Friday, 8 March 2013

Waterworld

The highlight of our visit to Siem Reap was not our visit to Angkor Wat, though that was certainly well worth seeing. But after a day sitting by the pool doing nothing (a holiday I believe some people call it) we travelled with our guide to visit the great lake of Tonle Sap. This lake feeds the river of the same name which flows down through Cambodia, eventually joining The Mekong in Phnom Penh. We'd already seen the lake as we flew from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - it really is immense at 2700 square kilometres, which is equivalent to nearly 4000 football pitches (I think that's the sort of thing you're supposed to say when quoting big statistics like that, though the football pitches themselves would be very muddy indeed, probably unplayable). Currently it's the dry season so it's at its smallest - it will be 16,000 square kilometres in June when the rainy season starts - to put that into perspective, that's almost as big as Robbie Savage's ego!

The thing we've really come to see is not the lake but the villages in and around it. Higgledy-piggledy towns have grown up all along the banks of the river with wooden houses on huge stilts, some 10 metres tall, to ensure that they are not flooded, while other residences are on rafts which float on the fishy water.

It's like nowhere we've ever been before and as we are taken out in a boat ourselves we can see everything close up. On the river banks men stand with nets at the ready, dressed only in their underpants - I've heard of fly fishing", but I don't think this is quite what J.R. Hartley had in mind! Having cast their nets these scantily clad chaps wade waist, or sometimes neck deep into the river - something I've never seen Jack Charlton do dressed only in his Y-Fronts. Meanwhile other (fully dressed) fishermen jump into long boats with huge outboard motors and zoom up and down what is essentially "the high street".

After half an hour or so up the river everything opens out and we are on the lake which goes as far as the horizon and presumably further. And here there are thousands of houses, shops and even a school, floating in this watery city. I can't imagine a more bizarre place to live than in the middle of a huge lake where you have to row to the corner shop, swim to school and where staggering home from the pub is likely to end up landing you in the drink.


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