Floating Village Siem Reap Scam

Avoid Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap — it’s not a floating village. All you’ll see are crocodiles, monkeys, snakes and bats being treated cruelly, and you’ll overpay for your ticket and for rice to supposedly feed the local children.

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

One of the best parts of living in Asia is that so many great locations are a relatively short flight away (not literally halfway around the world, as the U.S. is). Our friend Brian and his husband, Jeff, recently moved to Suzhou, China and decided to take a trip to Cambodia. They flew into Bangkok, Thailand and took the bus to Siem Reap. Once there, they explored the Angkor Wat temple complex — as well as getting lured into a “floating village” scam.

Here Brian writes about their cautionary tale:

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Chong Kneas “Floating Village” Rip-Off

There are ads all around for visits to floating villages. The one we went to we were directed to by our tuk-tuk driver, who was our first driver from the airport when we arrived, and we made arrangements for two more days after. Up until that point, he had been a good driver and had shown up when he said he would.

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it.

When we said no, the guy taped the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape.

We drove for about a half-hour outside Siem Reap and enjoyed the drive, seeing a different part of Cambodia. When we got to the little building near the canal, we were ushered to a ticket counter. The price for the tour was quite expensive at $30 each, but it looked kind of official and we thought that the money would go toward the local community. Plus, we were already there and kind of in the middle of nowhere.

Our tour guide was quite friendly and spoke English pretty well. He claimed to have only learned English from tourists and in the last two years. He also claimed to have grown up in the fishing village.

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

We traveled along a canal and did not get very close to any of the houseboats that were scattered along the way. Our guide told us about a floating school full of orphans from a big storm that killed about 100 local fishermen. He mentioned a tsunami also. It was kind of confusing. He showed us a video on his phone of children eating rice crowded on a boat.

Our first stop was in the middle of the lake — not really near anything, with not much to look at. Even with the zoom lens on my Nikon, I couldn’t find a decent picture to take. He said we were going to stop for 10 minutes so the boat driver could eat lunch.

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

Next we went to a little floating shop that also had the crocodile farm (which was just depressing), bats, a monkey and snakes. He tried to get us to buy some dried crocodile that looked like a rawhide dog chew toy for $10. To give a sense of pricing, I had a skirt steak the previous night for $9, and beef here is considered a luxury. We declined. It’s interesting because it’s only $10 and then you can say tried it, so you’re tempted to do it even though you know you’re being ripped off.

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it. But Jeff was like, no way, so the guy started taping the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape, which just seemed cruel, so we walked away.

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

As soon as we had arrived, a girl less than 10 years old had started rowing toward us in what looked like a plastic wash basin from a nearby houseboat. I thought it looked cute, so I took a picture. I then realized she also had a 3-foot python around her neck. As soon as I took the picture, she began asking for a dollar. I figured she’d earned it, so I pulled out my wallet — but our guide rushed over and said it wasn’t good to give money to her and that her parents make her do it and if we wanted to give money it should be to the school. All of which made the girl whine quite loudly until we left.

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

So then we were brought to another little store, and a guy spoke to Jeff as though from a script about the nutritional value of rice and that a 50-kilo bag for $50 will feed the school for a day. We declined and felt bad in the moment. Our guide, who had been so friendly was standoffish after that for the rest of the boat trip back. Except to ask for a tip and a tip for the driver as we docked.

The entire time, we never got close to anything resembling a village. There were a number of houseboats along the canal, but we didn’t get near them.

We looked them up after the fact and, according to reviews on TripAdvisor, it could have been worse. But thanks to my husband’s experience and intuition, we made it out better than many. As we went past the school, there were maybe 15 kids on it. They were just running around playing. Most likely it was no more than daycare for local kids.

Afterwards, we were meant to go to the national museum, but the events of the boat ride left a bad taste in our mouth, so we had our driver take us back to our hotel. He didn’t try to arrange another day of driving. He must have known we had a bad experience. –Brian

You don’t want to miss the true floating village: Read about Kompong Kleang and see the amazing photos here.

Beng Mealea, the Lotus Pond Temple

You’ll feel like Indiana Jones exploring this ancient Khmer temple outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the Two Brothers movie was filmed.

Beng Mealea, the most fun temple to explore in the Angkor area

Located about 90 minutes from the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Beng Mealea is an otherworldly set of ruins far from the typical crowds of the Angkor Archaeological Park. The site was not opened to the general public until it was cleared of landmines in late 2003.

As we drove to the destination, our guide Kimsan explained that it was inaccessible prior to the completion of the paved royal highway. I was just happy not to revisit the unpaved “dancing” dirt roads of Phnom Kulen.

One of our party members was fiddling with his camera — and, much to our horror, almost tumbled into the stone-filled moat.

Duke and Wally had a blast playing Indiana Jones as they explored the remote Beng Mealea, or Lotus Pond Temple

While the “Tomb Raider Temple,” Ta Prohm, is striking, it is downright manicured compared to Beng Mealea.

There are worse jobs than guarding Beng Mealea

Its Khmer name translates as “Lotus Pond,” and the structure was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. Our group and a few guards were the only presence there.

The temple is comprised of a moat, a handful of libraries and galleried courtyards. Verdant and overgrown, we felt like explorers discovering a lost world as we clambered and crawled over piles of moss-covered rubble and sprawling roots, occasionally coming across an intricately carved sandstone fragment.

Piles of stone rubble that have tumbled down from Beng Mealea’s upper walls lie haphazardly throughout the site

Rubble Rubble

Devoid of restoration, colossal piles of fallen sandstone blocks overgrown with gnarled vines and tree roots give you a good idea of what French archeologists saw when these ruins were discovered. The result is a serene and atmospheric temple dappled by sunlight streaming through the jungle canopy above. If I wasn’t bitten by the travel bug before, I was now.

One of the temple libraries, which at one time held sacred manuscripts

There are some safety measures in place, thanks to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2004 movie Two Brothers, starring two tiger cubs, set in 1920s French Indochina, which was filmed here. Narrow wooden walkways that were used to operate a camera dolly intersect the temple ruins, making it easier to navigate some of the areas. However, once off this path, each step needs to be carefully negotiated to prevent a fall. One of our party members was fiddling with his camera — and, much to our horror, almost tumbled into the stone-filled moat.

Sandstone corbels mimicking wood now compete with the real thing

Verdant and overgrown, we felt like explorers discovering a lost world as we clambered and crawled over piles of moss-covered rubble and sprawling roots.

Keep a lookout for death’s head spiders — their venom is more poisonous than that of a scorpion

Lichen-covered carvings at Beng Mealea, where nature has reasserted itself 

Beng Mealea was our favorite temple on our Cambodian trip and brought out the inner adventurer in all of us. –Duke

Angkor Wat, a Little Bit of Heaven in Siem Reap

Discover why this is our favorite ancient Hindu and Buddhist temple complex and a must-experience part of Cambodia tourism.

The legendary Angkor Wat

I was well into adulthood before taking my first international trip abroad. When I was growing up, I often daydreamed about exotic destinations, visiting the library and collecting travel brochures from AM&A’s, one of the local department stores that had an in-store travel agency. I even remember draping wild grapevines from the rafters of our family’s basement and pretending I was somewhere in the Italian countryside.

Buddhist monks in saffron robes cross the bridge that leads to the giant temple

I’m not the most spiritual individual — I tried to smuggle a communion wafer out of church when I was growing up; I wanted to see what the body of Christ looked like, after all. But when the ancient and magnificent temple of Angkor Wat lay before us, I was awestruck by its jaw-dropping scale and grandeur. It’s believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It’s no wonder UNESCO named Angkor Wat a World Heritage Site in 1992.

Some believe that Angkor Wat appeared overnight, constructed by divine forces.

Translated from Khmer, the name Angkor Wat literally means “City Temple.” Built by King Suryavarman II, it was the former capital of the Khmer empire and has remained in continuous use since its completion in the early 12th century. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu but eventually shifted to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century.

The complex is oriented to the west, which has led several historians to believe that Suryavarman intended it to be his tomb. Symbolically, west is the direction of the setting sun and death, but is also associated with Vishnu, who the temple was originally dedicated to. Suryavarman’s devotion is also shown in the posthumous name he was given, Paramavishnuloka, which means “He Who Is in the Supreme Abode of Vishnu.” Whether this anecdote is true or not, it does makes for an interesting theory.

Our group poses in front of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. Take that, Saint Peter’s!

Wat an Adventure!

Angkor Wat is composed of a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways. The most famous and best preserved of the temples located within the Angkor Archeological Park, it has been featured on Cambodia’s national flag since 1863.

Four of the five towers represent the peaks surrounding Mount Meru, the home of Hindu gods, with the larger central shrine tower acting as the mythic mount itself. According to local lore, the temple was ordered by the deity Indra, the King of the Gods, to act as an earthly palace for his son Precha Kat Mealea. Some even believe that it appeared overnight, constructed by divine forces.

Originally a Hindu temple, you now find shrines to the Buddha tucked into various nooks throughout Angkor Wat

The concentric galleries represent the outer lands, with the inner courtyard containing the central tower. This was the most sacred part of the complex and most likely held a statue of Vishnu.

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat, fed by a canal from the Siem Reap River,  simulates the ocean encircling Mount Meru. It provided water to the city’s inhabitants and was an integral part of their agrarian culture — it served to irrigate rice fields, and the crops were used as a form of currency.

Many of the bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat depict warfare

The stone causeway leading to the temple is flanked by a naga balustrade whose ends culminate with its seven raised snake heads.

The outer gallery of Angkor Wat contains intricate bas-relief carvings depicting historical events and stories from Hindu mythology. It has more than 3,000 representations of heavenly nymphs known as apsaras carved into its walls. Each apsara is unique, from its elaborate headdress to its plaited hair and jewelry.

Three of the 3,000 depictions of buxom celestial spirits known as apsaras

A sandstone structure located within the heart of the temple complex is believed to have served as one of the libraries at Angkor Wat. The symmetrical cruciform structure would have held sacred manuscripts. Some of the columns have been replaced with cement copies for structural support.

An eight-armed statue of Vishnu stands to the south of the central tower, which may originally have been enshrined within. The statue is known as Ta Reach, and it is worshipped by Hindu visitors and Buddhist locals as well, as its head was replaced by that of a Buddha.

Sugiva, the Monkey King, and his army of warriors

The centuries-old Angkor Wat temple is an integral part of the Khmer legacy and worthy of spending several hours wandering through. Be sure to head there early to avoid the crowds. –Duke

Take a virtual tour of Angkor Wat!

Courtesy of

Bayon Temple: The Star of Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat’s rival features serenely smiling giant faces and a battle between gods and demons.

The smiling heads that are found throughout the Bayon Temple complex most likely depict the king — not the Buddha as many assume

Growing up, I was fascinated by ancient cultures. I remember a book series I had from National Geographic on lost civilizations. On the cover of one of them was the image of a mysterious smiling stone face, which I would later discover belonged to the Bayon Temple, located in the Angkor Archeological Park in Cambodia.

I spent a lot of time playing in the fields surrounding my childhood home, pretending one day that I was a calligrapher from the Ming Dynasty and the next that the concrete foundation of an old barn was actually an undiscovered Roman temple. That’s why our visit to the Angkor complex was a dream come true.

Over 200 large stone faces with almond-shaped eyes and enigmatic smiles are carved into the towers.

After a quick breakfast at our favorite spot in Siem Reap, Blue Pumpkin, a French patisserie, our group departed for Angkor Thom, the 12th century capital of the Khmer Empire. Indeed, its name means “Great City.”

We arrived shortly after 9 a.m. and were delighted to see that there were not yet many other tourists circulating amongst the ruins.

Duke and Wally were giddy kicking off their exploration of Angkor wandering Bayon, with its intricately carved bas reliefs and giant stone faces

The Battle for the Nectar of Immortality

The bridge approaching Bayon is flanked by a combined total of 108 guardian deities. To the left are 54 giant figures of devas (gods) and on the right asuras (demons) whose faces have an expressive range of emotions. Both rows are holding a naga (serpent) as if they were engaged in a tug of war. Some of the heads on these figures are copies; the original ones have been removed and are at the Angkor Conservancy in Siem Reap.

On one side of the bridge leading into Angkor Thom, demons called asuras use a giant snake to churn out the Nectar of Immortality. Gods do the same on the left. Which side do you think Wally and I liked most?

According to Hindu mythology, the sculptures are a narrative depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk. At the suggestion of the god Vishnu, the devas and asuras, consummate enemies, worked together for a millennium to churn the ocean by pulling on the body of Vasuki, the king of the serpents, to release amrita. This is defined as “the Nectar of Immortal Life,” which, curiously, is also the Sanskrit term for female ejaculate. That must be the longest session of tantric sex in the history of the world!

When the amrita finally emerged, along with several other treasures, the devas and asuras fought over it. However, Vishnu, in the form of Mohini the Enchantress, managed to lure the asuras into handing over the amrita, which she then distributed to the devas.

Rahu, an asura, disguised himself as a deva and tried to drink some amrita himself, but Surya (the sun god) and Chandra (the moon god) alerted Vishnu to this deception. Vishnu then decapitated Rahu just as he started to swallow the nectar, leaving only his head immortal.

Prasat Bayon

Angkor Thom is encircled by a moat, now dry, that surrounds the fortified city and was said to have been filled with crocodiles to deter potential invaders.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, Prasat Bayon served as the state temple and stood at the geographical center of King Jayavarman VII’s new capital, Angkor Thom. Built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, some historians believe the faces to be of Jayavarman himself, thus allowing the king to take on the attributes of someone whose capable of reaching enlightenment but delays it to save others from suffering.

The massive gate pavilion topped with large carved faces watches approaching visitors

The Bayon Temple complex was built under the direction of the Mahayana Buddhist ruler Jayavarman VII, who ascended to the Khmer kingdom’s throne at Angkor in 1181 CE. He erected the site for Buddhist worship, although it later was renovated and used as a Hindu temple. Various forms of Hindu and Buddhist worship were practiced side-by-side and successively in the ancient royal courts of Southeast Asia.

Classical Khmer kings promoted the concept of divine kingship that was transferred to the Buddhist kings. Usually the Hindu god chosen for this personal identification was Shiva, but sometimes it was Vishnu, or, for some, a godly image of Buddhist origins. Khmer temples thus often portray the ruling king incarnated as the god, whose shrines are within a monument on Earth that models the design of the cosmos and heavens.

After the death of Jayavarman, some of the features of Bayon were altered according to the religious belief of his successors. The pineapple-shaped towers are an architectural representation of the peaks of Mount Meru, the abode of gods. The complex contains Hindu and Theravada Buddhist elements that were not part of the temple’s original plan.

An intricately detailed bas relief of dancing apsaras, celestial nymphs

The ground level gallery of the complex is full of intricately carved bas reliefs. The absence of a wooden roof above these pillars bathes the reliefs with sunlight. Some of the carvings depict scenes of epic battles between the Khmer and Cham warriors. Others are of everyday life: bookies taking bets at a cockfight, men fishing in Tonlé Sap or monks trying to remove the sarong of a young girl. Scandalous!

Prasat Bayon is the purrfect place for a catnap


Don’t Lose Your Head

Describing a visit to Bayon in 1912, the French novelist Pierre Loti wrote:

“I looked up at all those towers, rising above me, overgrown in the greenery and suddenly shivered with fear as I saw a giant frozen smile looming down at me … and then another smile, over there in another tower … and then three, and then five, and then ten.”

As you climb up to the top level, you reach the central tower and sanctuary, or prasat, which is believed to have once been covered in gold. Over 200 large stone faces of the Avalokitesvara with their almond-shaped eyes and enigmatic smiles are carved into the 54 towers, giving this temple its majestic character.

A couple of officers decided to join our group photo at Bayon in Cambodia

The iconic face towers of Prasat Bayon were distinct among the many Angkor temples and made me feel like being a kid again. It’s no wonder our guide kicked off our tour of Angkor with this stunning ruin. –Duke

Banteay Srei, Angkor’s Pretty in Pink Temple

Delicate carvings and animal-headed guardians make this intimate citadel one of the must-see Siem Reap attractions.

Banteay Srei, with its carvings from Hindu mythology on its pink walls, is like something out of a storybook

We all called it the Pink Temple because of the rose-hued sandstone used to build it. Somehow it’s fitting that this was the only temple not built for a king — and, in fact, only women could enter its inner sanctum, our guide Kimsan told us.

You can imagine the statues springing to life should anything threaten this gorgeous fairytale complex.

Banteay Srei was a citadel for women that housed libraries

Its real name is Banteay Srei, the Women’s Citadel, though some translate this as Citadel of Beauty. Located about half an hour from the tourist base of Siem Reap, Cambodia, it’s a definite inclusion on any itinerary of the area. Completed in 967 CE and expanded until the 14th century, it’s one of the best-preserved structures in the Angkor Wat region. It wasn’t rediscovered until 1914.

The Pink Temple’s rosy-hued sandstone allowed for elaborate carvings

Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple, primarily to worship Lord Shiva the Destroyer, though the northern buildings are dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver. It’s said to be the most Indian-influenced of all the temples, and the carvings were the most ornate we saw on our trip.

In this image, the demon king Ravana tries to lift Mount Kailash, where Lord Shiva is meditating, and bring it back to his own kingdom

Part of the fun of exploring Banteay Srei is crossing the wide moat on the narrow footpath.

The temple was built to honor the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva

Once you make that crossing, you’re transported to another world. The pinkish structures are now tinged with green lichen, calling to mind a forgotten palace from a Hindu epic.

Gods called devatas pose in niches, guarded by animal-headed warriors

The most impressive part of Banteay Srei is the exterior decoration. The walls are covered with curlicues and flourishes that evoke climbing vines. Nestled in niches throughout are gods and goddesses known as devatas. Both sexes are topless, the women with breasts as large and perfectly round as melons.

In 1923, an art thief named André Malraux stole four of the figures, but he was caught shortly thereafter, and the devatas were returned to Banteay Srei to pose for tourists and pilgrims once again.

Most of the walls of Banteay Srei are covered with complex carved ornamentation

Some of the buildings in this intimate complex once housed libraries. Guess those women were smart.

These statues keep watch over the interior of Banteay Srei citadel

My personal favorite part of Banteay Srei are its guardians. Humanlike creatures with the heads of animals are found throughout the inner part of the complex. They’re resting in a pose that's somehow between sitting and kneeling. Some have what I thought to be the head of an eagle, like the Hindu deity Garuda — though they also could have been monkeys. Others sport what might be the head of a lion, though it’s hard to say. And some just look like dudes with cheesy mustaches.

Some of the guardians have the heads of animals, and some just have mustaches

These are the citadel’s protectors, and you can imagine them springing to life should anything threaten this gorgeous fairytale complex. –Wally

Ta Phrom, the Tomb Raider Temple

A wild, overgrown must-see stop on a visit to Angkor Wat.

The jungle has reclaimed parts of Ta Prohm temple, which makes it a fun one to explore

The sacred temple of Ta Phrom caught the attention of location scouts and served as the setting for an epic scene in the cinematic adaptation of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Since its debut on the big screen in the summer of 2001, Ta Phrom is now commonly referred to as the Tomb Raider Temple. The sprawling and atmospheric ruins are located about two miles northeast of the Angkor Wat Archeological Park in Cambodia.

The strangler figs’ sinuous, gnarled roots spread out and over the temple walls like the tentacles of a kraken.

Like an episode of the television series Life After People, the jungle didn’t waste time in reclaiming the structure after it was abandoned in the 15th century. The towering strangler fig trees that have become an iconic and integral part of the ruins share a symbiotic relationship with the structure — their sinuous, gnarled roots spread out and over its walls like the tentacles of a kraken.

An obligatory photo of our group taken underneath the roots of the towering strangler fig tree in the inner courtyard at Ta Phrom, where Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft picked a jasmine flower before falling into the catacombs of the temple

It’s easy to see why this temple was featured as one of the settings in the action-adventure film Tomb Raider — in which actress Angelina Jolie portrayed the popular video game heroine Lara Croft, battling the secret society of the Illuminati to recover powerful ancient artifacts. Incidentally, we picked up a copy of the DVD at the Angkor Night Market and watched it when we returned from our trip. Not the best movie, in my humble opinion, but it was fun to see Ta Phrom get the Hollywood treatment, and Jolie appeared to enjoy herself.

As an interesting aside, our guide Kimsan told us that Jolie was one of the last Americans to legally adopt a child from Cambodia. Her son Maddox was born in the northwest province of Battambang and was 7 months old at the time. Kimsan explained that Cambodia was suffering from the illegal opportunistic trafficking and exploitation of children. As a result, the Cambodian government has put a ban on expatriate adoptions, grappling with the complicated issues of its overrun, unregistered and unregulated orphanages.

The western entrance pavilion contains a towering gate, with four large serene faces overlooking the cardinal directions

A Mother of a Memorial

Ta Phrom was built as a monastery by King Jayavarman VII in the Bayon style during a time when Mahayana Buddhism was the state religion. As Jayavarman saw himself as the devaraja, a mortal god-king, it’s only fitting that the temple’s primary deity, the Bodhisattva Prajnaparamita (the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom), was fashioned in the likeness of his mother.

Walking onto the jungle path, Ta Phrom left me with a childlike sense of wonder. Unlike the majority of Angkor’s restored temples, it has been left largely as it was found. Partially cleared of jungle vegetation, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how French botanist Henri Mahout felt when he rediscovered these ruins in 1860. An excerpt from his posthumously published journal breathlessly noted:

“There are … ruins of such grandeur … that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”

Half-hidden, intricately carved reliefs lie strewn about the site like jigsaw puzzle piece

Here before us lay the low expansive enclosures of Ta Phrom, with fig, banyan and kapok trees spreading their roots amongst the lichen-covered sandstone pillars that lined the passageways. An otherworldly mist hung about the ruins, even though it was quite humid — or perhaps that was just how I remember it.

Courtesy of

Laterite and sandstone were used in the construction of Ta Phrom. Quarried locally in the Kulen Mountains, sandstone worked well for the extensive carvings that adorned the walls. The temple includes a prasat, a square sanctuary tower with a chamber, over which a multitiered tower rises. Four doorways open into the chamber, which once housed the sacred idol.

Undeniably spectacular, the jungle setting of Ta Phrom is easy to explore and has all of its galleries at ground level. –Duke

Siem Reap Day Trip: Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean

Take a break from Angkor Wat and visit the reclining Buddha at Phnom Kulen and the waterfall in the “River of a Thousand Phalluses.”

After several days of exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, our guide Kimsan knew just the place to share with us: the sacred peak of Phnom Kulen, which translates to Mount Lychee. He took us down “dancing roads,” unpaved red dirt roads where vehicles take a beating from potholes and are rendered unusable after the rainy season. The vehicle bounces along (or dances, as the locals say), offering a bone-jarring experience to the passengers inside.

Kimsan pointed out that up until as recent as a couple of decades prior, the infrastructure did not exist to create fully paved roads. That, and the existence of unexploded landmines left by the Khmer Rouge, some of which could very well still lie buried here.

Phnom Kulen National Park, a sacred pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, is perched on a mountain plateau, nestled amongst a dense tropical jungle. It’s approximately a two-hour drive northeast of Angkor Archaeological Park — the sandstone quarried from the foothills of Mount Kulen was used to build the temples of Angkor.

Cambodians believe the birthplace of the Angkor empire began here, when Jayavarman II founded the hilltop city of Mahendraparvata, the remains of which have disappeared beneath the surrounding vegetation.

Two young girls frolic on the bank of the Kbal Spean river

The sandstone riverbed of Kbal Spean, known as the River of a Thousand Lingas, runs through Mount Kulen. We stopped here because the site features 9th century carvings, most of them lingams (the stylized phallus symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva). These are typically placed upon a base that represents the lingham’s female counterpart, the yoni. I couldn’t help but think of the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup conundrum, “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” reimagining it as the naughty, “You put your lingam in my yoni!”

The mountain spring water that flows into the Spean River washes over the lingams, symbolically fertilizing them, as it tumbles downhill into the Siem Reap River, a tributary of the Mekong River, before flowing south toward Tonlé Sap lake.

A large reclining Buddha carved out of the rock fills the temple at Preah Ang Thom

Preah Ang Thom and the Reclining Buddha

Four mythical animals — the tiger, Garuda (the eagle-like Hindu deity), lion and dragon — represent the sacred qualities and attitudes that bodhisattvas develop on the path to enlightenment. These can be seen along the steps, with a snake-like naga balustrade that gently ambles uphill to the 16th century monastery of Preah Ang Thom. Beggars and children sit on the steps, looking for handouts, the mountain air heavy with the scent of incense.

At the top is an enormous sandstone boulder and a pagoda with a massive reclining Buddha attaining nirvana carved into it. Devout locals visit the pagoda to pray and leave merit offerings in hope of attaining luck and prosperity for the year to come.

Prepare to Get Wet Chasing Waterfalls

Be sure to bring a pair of sandals and wear a bathing suit if you are planning on visiting the waterfalls of Phnom Kulen. It’s a great place to cool off in the tropical heat. There's a large swing among the trees, adorned with flowers, where you can sit, enjoy the cooling mist and observe the majestic waterfalls if you aren't interested in venturing closer to them. Wally was more adventurous and followed our friends Steve, Dre and Fatima along the slippery rocks.

Souvenir and food stalls sell offerings — including preserved goat heads!

Within the park, there are assorted souvenir and food stalls. Some of them sell offerings, including herbs, incense, horns and curiously, preserved goat heads. I’m not sure what the auspicious nature of offering a goat’s head is, but my educated guess would be that like in other cultures, they are considered a symbol of fertility.

A parasite squirmed out of this walking leaf insect after it got run over by a moped

While exploring the complex, we encountered a small gathering of locals, one of whom was trying to kill a writhing, wiry parasite with the bottom of his wooden cane that had emerged from an walking leaf insect after being run over by a moped. We were all disturbed yet fascinated.

We had an amazing experience away from the tourist crowds of Angkor for an afternoon, catching a glimpse of the real everyday life of Cambodia. –Duke

Kompong Kleang: A Floating Village Like No Other

Visiting Angkor Wat? Be sure to book a tour of this unique town on Tonlé Sap lake. You can’t miss this water-based way of life.

The floating village of Kompong Kleang, outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia

What I remember most are the children.

They had eyes wide with sorrow, though some squinted in laughter as they followed us around.

In Kompong Khleang, if you want to go anywhere, you have to get into a boat. That sense of isolation must feel oppressive.

A little girl from the floating village in her school uniform

You’d think I’d mostly remember the village itself, its small houses built on stilts in the middle of the lake. And yes, it’s a village unlike any other. Even in Venice there are narrow lanes to walk along. In Kompong Khleang, if you want to go anywhere, you have to get into a boat. That sense of isolation must feel oppressive.

Perhaps that’s part of the sadness I saw reflected in the children’s eyes. Poverty is one thing. Not being able to leave your home to play whenever you want is another.

There are a few islands and makeshift transport vehicles as part of the village

There’s a sadness in many of the children’s eyes

Whatever Floats Your Boat

Apparently there are a few so-called floating villages you can visit as an easy day trip from Siem Reap, Cambodia, the base for Angkor Wat exploration. We left ourselves in the very capable hands of our guide, a tall, thin, kind man named Kimsan, who took us to Kompong Khleang.

I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to build a village in the middle of Tonlé Sap (which means Great Lake), the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It’s fed by the Mekong River, which causes it to grow and shrink with the seasons. There can be a difference in depth throughout the year that varies from 10 to 30 feet! When we visited, the houses were a bit over water level; other times of the year, they stand much higher above the lake on their wooden stilts.

We drove to Kompong Khleang one morning, about a two-hour ride. I could probably explore the crumbling structures of Angkor Wat every day of my life, but this is a nice way to break up a week of temple treks.

As we neared the boat launch where we’d get into a vessel to float through town, the paved road ended. The truck slowed to a crawl. Every pothole and divot sent the passengers sailing upward into the ceiling.

“We call these dancing roads,” Kimsan told us.

Cambodians are quick to smile — admirable and inspiring, given all they’ve been through in recent years

That positive spin is typical of the Cambodian outlook on life. By all rights, they should be a demoralized nation, painfully recovering from the genocide their ruthless leader Pol Pot carried out on his own people. Everywhere you go, you’ll pass beggars who are missing limbs, most of which were blown off by the landmines that once dotted the landscape in frighteningly high numbers.

Despite the unfathomable psychic and physical battering they’ve suffered, Cambodians are some of the friendliest people you will meet. They’re quick with a smile. They’re thankful they have survived, and they’re eager to move on to better things.

Before the paved road, when the journey took place along dancing roads, heading to Kompong Khleang took hours longer and could consume an entire day.

Now you can pay a visit to observe this one-of-a-kind way of life — and be back wandering a temple in the jungle that afternoon.

One of the tourboats you’ll ride in to explore the floating village

We all piled into a tourboat and began cruising through the village. It’s home to about 6,000 people, which means it’s surprisingly large. The boat traveled along a few “lanes” lined with small homes built on stilts. Farther along, we saw some houses that actually did float, houseboats of a sort, and these relocate when the water drops, creating a mobile village out in the middle of Tonlé Sap.

The main temple of Kompong Khleang

Kids will follow you as you tour the islands, racing to the water’s edge to wish you a farewell

The telltale bright orange saffron-dyed robes of Buddhist monks is always a pleasant sight

Three boys greet us on the grounds of the Buddhist monastary 

We stopped at a couple of islands, which were home to a Buddhist temple, with quiet male monks milling about in their saffron robes beneath the rainbow hues of fluttering prayer flags. On another, we visited a school, stopping into the bare-bones classroom — hardly any books, pieces of paper or writing utensils could be seen. The children were lined up in rows, sitting closely together, all dressed in their adorable blue and white uniforms.

Monks teach classes at the local school in Kompong Khleang

A classroom we toured — but where are all the books and paper?

Schoolboys on a break from classes

Most of the kids wore a school uniform but no shoes

The Fake Floating Villages

We lucked out by having such an awesome tour guide for the week. Kimsan took us to Kompong Khleang without any sort of discussion. Since our trip, I’ve learned about two other floating villages that are closer to Siem Reap, one of which is a total scam and one of which sounds OK but is a bit of a ripoff: Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk.

“Chong Kneas features absurdities such as small kids sporting huge water snakes and so-called crocodiles farms which in reality are small ponds where dozens of crocodiles are crammed together,” writes Triple A Adventures Cambodia, a tour company. “At some point, your boat will probably also stop by a ‘local shop’ where it’ll be ‘strongly suggested’ that you buy $60 rice bags ‘for the children.’

“Last but not least, the locals do not get much from the money you’ll spend as the boat service, which is what you’re paying an entrance fee for ($30/person), is managed by a private company,” they continue. “As most visitors there come from Korea, the aforementioned company kindly built floating ‘local’ restaurants that serve Korean food in case their main customers miss it.”

And here’s Triple A Adventures’ review of the other village, Kompong Phluk: “You won’t see any croco farms or children with snakes there, and the boat journey is actually quite scenic and enjoyable. Despite the growing flow of tourists (you’ll understand what we mean when you see the dozens of boats at the dock), Kompong Phluk has kept a lot of its authenticity and its visit is overall a nice experience.

“Kompong Phluk is a small village, so the boat ride is consequently quite short. Some find it too short compared to the $20 entry fee per person. Moreover, the boat service is managed by a private company, which means that the locals don’t really see much of the money generated from tourism.

Overall, Kompong Phluk is still a good option if you only have a few hours to spend.”


Getting into a boat every time you want to go anywhere is the way of life in Kompong Khleang

This fiesty little firecracker was our favorite villager. She was so full of life and followed us all over the island

In Kompong Khleang, sometimes the market comes to you

Wally likes to joke that this is the town hottie

Lake Town

No trip to Angkor Wat is complete without a daytrip to a floating village, and it seems as if there’s no reason to go anywhere but Kompong Khleang. As you head through the canals, you’ll literally be able to see inside these people’s lives, catching glimpses into their humble homes, many of which are open and exposed. You’ll see narrow canoe-like boats piloted by children who can’t be much older than 6.

We hope you enjoyed your tour of Kompong Khleang!

It’s quite an adventure — one that will open your mind, put things in perspective. You’ll develop a newfound appreciation for all the conveniences you have in your life. That’s one of the most profound things travel can do. –Wally

Despite the unfathomable psychic and physical battering they’ve suffered, Cambodians are some of the friendliest people you will meet.