The lifeblood of Cambodia’s civilisation, the Tonle Sap river reaches from the ancient spires of Angkor to the buzzing capital of Phnom Penh. Join Discover on a four-night luxury cruise that takes in enchanting bird sanctuaries, floating villages and the local life of Cambodia’s traditional artisans
Words by Paul Millar
Even as the blue clouds hang heavy over grey water, the sunken forests of Prek Toal bird sanctuary are heaving with life. Numb to the early morning rain, slick black darters dry their wings on trees charred white by old fires. A lone Brahminy kite glides across the lake’s stark expanse, scanning the depths for silent fish. The shriek and clamour of countless sea birds echoes across the still water to our skiff. The engine murmurs to a halt, and we wait. Before us, an enormous mangrove shudders beneath the weight of a thousand wings.
It’s the first morning of our four-night river cruise down the Tonle Sap river with Aqua Mekong, the Cambodian arm of luxury cruise service Aqua Expeditions. Running a seven-night journey between Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia’s temple city of Siem Reap, Aqua Mekong offers travellers all the comfort of a five-star hotel while providing a journey to the most intimate scenes of Cambodian life lived on the lake’s long shore.
Revered as the beating heart of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap lake has been the driving force behind the Kingdom’s rise, fall and rebirth for more than 2,000 years. Meeting with the mighty Mekong on the banks of Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap swells up to eight times its regular size during the Kingdom’s rainy season as melting snow from the Himalayas floods the Mekong and pushes the waters of the Tonle Sap river upstream into the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It is along this route, from the ancient ruins of Angkor to the thriving capital of Phnom Penh, that we have come to witness a side of Cambodia too often overlooked.
Onboard the ship, life takes on a different tone. From the deck-side infinity pool to the expansive spa facilities, the cruise offers an almost unbelievable level of luxury and attention to detail. All the meals have been painstakingly curated by famed chef David Thompson, blending local cuisine with more imaginative twists on the region’s classics. It is difficult to overstate the charm and hospitality of the ship’s 30-strong staff cohort.
After lunch, we take to the skiff once more and jet off to the floating village of Moat Khla, or the Tiger’s Mouth. A far cry from the tourist traps of Chong Kneas peddling crocodile leather handbags to the tour-bus hordes, Moat Khla offers an almost untainted glimpse of the daily lives of the river nomads who call the freshwater lake their home. As we near the twisted tree trunks that ring the floating village, the boat slows. Before us stretches a tangle of green foliage floating thick on the grey water. Gunning the engine, we tear a slow path through the weed, which our guide explains is water hyacinth. An invasive species that leaches oxygen from the water and starves the native flora of sunlight, the plant has been kept – barely – at bay by a thin rope tracing a knotted boundary around the floating huts of the village.
Beyond it, the houses and shopfronts of Moat Khla bob low in the water, painted eaves peeling blue paint beneath the afternoon sun. In the winding avenues between vibrant homes strapped to empty petrol tanks, wooden boats cut through the frothing water, painted eyes peering from the bow. Squatting at the stern, their pilots shift their weight and thread their vessels effortlessly between the bloated rainbow barges bearing their wares from door to floating door.
After a Buddhist blessing ceremony at the makeshift pagoda that houses the village’s ageing monks, we slip into sleek grey kayaks and thread our way between the houses for an up-close glimpse of lives lived almost entirely on the water. As the sun sinks deep below the depths of the Tonle Sap, we paddle back toward the ship and watch the lake turn to gold beneath our oars.
That evening, we sit and listen to our local guides explain the vast ecosystem of the Mekong, now in danger of being strangled by enormous dams strung along the river’s length like links on a chain. The following night’s subject is history: an unflinching account of Cambodia’s turbulent journey through the 20th century.
As we leave the lake behind us and make our way downriver, we stop by the shores of Kampong Chhnang to watch the province’s famed silversmiths at work. Before our eyes, a woman prepares to plate a brass bowl: smoothing the silver nitrate-laced water across the rim with gentle hands, her fingers trace gleaming designs along the burnished metal. Behind her, a young woman taps scenes of the ancient Ramayana epic poem into the shining metal with the flat of her hammer. Strung along the red dirt road, the silver merchants showcase their shimmering creations with proud smiles – pomegranates, flowers, dragons, all wrought from the mirrored metal.
From there, a short walk past the local pagoda and a quick tuk tuk jaunt takes us to the Vipassana Dhura meditation centre that lies resplendent in the shadow of the old mountain capital of Oudong. As the bell tolls for the noonday meal, hundreds of nuns swathed in white robes carry trays of steaming rice into the halls of the pagoda. Behind the main hall, row upon row of ramshackle huts form the living quarters for almost 500 women dedicating their twilight years in service to the teachings of the Buddha – and the handful of monks who use the vast grounds as a refuge from the modern-day chaos of Cambodian life.
Funded through the philanthropy of the wife of a local tycoon, the estate is dotted with ornate sculptures dedicated to the life, enlightenment and death of the man whose words continue to resound across Southeast Asia: in the shadow of a banyan tree, a newborn Prince Gautama strides from his mother’s womb across the baking earth, lotus flowers blooming in his footsteps. At the centre of a reflective pool, the goddess of the earth wrings a river from her long hair, washing away the armies of the demon Mara. We find a rarer treasure housed within the walls of the centre: in the hush of the afternoon, we are led to an upper room to pray before the ashes of the Buddha.
By the time the Aqua Mekong draws near to the golden splendour of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, the drowned jungles of Prek Toal and the floating towns of the Tonle Sap seem a distant memory indeed. But as the river shimmers in the early morning light, the gleaming thread that connects the shores of Angkor to the spires of the capital pulses like a beating heart.