If you thought Siem Reap and its environs were all about the temples, think again. Mechrey village is a floating community located on the margins of Tonle Sap, nine kilometres west of Siem Reap, where the houses, schools and even shops all sit bobbing on the water — though not in the dry season — as locals paddle around in traditional wooden boats.
Mechrey is one of many floating or stilted subsistence fishing villages on the great Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Seeing a village is a good antidote to when you’re feeling templed-out and ideal for those more interested in contemporary local life than ancient history. The Tonle Sap is home to a unique way of living thanks to a natural phenomenon that sees the lake swell in size up to sixfold. To cope with such dramatic seasonal variation in water levels, the settlements here have adapted to cope with the ebb and flow by building their properties on floating bamboo rafts or high up on stilts.
Mechrey is vastly overshadowed by the more famous and frequented floating village of Chong Kneas – but it resolutely knocks it out of the water. Unless mass tourism is your thing — and why would it be? — there’s really no need to visit overrated Chong Kneas, which we’ve already described elsewhere as a dump.
That’s not to say Mechrey is a scenic secret. No, no. And as a small village it doesn’t take much time at all to soak up lake life here, including a stop off at the only non-floating building, a local pagoda built on a small island. While my experience was trouble-free, staying in a boat rather than stepping out into shops and houses, some report that tours will try taking you to visit a school or orphanage and insist you make expensive donations. Before parting with your cash or interrupting a class full of kids it’s worth thinking twice about where that donation really goes and what constitutes tourism rather than voyeurism.
However, as the relatively newer addition to the Tonle Tap tourist scene, while you should still expect to see other holiday-makers, you do at least come away thinking the Tonle Sap is more abundant in fish than sardines of the tourist variety. You don’t (yet) feel like your boat is being tailed by a long chugging chain of tour groups, there are plenty of fascinating photographic opportunities and the Tonle Sap is an important part of the Cambodian landscape, a UNESCO biosphere reserve no less, and source of national pride. So, if you have a short trip to Siem Reap, a visit to the lake is well worth it and Mechrey village a good contender. The best time to visit it is July-August until February, as the lake water levels peak in October.
Your other alternatives are the stilted villages of Kompong Phluk, these days busy but home to attractive and atmospheric flooded forest, and Kompong Khleang, the best option if you have the time as it’s the furthest away from Siem Reap so consequently least frequented — though more expensive to get to. These are both stilted as opposed to floating.
Another option that will avoid all crowds, but take more time and effort, is to start at Mechrey and cruise deeper onto the lake to reach Prek Toal floating village, six kilometres out onto the lake. The cruise is relaxing and Prek Toal is also home to a stunning bird reserve with wonderful wildlife spotting opportunities and community-based tourism initiatives. This is the eco-tourism option. Or a good half-day tour would be to head just to Mechrey and stop off at the Artisans D’Angkor silk farm, located en route, which is a fun way to while away half an hour or so.
By Caroline Major
Last updated on 2nd October, 2014.