When you are in Cambodia, one place you absolutely must visit is Kampong Phluk. This place is the stuff of the movies. It’s certainly one of the most peculiar locations I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. Here, you can see clearly how the past and the present mix and clash together. Kampong Phluk is a charming diorama that combines both an old way of life with modernity and mass tourism.
Since most of the land in South East Asia is underwater – geologists point out that sea levels were much lower in the past – floating villages are not uncommon. Apart from Cambodia, they also exist in Vietnam, Thailand and the Phillippines. Maybe there’s a floating village in every South East Asian country apart from Singapore, but I don’t know this for sure. These villages are very interesting culturally, as living on the water makes for quite a different way of life.
The homes here are whimsical structures right out of a Miyazaki movie, with their thin legs, leaning pillars and tatched walls. From afar, they look almost like living things, camouflaging into the trees of the mangrove forest that surround them.
The river here is absolutely beautiful and serene. As our boat floated through its bends, we felt ourselves transported to another place and time. Life moves slowly here, and the two ways to make a living seemed to be limited to fishing and ferrying tourists around. Perhaps there’s more activity when the weather’s cooler, but it was a hot day when we were there, and there were almost no one about.
Towards the end of our trip, there was a trouble with the engine on our boat and the skipper stopped by a house of someone he knew to get a tool to fix it. It was a beautiful moment, arriving to one of the houses and getting a glimpse of how life is for the women who were living in it.
They were preparing bean sprouts, if I recall correctly – not unlike how my grandmother used to, in the lower floor of her shophouse in Kuching, Borneo. No one in modernised Asia does this anymore – we just buy the sprouts from the supermarket. This very same activity, performed in a similarly domestic situation, tied together this unique location with those times in my childhood. It was a beautiful moment.
The village was not the only attraction however. Floating villages are oftentimes – if not all the time – located near mangrove forests. As part of the tour, we got onto a row boat that took us through the slender trunks of the largest flooded forest in Siem Reap. The ride was beautiful and serene, and it was like visiting another world.
The boat ride, with its slow, rocking pace through the river, afforded us hours of contemplation in nature. It also made me realise just how comfortable and privilleged our lives are.
This was definitely one of the more enjoyable boat trips we had the pleasure to be on.
Unfortunately, you cannot enjoy this natural beauty all year round. The forests are only flooded from July to February, and even this is not guaranteed year on year. If you are planning to visit the forest, it would be a good idea to check the status of the water level before doing so.
Although we completed out trip with great reluctance – I could have spent a lot more time floating through the mangrove forest and admiring the incredible stilt homes – we were quite glad to get out of the heat and the humidity and head back to the pool at our air-conditioned resort. I have to say the change of environment was quite a contrast! But that’s Cambodia for you.