At the dock of a floating souvenir store in the middle of Tonlé Sap lake, a fragile woman paddled to our boat. Her child – or her grandchild, it was impossible to tell – clung to the side of the boat. The girl’s head was shaved, save for two lonely ponytails, one on the side of her head and the other on top. She wore a live snake around her neck like a scarf and pushed the snake’s head towards me.
On the other side of our boat, a young boy floated on the water in a tin tub barely larger than himself. He steered himself to the dock with a wooden stick for an oar.
Chong Kneas is the closest floating village to Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is often considered the second most popular tourist attraction besides Angkor Wat, but it didn’t take long for us to realise the whole thing was a scam. Every part of the journey, from the boat ride and the beggars at the floating souvenir store to the “orphanage visit”, was merely a ploy to extract from us more dollars.
The potholed dirt road between Siem Reap and Chong Kneas reveals a Cambodian poverty the sanitised tourist precinct of Siem Reap hides. Stilted wooden houses tilt haphazardly, front gardens are strewn with rubbish, and shop fronts boast a destitute display of products.
Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at a tourist dock, where boat ticket operators tried to charge us US$20 each for a short tour of the floating village and Tonlé Sap. We enlisted the help of our driver to bargain the price down to $15 each, but still felt unhappy with the inflated price as we were led to our boat.
A photographer snapped our portraits on the way, perhaps for documentation, we thought. Perhaps our boat was so old and unreliable its chances of staying afloat were slim. Alas, it was a solid-looking (for Asia) ten-seat covered long boat for just four of us.
We cruised down a chocolaty river lined with colourful boathouses. People napped in hammocks on the front decks of their houses or watched us disinterestedly. Mothers washed naked their children in the water. Local fishing boats passed laden with tangled fishing nets or farm produce. Many buildings, including the school and church, were decorated with Vietnamese script and our guide told us that most of the inhabitants at Chong Kneas were Vietnamese.
The river swelled out into the expansive Tonlé Sap Lake, central to Cambodia’s industry as both providing an abundance of food and a way of transport across the country for many people. Just a few isolated restaurants and stores bobbed on its surface.
The floating souvenir store wasn’t much of a shop. It offered simple tacky souvenirs and boasted a pen holding a poor neglected crocodile. But we could at least admire the extent of the lake from a rooftop viewing platform.
And then came the crux of the Chong Kneas scam. We were told we would go to an orphanage (which turned out, I believe, to be a school), but were stopped at a grocery store, to purchase a “gift”.
The store held pencils, notebooks, cans of sardines, and large and small sacks of rice for $55 or $30 respectively. We were successfully guilt-tripped into buying something, but thinking it was most likely a scam, we split the costs of a simple $12 package of salt, soy sauce, garlic and rice.
The “orphanage” (read “school”) was a bizarre affair. Children were lined up in four rows at the front of the class and gave a brief drumming demonstration. Afterwards they stared into space, looking tired of the same old routine. We offered our gift, which was most likely lumped with the other purchases made from duped tourists that day, before returning to our boat.
A later Google search revealed that the lake tours here are monopolised, in typical Cambodian fashion, by a foreign company (this time by South Korean Sou Ching Investments). Articles in the Phnom Penh Post suggest that the relationship between the company and the villagers is taut with tension. It is most probably that tourist “donations” are sold back to the grocery store for a profit, but given the numbers of beggers, it seems the money isn’t getting to the people.
As a tourist, trips like this are discouraging. But I didn’t count it as a complete waste of time. Cambodia had finally shown me something beyond the glitzy bars and restaurants and stylish night markets of Siem Reap. I had seen the poverty, the desperation that must lurk beneath the scenes in Asia’s second poorest country.
As we disembarked from the boat, women approached shoving ceramic plates into our faces. We found ourselves looking at our own images printed onto cheap stickers, and tacked onto the plates. We wondered how many unwanted stickers were covered beneath our own. But on the women’s part, it was a wonderful attempt at making one last dime from us before we returned to Siem Reap.
Learn more about Cambodia
Cambodia is full of the potential to create lots of wonderful travel memories – from these rather amusing scams to inspiring NGO efforts and and much more. Read up on more of my own personal Cambodian adventures today.