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Feature Story: Floating Villages on Cambodia's Great Lake

School girl in the village of Koh Oknha They

Floating village on Tonle Sap Lake

A young woman crafts Angkor pots
by Nicholas Walton

It's a pretty unique scene, as an elderly Buddhist monk, shrouded in brilliant crimson robes and wreathed by a trio of wide-eyed novices, chants a blessing that resounds across the water. In the floating villages of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, nothing is permanent; everything ebbs and flows relentlessly with the movement of the life-bringing waters, including this pint-sized floating temple, which rocks back and forth with each pass of local bumble bee-like longtails. The chanting complete, passengers of the newly-launched Aqua Mekong river cruiser board their modern skiffs and, with a final wave, make for the setting sun. It’s a magical way to end a day on Cambodia's Great Lake.

Tonle Sap isn't a new destination; it’s been on the backpacker route for many years, its lively floating villages the perfect day trip contrast to the temples of Angkor Wat. But the launch of Aqua Mekong, Aqua Expeditions' newest expeditionary ship, heralds a new era for the lake and for the Mekong River on which it cruises on three, four and seven-night itineraries between Siem Reap and Saigon. Sleek, intimate and unashamedly modern, Aqua Mekong boasts a unique marriage of adventure and comfort, offering travellers a new way to explore this expansive body of water. And it comes at the perfect time, as large-scale hydroelectric projects under construction in northern Cambodia and Laos and scheduled to come online over the next decade, threaten to alter this unique landscape forever.

Tonle Sap Lake is perfect for expeditionary cruising. A vast, dumbbell-shaped body of water, it's a crucial ecosystem, and home to over a million people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the seasonal fluctuation of the lake’s waters. During the wet season, when flood waters from the Himalayas expand Tonle Sap to 12,000 square kilometers, making it one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes, its floating fishing communities retreat to the lake's banks. During the dry season, when we visit, the lake shrinks to 2,500 square kilometers, its villages moving to deeper water en masse, the flow of the Tonle Sap Lake reversing in a unique hydrodynamic phenomenon that can be seen from the ship.

As with the company's two ships on the Amazon, Aqua Mekong is all about exploring beyond the trodden path and its four skiffs offer a chance to delve deeper into nature reserves and isolated fishing communities than any other vessel on the lake. So it is on our first morning that we glide through the still waters of the 31,282-hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, a fundamental component of the UNESCO-recognised Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses Cambodia's Great Lake. In the shade of the skiff's canopy, armed with long lens and Aqua thermoses – one of many of the company’s real world green initiatives – my 26 fellow passengers and a clutch of well-trained guides spy keep a sharp vigil for migratory birds like the great egret and Indian shag. Perched atop trees slowly dying from their guano, Oriental darters parade before us, their outstretched wings drying in the sun, while squadrons of giant pelicans patrol above, their expansive wingspan allowing them to glide high above the flooded vista with ease.

Under one large water-wreathed tree, we chat with three poachers-turned-rangers; the sanctuary is home to many endangered species, and hunters who once preyed on the migratory visitors now protect them at 36 ranger stations. Armed with rifles and radios, and perched in tree houses for days at a time, the rangers maintain passage through the sanctuary, guarding the many species passing through the submerged forests, especially during the dry season when numbers of birds are highest. We keep one eye on the trees and another at their base in search of elusive Siamese crocodiles.

The Tonle Sap itinerary is no sedentary cruise; every morning and afternoon there are inclusive expeditions, some to floating villages on cruising recon, others on two feet through bustling villages. In the floating village of Kampong Khleang, children and adults alike glide through mirror-like waters on traditional long boats. We use GPS and line of sight to navigate the flooded forests surrounding Moat Kla, where excited children rush to doorways and wave frantically as we, among the first foreigners they’ve seen, cruise by. In tiny Koh Oknha Tey, we visit a local school and take turns to donate stationary supplies and sing with the children, and among the palm plantations of Kampong Chhnang, we watch Angkorian pottery respun and sip palm nectar in the shade. It's cultural immersion with creature comforts.

Of course, it's no hardship returning each evening to a rainshower in one of the 20 David Hodkinson-designed suites, cocktail hour in the ship’s lounge, and Michelin-starred chef David Thompson’s stunning cuisine, which is laced with locally sourced ingredients, including Khmer Kampot black pepper, Mekong River catfish and prawns, and fruit from the markets of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Afterwards many guests while away evenings on the open air decks, marveling at the beauty of the lake, the chanting of the monks praying for our safety and for the prosperity of this unique corner of the world, lingering in our ears.

If You Go
Aqua Mekong offers regular 3,4 and 7-night cruises on Tonle Sap Lake from US$3,000 per person, inclusive of all meals, selected beverages, transfers and excursions.

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