Cambodia Series 1 of 4 | Siem Reap - Tonle Sap Lake

Siem Reap ក្រុងសៀមរាប, home to the ancient World Heritage temples of Angkor Wat, was a bustling city and capital to the Khmer empire in the 12 - 13th century.

I'll be spending 4 days in Siem Reap, visiting the Tonle Sap lake floating villages, Angkor Wat, the local markets, join in on the crazy Khmer New Year water festival, and wrapping up at a visit to the National Museum to fill in any gaps on learnings. After Siem Reap I'll be heading over to Hanoi for a weekend in Halong Bay.

Siem Reap day 1 - Tonle Sap lake
Siem Reap day 2 - Angkor Wat sunrise (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm)
Siem Reap day 3 - More of Angkor Wat (Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, Bantaey Srei, Pre Rup)
Siem Reap day 4 - National Museum



Getting off my flight in Siem Reap, I stepped down the stairs onto Cambodian soil. The 35C heat hit me in a face, and I tried to deepen and slow my breathing to get used to the heat. The Siem Reap International airport was a modern (built 2006) yet charming one which kept its architecture in the looks inspired by temples.

Cambodian E-visa is a massive time saver. I applied for it online, which took 5 minutes and $37 USD. While other travelers were scrambling around the visa on arrival, missing photos, forms etc I went straight to the empty lines, stamped, and off to meet my driver. 

Personal driver costs
I booked my tuk tuk driver, Mr.Sambo through my Hotel, he will be bringing me to and from the airport, and around Angkor Wat for 2 days. Airport transfers were $7 USD each, sunrise day at Angkor Wat is $22 (5am - 1pm) and another full day in Angkor Wat's farther temples $25 (9am - 5pm)

The drive from the Airport to the hotel was a long straight road not completely rural, but not urban either. There were a lot of army police geared up with semiautomatics on the way. However they didn't look too scary, mostly were curiously staring at me, maybe they thought it's weird for a young girl traveling on her own. It did not feel unsafe at all in my 4 trips in Cambodia. Just 30 minutes, I was in the bustling downtown area of Siem Reap.

Mr. Sambo 

Hotel Villa Um Theara 
I paid $57 US for 3 nights at my hotel (with a $50 coupon I won in a photography contest with my Trans Siberian photo of Ulaanbaatar Station, I paid $7 essentially) its located on the South East side of the river, so it is more quiet. But also close enough, 5-10min walk over to the busy market area. They have breakfast options as well as a small outdoor pool. There's no safety box in the room, however I didn't find it an issue at all. 

Tonle Sap lake, floating villages

!!Scam Alert!! 

Full disclosure, I paid $20 for tuk tuk two way which is reasonable. I paid $50 for a boat ride (way overpriced, it should be $20), and another $40 for the kayak into the floating village. I had a bad tuk tuk driver just off the street, who teamed up with a scamming boat guide, who tried to get me to buy $70 rice bags for kids (a total lie) and $15 tip for him, which I didn't pay for at all. 

Anyway, I got over it. And for my traveling experiences, I was kicking myself over this. I should've confirmed the prices and any hidden prices. But anyway it's a lesson learned.

The 30-40 min drive south to Tonle Sap lake was a lovely drive through the rural lands. There were all sorts of small businesses and farms, but my favorite was the lotus farm! The lotuses here in Cambodia bloom beautifully, almost too perfect. The pink colors just contrast strongly against the green and brown lands of Cambodia. 

<Tonle Sap - Quick Facts> 

  • Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. During rainy season its surface area expands to 10,000 sq/km, and in dry season shrinks to 3,000 sq/km
  • It is home to one of the largest freshwater fish in the world – the Mekong giant catfish 2.4 – 3m
  • One million Cambodians depend directly on this lake for living with 90% living on stilt houses and 10% living in floating villages.
  • 300,000 tons of fish (75% of Cambodia’s fresh water fishing) come from Tonle Sap each year. 
  • Tonle Sap is home to mainly ethnic Vietnamese who migrated to Cambodia in the 20th century. 
In-depth reading on Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese, forced to live on water:

I visited Chong Kneas floating village which is the closest one from Siem Reap. This 17 year old boy named Tera was rowing the kayak with me through the village. He didn’t speak much English, but he was really nice. While he rowed, he was singing in Khmer. It was so relaxing and I was able to get up really close to the houses there. The houses are usually just one big room, equipped with a small kitchen. I saw two girls shampooing their hair by the water just on the edge of their floating house. There’s also chickens on floating dens, monkeys, dogs, and all sorts of pets. They use car generators for electricity and some places were playing music. Kids row around in smaller boats and also blue plastic buckets. They all seem to know how to balance very well despite that the water wasn’t always calm. 



From the boat guide, I found out that most kids quit school early on, around age 15 to 16 to work and support the family income. However there is a big issue with corruption. Most of the “Entry fee” to this lake area went to the police, which is a shame, because I would much rather support the kids and families living here. Even the tour guide himself was an absolute scam. He had a motorbike, a smart phone, and he wanted me to pay him $15 tip, and when I said I ran out of cash he told the tuk tuk driver to take me to an ATM. Instead, I tipped the boat driver and kayaker money because they actually deserved it. 

At the end of the trip, after kayaking, I boarded back on the long boat and was dropped off at a big restaurant platform. In the middle was two gigantic pits full of crocodiles, kind of creepy actually, but apparently they were imported in for tourism purposes, poor crocs, they had no room to move. Up on the upper deck, the sun was setting. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in my life. 

Malis Restaurant
Back in town, I head over to Malis Restaurant. It was one of the high end restaurants here in Siem Reap, and ranked top on trip advisor. Though it says high end, I spent only around $20 USD for my dinner with fresh crab fried rice and scallops for starters. They serve Cambodian cuisine, and a lot of the fish comes directly from Tonle Sap. There’s also a nice bar area within the Restaurant, and deep house music is played all night here. Most people were dressed up formally, and then there was me – jeans, sleeveless top, straw hat, and a small backpack. 

I’m meeting my driver, Mr.Sambo, tomorrow morning at 4:45am to make it to the Angkor Wat sunrise. I head to bed just before 10pm so I can catch up on my sleep. I’ll be visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon, Terrace of the Leper king), and Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple).



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