Tonle Sap Lake is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. Its dimensions change, depending on the monsoon and the dry season. As a rich biosphere reserve recognized by UNESCO, its vast wettlands are home to more than 300 species of fresh water fishes, turtles, crocodiles, snakes, and other similar reptiles, as well as more than 100 different birds.
The lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with Tonle Sap biological diversity, floating villages were established along the edges of the lake, that made fishing their main source of living. A few of them are easy to access from Siem Reap.
With only two nights to spend in the city, our time was very limited. From some earlier research, it looked like there were three floating villages which you can explore on a half day trip from Siem Reap, and Chong Khneas was the least favorable according to Trip Advisor reviews. However we ended up going there and I wanted to share few tips you might find useful. The receptionist at our boutique hotel- Pavilion d' Orient, advised us, due to time constraints, to visit the closest floating village, located just 15 km outside of Siem Reap. Furthermore, he explained that at present it was Cambodia's dry season, and the lake water level is quite low, which is another factor to consider when choosing which village to visit.
However, I have to say that our tuk-tuk driver and our guide from the private company, that managed access to the lake, completely transformed our experience! Late afternoon (4:30 pm-ish), we were picked up from the hotel and within 30 minutes we were at the Tonle Sap Lake ticket entrance. Our tuk-Tuk driver introduced us to our guide, who showed us where to pay the entrance fee. For $20 per person, we got a private boat, English- speaking guide and a boat driver. While waiting to go on board, throngs of Chinese tourists also embarked their boats - 20 people per boat.
Tip: If possible, get a tuk-tuk driver who works for/with your hotel. Our driver was included in the hotel rate and he connected us to a tour guide. It cost us a total of $40 cash only for us as a couple to get a private boat & guide, which is much less than the rates quoted in most TripAdvisor reviews.
On our way to the village, a drive which took roughly 20 min, our young guide who spoke some decent English shared with us stories about the life on the lake. The village itself was small, comprised of about dozen wooden houses floating over the lake. The first stop was the "local shop" where we were suggested to buy $50 bag of rice for the local children. After we politely refused the $50 bag, but donated for a $10 bag, we were taken to the local school. We had a chance to play with the children and say "Hi" to their teacher. It was a humbling experience to see that despite the poverty, children can still have a lot of fun. We choose not to stop to the crocodile farm and the tourist restaurant where the rest of the tourist boats were docked. Instead, we sailed back and enjoyed the sunset over Tonle Sap lake.
Travel Tip: Choose to visit Chong Kneas floating village if you have limited time (the entire tour was done in about 3 hours).
Travel Tip: Go during the week VS. the weekend
Travel Tip: Request a private boat - it will transform your experience
Travel Tip: Bring cash $ for the entrance fee & tips for the guide & boat driver
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Where to stay in Balí?
The majority of accommodations (ranging from hostels to 5-star resorts) are concentrated in the southern part of the island, in a near proximity to the Airport. Southwest of the airport, Kuta is popular among backpackers, Seminyak & Jimbaran Bay areas are known for its world-class resorts, brand-name shopping, and upscale dining. On the southeast side of the island, the town of Sanur, is a low key vacation spot, known for its relaxed vibe, art and local crafts scene. Settled by the Dutch in the early 1900s, Sanur draws a lot of European travelers seeking a quiet and relaxing getaway. South of Sanur, Nusa Dua area is another alternative for discerning travelers with beautiful long sandy beaches. If you scuba dive, there are dive resorts situated on the East Coast, where you can find the most worthy dive sites. Lastly, Balí is world known for its natural healers and luxury yoga retreats (check out Floating Leaf, eco-luxury retreat), with their main concentration in the cultural center of Balí, the town of Ubud.
Travel Tip: To optimize your experience, stay in two different parts of the island like Ubud ( to immerse in the local culture) and Nusa Dua (beach vacation).
Travel Tip: Although Seminyak offers a wide choice of upscale hotels, If you expect to bask on the beach and swim, staying in Seminyak might not be the right choice. The beach tends to be dirty and the water unswimmable.
What to See in Bali
With its diverse landscape of hills and mountains, dramatic coastlines and sandy beaches, paired with a rich cultural heritage and archaeological sites, Bali can satisfy a wide range of travel tastes
Travel Tip: To optimize your stay, arrange most of your activities ahead of time.
My husband and I found that a great introduction to the Balinese culture was seeing a traditional Balinese dance show on the first day of our arrival.
This spring, my husband and I decided to make use of the low season in Southeast Asia and to scratch-off another cultural treasure from our travel list: a visit to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, another superlative UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Situated in Cambodia's northern province, Angkor Wat is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, this religious complex houses magnificent remains from different capitals of the Khmer Empire from 8th to 13th centuries. You will find more details and helpful tips on Angkor in my next article.
From Bangkok, Thailand, we flew to Siem Reap, which is the local city and typical jumping-off point for visit to the Angkor complex. ...There are regular morning, non-stop flights from DMK Bangkok airport (the budget airlines airport -- and it's less than a 1-hr. flight from Bangkok). In our case, we arrived at 11:00 am. The airport is only a few years old, very modern. Given the fact that was Monday, going through the customs was quick.
Travel Tip: There is a Visa on Arrival requirements for US Citizens $30, cash only (ATM available). Bring your own passport pictures, but in the event you forget, it's just a $2 extra charge for pictures to be taken.
Our hotel, Pavillion d'Orient, had arranged for driver who was waiting for us at the arrival gate and made our transfer quick and seamless.
Travel Tip: A hotel transfer arranged ahead of time, especially in Siem Reap is important. ...The main reason travelers visit Siem Reap is to see Angkor Wat, and the locals have, shall we say, "tuned-in" to the popular demand from tourists (in fact, sometimes you can hear the term "scam-bodia" jokingly applied).
The Pavillion d'Orient Boutique Hotel was recommended to me, so I had a vague idea of what to expect, but our stay very much exceeded any expectations. There are many choices in terms of luxury and/or Western-ized accommodations in Siem Reap, but what elevated this one among the others are the people who work there. Pavillion delivered 5-star personal service at 4-star rates, so just an outstanding value. Designed in a French Colonial Style, the hotel is located slightly outside of the city center, but just 5 min. away from the Angkor ticket center. We later learned that is a family-run property with a French owner. We were welcomed by the hotel manager with a refreshing towel and delicious, home-made, lemongrass tea cocktail. A book of Ancient Angkor was handed to us to use during our stay (we ended up purchasing one!). Our reservation included breakfast and a private tuk-tuk driver for our entire stay.
Travel Tip: If possible, reserve the same tuk-tuk driver for your entire stay, if he is good and speak English, it's a great value to support the local economy, and he/she can be your go to local source!
The hotel grounds were well-manicured, quiet, with lush exotic trees and infused with aromatic sense of jasmine flowers. Our room was spacious, with artfully-designed, locally-sourced furniture & artwork, and a balcony overlooking the infinity-design style pool (see video). A fresh fruit basket welcomed us and was replenished daily. Every night the hotel staff left us a paper note on the door -- it was a local Cambodian tale, meant to be read before going to sleep. On our last night besides the note we found a pair of a hand-made Cambodian tablecloths to take home.
Due to the low season, there were just few other parties, and my husband and I had the entire infinity pool for ourselves. The French-style a la carte breakfast was delicious and featured freshly made smoothies. Lastly, our tuk-tuk driver really made a difference in our stay! He was the one who drove us to the Tonle Sap lake, which was about a 30 min. drive each way (complimentary), arranged us a private boat tour on the lake, and took us to Siem Reap downtown for ATM's and refreshments. He spent the entire day with us at Angkor Wat complex, drove us between the temples and kept a cooler full of ice cold water.
Siem Reap is a fast-growing city, and the economy largely contributes to interest in the Angkor Wat archaeological complex. The downtown had a quite different feel compared to Bangkok downtown. Yes, it was busy, but the traffic wasn't as hectic, and somehow felt more exotic and adventurous. The scooters and tuk-tuks are the most popular way of transportation. The "downtown" is pedestrian friendly and has a wide mix of trendy, Western-style restaurants and locally run establishments. This is the place to bargain for local souvenirs and textiles that can accommodate every budget -- you can find flea markets next to boutique artisan stores.
Travel Tip: US dollar is widely accepted in Cambodia, at some places is preferred.
Lastly, you can reward your feet after a long day at Angkor Wat with a traditional Cambodian Massage for only $3 or, if you feel more adventurous you might choose a Fish Massage :)
In my next article, follow me for an excursion to Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and the local people living on one of its "floating villages"!
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