cultural and spiritual symbolisms embodied in Ancient Angkor piqued my curiosity and imagination. So I was very excited to finally travel to Cambodia this summer.

After a family wedding in Malaysia, we flew into Siem Riep, a riverside town located in south west Cambodia, close to the temples and near the northern tip of Tonlé Sap lake. I was expecting Siem Reap to be a small town with dirt roads and tiny market stalls.  I was amazed to find a small city with tree lined boulevards, colonial buildings, and an abundance of hotels and spas, trendy boutiques, and a  large number of diverse restaurants.

On our first day, we walked to Siem Reap town from our hotel and passed by a huge crafts market. It is a great bargaining place for trinkets and other souvenirs. The town is full of life especially at night and many restaurants, cafes and bars come alive. We walked by many art studios and artsy cafes. I was rather amazed to see a variety of ethnic restaurants that serve Khmer, French, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and even Latino foods. Khmer dishes have culinary influences from the early Hindu rule and later from the Indian and Chinese traders. Neighboring Thais ruled it for sometime under the Ayutthya Kingdom and the French colonized it during the 19th century, whose influence remains in the towns colonial style architecture. Also there are many Vietnamese who emigrated here and their presence is felt in the local cooking.

The next day we caught a tuk-tuk (a popular means of transport) to Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It provides food for the locals (more than half of Cambodia’s fish supply) with its abundant fish stock, turtles and crocodiles.  The tuk-tuk was an enjoyable trip past lush padi fields, local vendors, homes on stilts and pretty pagodas.  At the jetty, we took a little boat ride to Tonlé Sap passing by floating homes, shops, restaurants, women selling fresh vegetables and fishermen casting their nets from their boats. The young driver told us that many ethnic Vietnamese have immigrated to Cambodia over the last 55 to 100 years, and became fishermen living on the lake. After weaving through some mangrove swamp we ended up on the lake. Since it was the “dry season” the lake appeared muddy, much to my disappointment. A young local boy who was on our boat said during the peak rainy season the Mekong river overflows into the lake, and it becomes  an amazing  clear blue color and visitors enjoy swimming in it.

There are many pretty floating villages on Tonlé Sap, which include schools, shops, fish farms and pagodas. Some of them are picturesque with stilted pagodas and Minangkabau-shaped houses mixed in with their pharmacies, schools and sundry shops. It was a bumpy ride on the tuk-tuk back to our hotel. After the hot and humid day the pool at our hotel was welcomingly refreshing and relaxing.

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Categories: Cambodia, Featured, Journeys

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