What can one say about Chong Kneas, if one really had to be polite about it. It’s a sort of port and long canal about 12 kilometres from Siem Reap, flanked by scrubby green-brown banks to the west side of which you can see the edges of part of the floating forest that makes the Tonle Sap Lake such a richly abundant source of food. Along the top of the east bank, depending on the time of year and the level of the lake, can be found the homes and businesses of local families in wooden lean-tos and shacks of various soundness.
The canal is overlooked by the hill of Phnom Krom to the north on which sits an Angkorian temple dedicated by King Yasovarman around about 900BC. Dozens of boats line the canal, some hoisted up on dry docks, some clearly past their float-by date, some yet to make their first voyage, but most clustered towards the port at the top, jostling for the attention of the company that now has control of Chong Kneas and doles out the rights to transport tourists. The boats are long and narrow and don’t have keels – the lake and canal levels drop very low during the hot season before the Mekong River, swollen with rain and melting waters from the Himalayas, forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse its flow in October, flooding the dried out plains surrounding the Great Lake.
As you motor down the canal from Chong Kneas towards the lake in one of those long, narrow boats, feeling vaguely unstable as you go, you’ll pass alongside fishermen standing up to their knees in the thick muddy brown water, throwing out their nets, while nearby children splash and play. You suddenly realise as you watch their splashes throw up long arcs of glistening light that the water has a distinctly unhealthy smell.
As you pass a floating school, smaller boats start pulling up alongside yours. Inside is a woman with one or two young children who are sporting water snakes. They hold the snake up towards you as mother (perhaps) extends her hand for money. “One dollar?” they say. And thus it begins.
Chong Kneas is a dump. The canal is filthy, the begging is pretty intense, and a very recent phenomenon – one that grew as the number of tourists grew. It certainly wasn’t the norm even three years ago, when children would more likely try to sell you a Sprite than beg from you outright. Whichever, they should be in school not out begging under a hot afternoon sun. Begging is easier though and generates more returns for their parents in the immediate term. The long terms costs are almost literally crippling however.
The floating village at the mouth of the canal does offer a fascinating insight into a way of life that is almost impossible for us to imagine. It is hard to make comparisons, but Kampong Phluk may be a more attractive option for a day trip.
Most operators will then bring you to one of the schools that some of the children attend – not the ones in boats that so many give their dollars to, thus ensuring they’ll never be sent. I’ve only spoken to a few people about this, but it would appear that a huge amount of pressure will be put on you to buy materials for the children to help them study, which seems like a rather wonderful idea. Don’t do it. There is no guarantee that they won’t be sold back and endlessly recycled, and the prices charged are at something of a premium, to the benefit of anyone but the children.
There are ways of seeing Chong Kneas that are less tawdry. Don’t try and go down there on your own, as you’ll almost certainly be ripped off by the port authority, which is a private company that has a complete monopoly on the control of the boats.
Tara Boat offers daily tours at $27 for a half-day trip (or $33 for a sunset trip). This includes food and drink on the Tara Boat, unlimited on the sunset tour hence the higher price. Beyond Unique Escapes also offer tours that seem to be well managed and popular with guests for $20.
But if you are thinking of a trip to the lake, then there are other options that may be more pleasant and interesting for you, and less damaging locally. Mechrey (which I have not visited yet, but have heard the most wonderful things about) is emerging as an important ecotourism site.
Prek Toal village is on the edges of a conservation sanctuary and visits can be arranged through Sam Veasna Centre or Osmose, two NGOs that work on the one hand to protect the water birds whose populations had been decimated by poaching (Sam Veasna Centre) and on the other to support the local community (Osmose).
Kampong Phluk is also more attractive than Chong Kneas and very popular with visitors – even among those who have been there several times, though they’ve started charging a fee for ‘conservation’, though I’m unaware of any actual conservation projects that are run in that area. Caveat Emptor, as they say in Rome.