When you visit Siem Reap, you’ll be ready to embrace your inner Indiana Jones, primed to explore the province’s world-renowned temple complexes and ruins. But the land of the former Khmer Empire has much more than just its historical heritage to offer, thanks to Mother Nature’s beautiful creations. One of those places is Kampong Phluk, a fishing commune which not only brings you closer to tropical nature but also immerses you in the timeless traditions of Cambodian life by the water. It will certainly be a trip you’ll never forget, writes Taing Rinith.
By road, Kampong Phluk (translated as ‘Harbour of the Tusks) is located about 16km southeast of Siem Reap town. To reach the fishing community, you head east out of the resort town on National Highway 6 towards Phnom Penh and take a right when you reach Bakong. On your right, you will see a sign pointing towards the sleepy fishing settlement.
According to the locals, the retreat got its name from an old tale that the river was created by droves of elephants who often travelled through the area. Another story has it that the people found piles of elephant tusks buried in the riverbed.
Entering Kampong Phluk tends to give you a feeling of stepping back in time, to Cambodia’s distant past, when lives were largely dependent on nature and smartphones were nowhere to be found. The cluster of three villages feature houses, largely unchanged for years, which rise up on stilts out of the Tonle Sap lake.
Today, you can witness how the Khmer fishing community live over the water. Local women prepare meals for their family, mainly consisting of rice and fish, directly over campfires, while the men plough the waters of the lake in their fishing boats. Children paddle their way to school, occasionally waving to tourists, while paddle boats float by carrying resident pigs, cats, dogs and chicken.
Kampong Phluk is home to approximately 3000 predominately Khmer fishing people; you’ll catch a glimpse of the majority of them in the low water level season when they can walk alongside the lake. Other highlights of a visit here is the outsized pagoda and of course the unique stilted homes, some towering the maximum nine-metres above the water, to best cope with the lake’s changing levels. There is even a floating bar.
The magnificent mangrove forest – the largest in the reason – is another sight to behold. The underwater ecosystem covers approximately 6000 hectares and continues to flourish thanks to community conservation efforts. The area is known as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve as it contains unique species of plants, fish, and animals. The cool and fresh air produced by the body of water and the submerged forest, is wonderfully refreshing and offers a natural cleanse for lungs polluted by the city.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, the fishermen and the families who lived here where forced to move to work communities in the countryside and soldiers burned down many of the floating village’s homes. Following the fall of the brutal regime four years later, surviving families began returning to resume their lives as fishermen.
“The floating village was a difficult place to live then because of the scarcity of essential services and the destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge, but it began to improve in the 1990s when aid organisations began working in the village,” says Ta Sour, a village elder. “Since 2000, the villagers have turned the commune into an ecotourism site where people can see unique floating homes, vast mangrove forests, and Tonle Sap lake. Apart from fishing, many of us now earn a living in the tourism industry.”
Tourist activities here include a dinghy cooperative offering tours of the flooded forest, chugging past the village, floating school and the pagoda. Tickets are $20 and the return trip takes about one hour. Or you can hire a rowing boat or canoe for $5 per 30 minutes. Either way allows you to enjoy the full beauty of the area.
Another popular activity is having dinner on floating eaterie The Riverside Restaurant, while watching the sun set over Tonle Sap lake. While a little pricey, the unforgettable experience is more than worth it.