The agony and the ecstasy of experiencing the remote stilt village and commune of Kampong Phluk on Cambodia’s Great Lake of Tonle Sap.
Having the opportunity to experience the stilt village and commune of Kampong Phluk (meaning Harbor of the Tusks) on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap [Great Lake] was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Cambodia and one of the most unique places either of us have ever visited.
For more on what brought us to Southeast Asia the first time around, take a look at The Big Trip.
Most visitors to the area head to the stilted (“floating”) village of Chong Khneas, which is much closer to the tourist mecca of Siem Reap. We had been advised from our friends Doug and Akemi (whom we met in Khuri, India) to avoid Chong Khneas as they had been quite disappointed with the experience and had heard that Kampong Phluk was a much better (and less touristic) bet. The downside was that it was quite a bit farther out of town (a mixed blessing I suppose) but we were able to incorporate seeing the village into a day trip with some other sights and have absolutely no regrets about the decision.
The Waterway that Swings Both Ways
Kampong Phluk is located on the mighty Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s “Great Lake” which is a unique body of water in itself. In addition to having the distinction of being the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the flow of the entire lake changes direction twice a year.
In the dry season (November to May), the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, at the onset of the rainiest period of the year (in June), the mighty Mekong River swells, reversing the flow of water into the Tonle Sap. Consequently, the lake grows and shrinks substantially throughout the course of the year.
As a result of this phenomenon, communities living in and around the land affected by this “tidal” system have adapted over hundreds of years. Villages such as Kampong Phluk are built well within the affected area, becoming a riverside village for much of the year, and a “floating” village for the rest of the time.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Getting There
I’ll say right now that the logistics were a small nightmare (not the most pleasant experience) permeated by dishonesty and flat out lies in some instances. This was no fault of the community, but rather the government-run tourist office which publishes false information and charges arbitrary fees based on a number of factors. Sadly, in hindsight, I’m not sure if any of our “entrance fee” went to the community, and the environmental impact of the dozens and dozens of mostly empty motorboats boats running up and down the long canal to/from the village and through the heart of the village likely didn’t benefit the community either, which only goes to show that no matter how much research you do ahead of time, you cannot possibly know for sure what the experience will really be like.
Yes, of course, the unknown is what makes it an adventure, and I know a lot of “travelers” would criticize us for doing too much research and not just letting the wind carry us along from one beautiful experience to the next. But in response to those critics I would say that, a) being a community development practitioner by trade, It is my job to be concerned about the community, and b) adventures are great, but there must be a recognition that anyone who embarks on an adventure for the sake of adventure lives with a certain degree of privilege — by virtue of even having that choice — and that choice should never be made at the detriment or exploitation of another human being or groups of human beings.
Back to the logistics. Part of the challenge (and the allure) of visiting some place like Kampong Phluk is the lack of reliable information on visiting the village. A good illustration of this is the wiki page on the subject, which contains just three sentences. And in many ways it is a miracle that this place even has its own wiki page (though this is becoming more so the case as the years go on).
Our main sources of information were the couple who told us about the place and a very recently published guidebook which included directions and rates. The entry fee sounded reasonable and was reported to include the motorized boat transfer out to/ back from the village and a dugout ride through, as well as an opportunity to explore the local market. We had had an awful experience hiring a tuk tuk from our guesthouse (more about that in a future post) and decided to try to hire one from a competing guesthouse, <I’ll try and find the name>, which we found to be extraordinarily professional with good rates. We ended up negotiating $15 USD for the day which included the ride to Kampong Phluk (16km from Siem Reap) (including two hours of wait time), and the ride to and around the nearby Roluos temple complex (13km east of Siem Reap). The driver even called ahead to the Kampong Phluk ticket office and negotiated a lower rate for us. We didn’t know how good of a rate it was (and initially thought the driver was just in cahoots with the government ticket office) until we got there and found out the rate they were charging everyone else was much higher.
Part of the issue was that the negotiated fee ($15 USD each for a total of $30 USD for the entrance and motor boat ride) was so much higher than the printed fee in our fairly reliable Lonely Planet published only eight months prior. Others there were being charged $20-$30 per person. Granted, we’ve had more than our share of issues with the reliability of LP rates, but this was a significant jump. In comparison, a one day pass to the ancient, sprawling and world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Angkor Wat temple complex was $20 per person!
There were four main issues that really infuriated us here, 1) the huge “jump” in the fee, 2) the seemingly arbitrary pricing scheme of the “official government rates,” 3) the high likelihood that none of the fee benefited the community directly, and 4) the fact that the government official at the ticket window clearly stated that the fee included the motor boat ride out and back and a canoe ride through the village — issues concerning this last point would be the subject of a heated argument in which for the first and only time on our 6 month trip we would observe a local absolutely and completely lose his cool.
As of November 2013, the jumping off point to see the villages was set up as such: Sightseers arrive by tuk tuk, private hire or large tour bus, which drops you off in a dusty parking lot near a bare and dusty canal tightly packed with wooden boats as far as the eye can see in either direction (dozens if not hundreds of them, it’s hard to say). Our tuk tuk driver pointed us to the official window, where a man in uniform confirmed the price of the ticket. This is insane, we thought, and left the window to go down to the waterfront to find an alternative.
Experience had taught us that there is nearly always a local option not geared toward “rich” and unwitting foreigners. After all, how do the locals get to the village? We walked up and down the line of boats asking “local boat? local boat?” but with no luck. Hmm. Next we tried to negotiate directly with one of the “tourist” boat captains but found this approach to be futile as well and ended up back at the ticket counter discussing the absurd cost of the ticket fee.
Our next idea was to get a group of other passengers together and negotiate for a lower price. As the system is set up, $15-$30/person essentially snags you your own private boat, but we didn’t need our own private boat — this seemed ridiculous as most of the boats had seats enough for 10-20 passengers. We rounded up a group of five others and asked for a discounted price, but again to no avail. The “You do know you’re charging people as much as a ticket to Angkor Wat” argument seemed to go nowhere with the officials standing around who countered: “Cost of fuel, cost of fuel, very high,” which in turn was countered with “Ok, more people on one boat, less fuel than many boats, yeah? Lower price per person, yeah?” Nope, hopeless.
In the end, we ended up on our own 12 passenger boat along with a young solo traveler who asked if she could join. The worst thing about this setup isn’t even the high price each passenger must pay but rather the devastating environmental impact of dozens and dozens of mostly empty boats burning gallons and gallons of petrol polluting the air and tearing up the ecosystem (along with the fact that the community likely doesn’t see any of the proceeds as would soon be revealed to us). The number of passengers we saw the entire time only warranted a handful of boats, yet for 45 minutes out and 45 minutes back it felt like rush hour on the DC Beltway.
Unfortunately, our frustrations did not end there. The driver and an assistant spent a good 15-20 minutes trying to get our boat started, with zero success. All the while our boat bobbed and rocked in the midst of a dozen other empty but identical boats. We asked several times if we could just take another boat but quickly realized that boats and captains were non-interchangeable. Fine, but we weren’t going to wait all day for ours to be repaired. Finally, after a healthy bit of prodding our captain, we literally jumped ship and commandeered a nearby boat in running order with a captain who was more than happy to take us.
Off to the “Floating” Village
There wasn’t much to see for the first 20 minutes except for other identical wooden boats motoring up and down the waterway, but then one stilted building came into view, followed by another, and another, until the whole village emerged. It was simply like nothing either of us had ever seen, and was absolutely phenomenal and definitely worth the frustration. Imagine, in the 21st century taking a rickety wooden boat through an entire village built on water harboring a unique way of life, which up until recently had remained largely unaffected by globalization and Western culture.
Our first stop was at a small floating cafe where we had planned to board a canoe for a ride through the mangrove. We never did get in a canoe but we were still taken for a ride, so to speak. When we climbed off the motorboat a “tourism official” ushered us over to a canoe and announced matter-of-factly that the canoe ride would be an extra fee. Given our dealings with the ticket office and some very bad experiences with this sort of thing just two days prior, the whole situation reeked of BS and we called him out on it. Even Lori joined in the chewing out, which is unlike her. Our questioning of the guy’s “authority” angered the man quite a bit, so much that he did what up until then had been considered unthinkable after four months of traveling in Asia — the dude completely flipped out on us. Despite this, we held firm. By this point the two of us had had enough.
Since our arrival in Cambodia, tourist hustlers had been trying to screw us left and right — on a level we hadn’t experienced since India. In India, the hustlers would try to meet you on a level footing, try and establish rapport to the point of making you feel guilty for not wanting to help or go along with the story or check out the guys’ silk shop. In Cambodia, they seemed to bypass all of that, going straight for the “You so rich, I so poor, it’s only fair that I screw you out of your money” routine. Yes, I understand the tenuous nature of the relationship between Cambodia and the West — the secret war and spill over from the “War of Agression” (i.e. Vietnam War) and turning the other way while Pol Pot’s army of thugs slaughtered millions during the Khmer Rouge. I get all that. But we found regular Cambodians to be incredibly friendly and hospitable, it wasn’t as if we were walking around and getting the evil eye or cold shoulder. But those linked to the tourism industry had much more of an axe to grind it seemed — it truly felt as if these people despised the very people from which they derived their livelihood from.
When pressed about the lying and the ridiculousness of what the “tourist official” was proposing, his response was not rooted in logic, of course, but meant to feed on feelings of Western guilt and naivete. He told us that none of the money from our ticket goes to the village, and that taking the canoe tour would be our only opportunity to make sure that the village benefited from tourism in some way. Wait a minute, what? I was a bit taken aback by this. Not so much that none of the cost of the ticket goes to the village (while infuriating, this is sadly the case for tourism operations in many places and by no means surprising), but rather by this guy’s attempt to strong-arm the two of us into “charity” by reasoning that we were obligated to make up for the fact that he and his government were exploiting the hell out of these people and their situation. I’d also like to add that the original ticket official tried to justify the high cost of the boat ticket/ fee by stating that the proceeds benefited the village in some way, which this guy was refuting.
You would think that after all this time such things wouldn’t surprise me, and they don’t really, but they still anger me — the tenth, fiftieth, hundredth time still angers me as much as the first. Quite frankly, I’m glad that I’m still angered by these situations. I’d rather feel affected than desensitized; frustrated rather than complacent. It’s amazing to me how rampant complacency and desensitization are among travelers — but something tells me I shouldn’t be amazed by that either.
At this point it was clear our discussion was going no where with this guy. We asked to get the phone number for the ticket office so that we could confirm that our ticket did not include the canoe ride, but of course the “official” said no such number existed. We asked the the boatman if he had the contact number — surely he had the number to his employer — but same response. After we were back on the boat, Lori noticed a complaint phone number for the tourism agency posted above the boatman’s head and pointed it out to the driver who just chuckled uncomfortably. We called the number but it was disconnected, of course. All BS.
Needless to say, we didn’t take the canoe trip. We re-boarded the motorboat and continued on, past the center of town marked by a temple/school and out to the open waters of Tonle Sap where the boatman cut the engine and we sat for a few moments to take in the surroundings. The water had an unusual iridescent quality to it that I thoroughly enjoyed; almost like a sea of mercury reflecting the sky.
On our way back, we asked the boatman if we could stop at the temple/school and have a walk around for a few minutes. The driver agreed and gave us 30 minutes. We were so glad we asked as this turned out to be the best part of the trip.
We had some memorable interactions with locals and got to patronize a couple of the rustic stilted bodegas, which we knew had a much higher likelihood of benefitting the locals than anything else we paid for that day. It’s not clear what percentage of the fee charged to see the village goes back to the community. Whether it be tourism or natural resource extraction or anything else for that matter, it is absolutely essential that the people who live in affected areas benefit, first and foremost, from the activity. It is the only fair and just option. There is no other way that can be morally or ethically justified. Yet this very, very rarely happens in reality.
Benefits and Pitfalls of Culture-Crossing as a Foreign Traveler
One of the primary reasons why Lori and I enjoy traveling so much is that it gives us an opportunity to engage with people and cultures different from our own. I’ve long found myself fascinated by the ways in which people both choose to live out their existence and adapt to their environment. I believe I’ve always had the disposition of an anthropologist, and likely would have followed that path if I ever could have settled on one particular interest to follow. My problem is that I generally find it all equally interesting and would hate to limit myself in that respect. How does one devote their entire life to studying a specific pygmy tribe of central Africa or pocket of ethnic minorities in south Asia?
This curiosity about peoples and cultures has its limitations when traveling. For instance, it is generally difficult as an independent traveler to penetrate the invisible social boundaries of a particular community that you find interesting. Yes, you can often go for a stroll and get lost in a particular neighborhood, explore bodegas and eateries, etc., and Lori and I enjoy doing all of these. Yet, these sorts of activity provide only a glimpse into a world largely hidden from view. Both the ceremonial and the mundane cannot usually be observed (and more interestingly, experienced first-hand) from merely a walk around the block, or even a conversation with a local. The greatest honor that anyone can bestow on an outsider is a legitimate opportunity to be welcomed into the community to engage in such activities — and I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had several of meaningful experiences like this with individuals I hardly knew (which is a testament to the kindness and hospitality that exists in the world that isn’t often practiced in the U.S. as much anymore, unfortunately).
But we can’t always be invited all the time, right? Some communities are much less trusting of outsiders than others (and often for good reason). One of the things I love most about my work in international development is that it gives me a legitimate reason to enter communities generally not interested in pandering to “tourists,” and I get to have honest and candid conversations with real people. My level of access and perceived trustworthiness was never greater than when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small fishing town in Mozambique. But I still relish the opportunity during site visits, surveys, and assessments to visit a community that tourists and foreigners rarely visit and have a real conversation with somebody (as opposed to a merchant/peddler-customer conversation which is always the case on packaged tours). Yes, I do recognize in many ways you can never shake the peddler-customer relationship, especially if there is a perception by the individual with whom you are engaging that you represent an organization with deep pockets, but it is amazing how quickly this perception can fade once you start talking about something mutually meaningful.
In Kampong Phluk, however, neither Lori nor I found ourselves here on business, and we certainly had not been invited. Yet we had heard that this unique and fascinating place exists and we wanted to see it. I work in an industry that has improved a lot of folks lives, but is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for erasing places like Kampong Phluk off the map for good. I’m happy to report that there is a concerted effort by many key players to find a balance — change is inevitable, yes, but I and many others are convinced that improvement in welfare doesn’t have to mean complete destruction of societal structures and cultural values. But what do you do when you are traveling independently (like Lori and I) and you want to see these places but don’t want to do the organized tour thing, don’t want to be perceived as disrespectful or a gawker, and certainly don’t want to exploit the socio-economic situation of an individual who has no other economic opportunity but to pimp and prostitute the kitchiest aspects of their culture and themselves for a buck or two? For us, it meant making some tough decisions.
For example, after careful research and consideration, we decided not to take a trip to visit any of the Karen “long neck” communities of Northern Thailand because our situation at the time dictated that we go on an organized tour and we could not find any organized tours in our budget which approached the experience in a sufficiently respectful and ethnical manner (i.e. not mostly exploiting the cultural practice for monetary gain) and in fact, the Karen people are a very difficult case in this respect, given the prevailing belief that the permanently deforming practice of neck extension only exists today because of the tourist industry and tourist demand rather than as a reflection of continuing cultural practice.
We believed Kampong Phluk was different. We made a determination from the information we had that touring the village by boat would allow us a glimpse into this unique world with minimal impact, hopefully proving financially beneficial for the community in some way — At least that was our hope based on the information we were provided. As our Kampong Phluk experience illustrated, making the effort to inform yourself doesn’t guarantee success.
Should you visit Kampong Phluk? Well, that’s up to you, of course. We had a great time — like I said, one of our highlights of Cambodia. Obviously, there are implications. But there are implications for visiting most places worth seeing, whether it be Yosemite, the Great Wall, the beaches of Thailand, or an isolated stilt village in the middle of Cambodia. The important thing is making the attempt to be informed and engaged so that you can weigh the pros and cons and mitigate the more serious impacts of a visit while increasing the benefit for local people and their communities.