Kampong Kleang is one of four villages within traveling distance from Siem Reap on shores of the Tonle Sap , the biggest natural lake in South East Asia. The others are Kampong Phluk, fast becoming popular with its Mangrove Forest, the beautiful village of Mechrey that moves with the water levels. The fourth is Chog Kneas which has sadly gained a reputation for its tourists scams.
A one hour drive (1 1/2 in tuk tuk) along R6 south east from Siem Reap, this is the largest permanent community on the Tonle Sap, dwarfing the now fairly popular Kamonng Pluk. As you drive further into the village, the setting becomes very rural until you encounter the spectacular houses that rise up on ten metre stilts,they give you an idea of a bygone Cambodian era.
My first visit here was in 2010 and I’m glad to say it hasn’t changes much. The main road is finally good, and the turning to Kampong Kleang is reasonable most of the way. Photography trips here are always great, the friendly people see fewer tourists than other more popular destinations. To get here for the best light means an early start or indeed a late finish.
Visiting here is seasonal and depends on the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap. Hard to believe, but if you see the village at low water levels (March-July), you must understand why the stilts are 10 meters tall. During high water levels (Oct – Dec) you will need a boat to reach the main village.
In 2011, the excess flood water in Cambodia raised the water level to above the height of the ground floor of these magnificent houses, forcing many people to abandon their homes. In stark contrast, 2015 Cambodia was facing drought Conditions. In Kampong Kleang the river bed ran dry. Locals had dug reservoirs in the river bed to salvage any water they could, with emergency supplies of drinking water being delivered by road. Now, thankfully, we are seeing water levels return to normal.
The village is both Khmer and Vietnamese. The Khmer are located in the stilted houses, while the Viet’s occupy the floating houses close to the mouth or the Tonle Sap. You can also witness local traders who travel from different parts of the Tonle Sap. There is evidence of an Angkorian prasat in the village, so it’s easy to imagine the commune being part of a trade route many centuries ago.
Photography trips here in both wet and dry seasons are good. During wet season it is possible to take a boat and explore. Activities on the lake are either early morning or late in the afternoon. Midday is too hot, especially with the reflection of the sun off the water. You will have to factor in what you want to see, for instance, if you want to be on the lake for sunrise, the distance means an early start. On the way to the village you can witness sticky rice being cooked with more than 100 vendors selling on the road side, a great photography opportunity. There is also a small Angkorian temple near by. Fishermen go out for their catch starting as early as 3am, some traveling vast distances to there fishing grounds. Boats start returning with their catch at daylight, a good time to be in the village.
During dry season it is still possible to visit, but a boat excursion will be dependent on the water level. The village is still active, with the local school, monastery, market and families going about their business. The people are really friendly and offer great interaction with photographers. It’s great to come across these unspoiled areas and witness their simple lives and freedom, certainly a gem and a favorite of mine. Nice to escape the flocking crowds in temple town.
Food here is mostly local, and a good supply of fish, fish and more fish! I tend to stay away from the local khmer restaurants, but it’s your choice, snake is a faveourite here too. There is a local guest house where the food is rather good. Fruit is readily available as are drinks. A Vietnamese coffee from one of the local vendors on the lake will set you back 25c.
A great experience is to stay over night, meaning no early start :). Accommodation is basic, but it’s a real homestay experience overlooking the water. It’s very Khmer, they go about their business the same as in any other town. With a local KTV at the waters edge, your sure to hear some ‘great’ khmer singing traveling across the water, the local fishermen nailing their boats at 3am, they sound rather like a machine gun, then the chanting of the monks in the early hours. If you are the adventurous type this is for you, basic Cambodian living with no Western home comforts.. For our ‘protection’ we have to pay the local police, who do actually stay at the guest house. The night sees limited activity but it’s nice to be away form the hustle and bustle, and the bright city lights of Siem reap. You can take a boat trip for sunset or sunrise direct from the guest house and witness the local fishermen at work. All in all a great alternative to any standard tour, witnessing their uncomplicated lives.