Kompong Phluk, Cambodia: Village On and In the Lake

Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Remember your school days when part of the year you would walk to school and climb a towering set of stairs to the entrance, and the remainder of the year would row there in a boat right up to the doorstep? No? Then perhaps you didn’t grow up in Kompong Phluk, Cambodia.

Where is Kompong Phluk, Cambodia?

Many often call Siem Reap “Temple Town” because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. Kompong Phluk, makes for an interesting day trip from Siem Reap. It lies just 16 km away from Temple Town, although the meandering road makes the trip closer to 31 km. It is actually a collection of three floating villages by the Tonlé Sap Lake. The Tonlé Sap River fills and empties into the Tonlé Sap Lake, depending on the time of year. The Tonlé Sap is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, thanks to its unique plant species, fish, and animals, many of which are listed as endangered. Close to 4,000 people call Thnot Kambot, Dhei  Krahom, and Koh Kdol — the three villages of Kompong Phluk — their home. Severe flooding is not uncommon during the rainy season, but for the denizens of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia, it is an annual expectation.

A photo of a building in Kompong Phluk during the dry season

How Do the Locals Survive?

Kompong Phluk translates roughly as Harbour of the Tusks. The community sits high on stilts averaging six metres high. During the wet season months, from May to late October, the denizens rely on fishing. This includes river shrimp and the slightly larger river lobster — which is nothing like the ocean lobster I loved so much in Canada. With the change of the season in November, the water flow reverses and begins receding. Basic farming supplements the fish shortage. Villagers erect temporary shacks by the lake to accommodate the new (and temporary) agricultural activity.

With Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor temples attracting tourists, curious visitors are increasingly making trips to Kompong Phluk. This relatively new site made its way onto the tourist trail within the past couple of decades.

Kompong Phluk’s Flooded Forest

At about 6,000 hectares, locals refer to the largest mangrove forest in the area as the flooded forest. For a donation of around $5 US, local women will paddle you throughout the mangrove in their small boats. With this proving to be another source of income for the residents, the mangrove forest has a good chance of remaining intact, a blessing for both the village residents and people around the world.

A Helpful Donation or a Scam?

I think most travellers like to help add to the places they visit in some way. Despite that,they don’t want to feel they are being scammed. I think it is always one of the greatest dilemmas a traveller can face.

There is no shortage of children in Kompong Phluk. Like most Cambodian people, I find them to be very photogenic. They love slipping into your photographs. Unlike many of the street beggars I have encountered in larger cities, these kids attempt to use their smiles to entice you to purchase basic school supplies for them, such as notebooks and pencils. I curiously witnessed the process and it became rather apparent that these supplies had been bought and sold before. Meaning that they get you to buy the book and invite you to their classroom and then await the next generous group to come along.

An Educator’s View

It was a real dichotomy for me as I have worked in education for over two decades. Furthermore, I’ve lived in Cambodia since 2007, so I’m more familiar with mischievous Cambodian school children than the average tourist. I watched as two western women bought supplies and I accompanied them up the stilted stairway to a large classroom filled with happy, smiling faces. The kids seemed truly grateful and I questioned myself for doubting — perhaps even knowing — that their opportunistic mothers may have put them up to all of this.

A photo of the tourist and Kompong Phluk, Cambodia children

I suppose that if you go to Kompong Phluk, Cambodia someday and encounter this situation, you will have to allow your own feelings to guide you.

All about Michael

We first met Michael Carter back in January 2020 when he was interviewed by close friend and fellow Dreams Abroad contributor, Edmond Gagnon. Michael has since gone on to pen his very own articles for our site. These have seen him recount visiting some of his favourite places in Asia such as Vietnam’s Con Dao Islands as well as those on the other side of the world like Havana, Cuba. We can’t wait to see what more Michael has to share!

Five Reasons to Visit Angkor Wat

I hate it when someone asks me to name the one favorite place I’ve visited. It’s one of my personal quirks: I don’t do favorites, whether it’s colors, cars, or cartoons. That’s just me. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a list of favorite places. The ruin sites at Angkor Wat, for example, will always have a front-row seat in my memory bank. 

Anger What? You ask. It’s a place that many have never heard of, most likely because it’s in Cambodia, a country that’s mostly ignored by the average tourist. As it happens, I have a friend who moved there to teach English, and knowing that we share an affliction of wanderlust, he suggested that I come to visit his side of the world. 

Largest Religious Monument in the World

If you enjoy seeing ancient ruins sites as much as I do, then you must visit Angkor Wat. The Buddhist temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Vishnu, it was built for Khmer King Suryavarman early in the 12th century.  The modern name, Angkor Wat, means Temple City. Or, if broken down, Capitol City and Temple Grounds.

Angkor Wat

The name Angkor Wat is used to describe the largest and best-preserved temple but it can also include Angkor Thom and Bayon, which are equally impressive sites. Too numerous to mention, there are several more temples in the area. Each successive king took it upon himself to outdo his predecessors by going bigger and better. The three major sites can be taken over a two-day leisurely tour. It can be done in one day if you want a kamikaze experience.

Angkor Thom

Cambodia is Cheap

Thailand and Vietnam may see more tourists than neighboring Cambodia, but it is by far the cheapest of the three Southeast Asian countries. Beers can still be found for a buck and meals for under five. Despite it being cheap, don’t fear the cuisine. Meats and vegetables are always fresh and flavored with an amazing array of spices. It was there that I learned about all the different colors and varieties of curry. 

Tarantula Appetizer

Accommodations in the capital city of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,  the nearest city to the ruins, can be found at a fraction of the cost of any American city’s best nightly price. The bus fare from the capital to Siem Reap was a pittance, and a tuk-tuk driver for the day is $15 to $20. To understand and appreciate the ruins, a good tour guide costs about $60 for the day. Some drivers and guides will negotiate their prices if things are slow. 

Religion and History of Angkor Wat

I don’t follow any particular religion, but I was intrigued by how the Hindus converted to Buddhism. Like other Muslim/Christian sites around the world, the conversion is evident in the artwork and facades of their temples and buildings. The three-mile perimeter and sheer size of the monument is mind-boggling. The whole site is surrounded by a moat, making it seem even cooler. Modern-day Khmer Monks in orange robes can be seen wandering or praying within the temple walls. 

Aerial View of the temple

A Unique Ruin Site

I’ve visited the pyramids and temples in Egypt and ruin sites in Mexico and Guatemala, but the ancient temples at Angkor Wat are truly unique. Khmer architects used sandstone to cover the facades of their temples, a material that they masterfully carved. At Angkor Thom and Bayon, giant faces adorn the entrance to the temples. 

Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, scenes depicting important events or everyday life are carved into virtually every surface throughout the complex. The massive blocks that form the walls in the structure are so tightly fitted that some seams are difficult to locate. The ravages of time, jungle, earthquakes, and war took their toll on the Angkor ruin sites, but meticulous restoration has brought them back to life. 

Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat is Incredibly Cool

If you haven’t seen Angelina Jolie’s movie, Tomb Raider, give it a watch. Much of it was filmed in and around the jungles and ruin sites at Angkor Wat, and more specifically at Ta Prohm. There is no other place like it on earth. Giant silk-cotton trees have rooted themselves between the giant building blocks, giving the temple an eerie appearance. In some cases, tree roots look like giant hands grasping stones the size of small cars. 

Jolie’s film crew frequented a restaurant called The Red Piano while they filmed on location. When I visited the eatery, they had her table roped off as a tourist attraction. The walls surrounding the booth were lined with autographed photos of her and the locals. She took a shine to the poor and orphaned children while she was there. There is nothing else to really see in the city, as it is basically a bedroom community for the ruins. 

Like many other touristy sites, it is best to get there early. My guide suggested using the rear exit to start my tour. It was a great move; I got excellent unobstructed photographs and didn’t bump into other tourists until later in the day. For an overall and excellent view of Angkor Wat, try going up in the hot air balloon. It sounds tacky but you won’t be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. 

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Sandstone Carvings

Life in the Time of COVID-19

 

Harold Michael CarterApologies to Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez for borrowing from his book titled Love in the Time of Cholera.

Dreams Abroad is all about living, working, and traveling abroad. So what’s it like to do all of these things during these current pandemic days? I’ve been doing all three during the past month or so. First, a bit of background information. This is the first piece I’ve written for Dreams Abroad, but I have been interviewed in several articles about teaching abroad recently. Check two of the three boxes, as I live and work in Cambodia. I recently took an eight-day trip to Thailand during the third week of March, from March 14th to March 21st. Check the third box. Here is my story.

The news and casual awareness of COVID-19 first surfaced here in late 2019. The first reported case in Cambodia was announced on the 27th of January. Fast forward to the 7th of March when they recorded a second case in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s top tourist draw, as the small city is only 12 km from Angkor Wat. When this happened, the government ordered all schools in Siem Reap closed for two weeks.

Closer to Home

Samae Beach, Koh Larn, Thailand COVID-19
Samae Beach, Koh Larn, Thailand.

I live and work in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Everyone at our workplace knew that when the inevitable — cases reported here — happened, our schools would get closed down as well. I had signed a new contract at the beginning of February and still had a week of holiday owed to me from the previous contract, so on about the 9th or 10th of March, I booked a flight for Bangkok leaving on the 14th.

On the 13th of March, they recorded a few more COVID-19 cases. Cambodia now officially listed seven cases. The writing is on the wall for the teachers. The school announces a meeting for the Saturday morning of the 14th to discuss a contingency plan. I do not attend as I am safely buckled into my Air Asia flight to Bangkok by 9:00 a.m. Later that day, the government announces the closing of all schools until the 20th of April (at least).

A Hauntingly Empty Airport

My one-hour flight to Bangkok was only about 70% full. There were no crowds to speak of at either airport and expedient processing through customs and immigration. I spent a night in Bangkok and then went to visit friends in a nearby coastal town. I spent a day on a small island called Koh Larn. Everything was business as usual — although with reduced numbers of people — for the first four days or so. I remember paying respect to my Irish heritage in fine fashion on the 17th for St. Patrick’s Day. 

airport thailand COVID-19

Around 6:00 p.m. on the 18th, the police came around to a number of places to request their closure. The government of Thailand had decided to close entertainment places, cinemas, and bars, but restaurants could remain open. Life was significantly quieter during my last three days in Thailand. Borders around the world were closing up faster than windows during typhoon season. Part of me hoped I’d be marooned in Thailand for an extended holiday. But, I wasn’t loaded with cash and my family was waiting for me in Cambodia, so the other part of me was glad the borders between Thailand and home hadn’t buttoned up. 

Flying back just eight days later from my departure, the plane was now only about 30% full. Air Asia doesn’t serve alcohol on short flights. Too bad, as with those low numbers, I could have had a cart of wine to myself.

Returning Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ferry to Thailand mainland
Ferry to/from Koh Larn (Thailand) to the mainland.

 

Returning to Cambodia by air is always a breeze for me as I have a one-year multiple entry visa in my passport. This arrival was especially quick. I had to fill out an extra form on the plane which asked which countries I had visited in the previous 21 days. I gave it to one of the ladies wearing masks and gloves upon arrival, and off I went through immigration. 

pier on Koh Larn
View from the pier on Koh Larn.

I spent a relaxing Sunday (March 22nd) with my family in Phnom Penh and by now I am aware that I won’t be teaching the following day. So what about this job? What do I do? What did I miss? The devil on my shoulder who represented the half of me that wanted to be stuck in Thailand nodded and winked at me, saying “See, I told you so.”

 

Monday the 23rd — students can’t go to school, but they left school open to teachers. In both the students’ and my absence the previous week, teachers were busy learning the tricks of online teaching using Google classrooms — something which was new for all but two or three of us. We used next week to make practice lessons for the students to help them adjust as well. The school had collected the necessary contact information so that at least the older students could do this. The new school term didn’t actually begin until April 1st. So, we conducted online teaching from then up until the 10th. At which point — enter a nine-day break for Khmer New Year.

Khmer New Year Break

celebrate Khmer New Year every April
Cambodians love to decorate their houses and prepare plenty of food to celebrate Khmer New Year every April.

Khmer New Year officially lasts from April 13th to April 15th, but when factoring in travel days, the country closes for at least a week. It is based on the Buddhist calendar, so we were celebrating the incoming 2564 BE (Buddhist Era). People celebrate with traditional games, heavy drinking, and gambling. They also spend lots of time with extended families and make frequent visits to pagodas. The capital empties out as the masses head for the provinces.

There was a bit of a twist this year though, because on April 8th, the government announced the holiday will be postponed this year because of COVID-19. They want people to keep working and avoid a mass exodus to the provinces for the holiday. Nevertheless, we respect the holiday and stopped online teaching from the 10th to the 20th of April.

Epilogue: Life Goes On in the Time of COVID-19

The 20th arrived and the government still had not given the green light to reopen schools because of COVID-19. In our case, we are informed we will no longer be paid a full salary and are offered 50%. The teachers held a closed-door staff meeting to decide how much work we should actually do to earn these reduced financial rewards. The new hope/projection is that the schools will open again in early May. If this proves to be true, all of this will be a mere bump in the road. If not, the better schools will survive — but other schools will likely be bankrupt within three or four months.

COVID-19

by Michael Carter