Jan/Feb 2024  •   Travel

On Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia

by Gina Elia

Rock art by Tim Christensen

Rock art by Tim Christensen

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I was already dreaming about Tonlé Sap Lake, closer to our next destination in Siem Riep. For now, I had to settle for a booze cruise up and down Phnom Penh's central river, where it turned out the $15 we paid for a full bar meant only cheap, warm beer, soft drinks, and water.

A tour guide spent most of the cruise proclaiming facts about the river system around Phnom Penh, but our group couldn't shake the expectations we had come with of a relaxing booze cruise. The one American man on the trip, who was sitting across from me, muttered, "Nobody told us this cruise was going to be educational!" Our group chattered and giggled to each other under our breaths throughout the guide's rigamarole. The other two Americans were even getting up and taking photos.

I could understand our group's refusal to sit quietly and still. Earlier that day, we had visited the Killing Fields and Office Number 21, where we learned about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The events that had happened in those places were horrific. Words alone, though necessary to name them, couldn't capture their atrocity. I think we all needed a break from history that night.

We passed a bridge under construction. It was mostly built, but there was a gap in the middle where the two halves, still enveloped in construction scaffolding, had yet to be joined together. It wasn't intended to be one of the main sights on the cruise, but the young Australian woman in our group pointed to it and cried out, "Why does it look like that? That's so weird!" She meant the fact that the two ends of the bridge were suspended in mid-air, without any vertical support underneath holding them up. Everybody else on the tour gave her the side-eye. She was a little drunk and perhaps a little stoned, both of which had been her norm throughout the trip. While a young Englishwoman tried to explain to her how construction scaffolding works, the American man muttered, "It's not weird at all. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that's how a bridge is built." He said it with a rhythm I can still hear clearly, placing emphasis on every other word in the last sentence, specifically "how," "bridge," and "built," stumbling without realizing it into the iambic trimeter of the Ancient Greeks. It sounded beautiful. If only the Australian woman had heard it, but she was probably too drunk to appreciate it.


Pol Pot was not the dictator's real name, but rather a nickname he invented for himself, short for "Political Potential." He had been born Saloth Sâr in 1925. While working as a teacher of French and History, he became involved with and eventually rose to leadership in Cambodia's Marxist-Leninist movement, which he formalized into the Communist Party of Kampuchea. His party was part of the resistance movement against the US-backed government of Lon Nol, which fell to Pol Pot's forces in 1975. His soldiers were popularly known as the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot had dreams of restoring Cambodia to its former glory in ancient times, when the Khmer Empire, led by present-day Cambodia's majority Khmer ethnic group, had been the strongest kingdom in Southeast Asia. It had stretched over not only Cambodia's current territory but also large swaths of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The temples of the Angkor Wat complex are one of the few remaining vestiges of that prosperous time. Pol Pot's vision for restoring Cambodia to its former stature was inspired by his readings in Marx. The country would once again become an agrarian empire.

The Khmer Rouge renamed their first year in power "year zero," expressing their confidence their ascension meant a new beginning for the country. In genocide survivor Loung Ung's book, First They Killed My Father, she describes how people in Phnom Penh, where she lived as a five-year-old girl, cheered the victorious Khmer Rouge as they rode into the city in lines of tanks, dressed in their characteristic loose black uniform, red-and-white checkered scarf, and sandals. Then, they gathered the people together and forced them to leave their homes, telling them they could return in three days. People who refused were shot. The rest were forced to live together in communes, where they farmed all day and were fed little more than a few spoonfuls of rice gruel. Ung narrates how when Angkar, the government the Khmer Rouge forced all Cambodians to follow, restricted food rations, she and everyone else labored all day under Cambodia's hot sun for no food at all.

One of the truest lines I have ever read is Oscar Wilde's observation in his poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol'' that "Each man kills the thing he loves." So it was in Cambodia. Supposedly out of love for Cambodia, Pol Pot's party weeded out the educated and elite members of the population who got in the way of its leader's agrarian dream. The Khmer Rouge asked educated people to identify themselves, promising them good jobs under the new government. Believing their words, educated members of the population stepped forward. Soldiers also rounded up members of the population whom they assumed were educated based on the smallest of signs: soft hands, which meant that they hadn't engaged in hard labor, or eyeglasses, which meant that they spent a lot of time reading, or the speaking of foreign languages, which implied much learning.The Khmer Rouge brought these people to buildings they called "re-education centers," which were actually prisons. The biggest one, Office 21, where our tour group went on that muggy day in June, had originally been a school. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, former classrooms were turned into prison cells, where VIP and common prisoners alike were tortured until they confessed to crimes they hadn't committed. A gallows was constructed in the courtyard where children had played games back when the building was a school. It was used to hang prisoners until they were nearly dead, to jolt them awake after they had passed out from all the torture.

Once a prisoner had confessed to something, the soldiers asked for names of relatives, friends, and neighbors, then went out, found those who had been named, and brought them to the prisons. After prisoners had given the soldiers the information they wanted, they were taken in groups of 20 or 30 to killing fields, although they were not told this was where they were going. The largest killing field, Choeung Ek, where over one million people were murdered, is open for visiting to tourists today.

The soldiers needed to save on ammunition, which was expensive, so they killed their prisoners by bashing their bodies with hammers, sharpened bamboo sticks, bayonets, hoes, scythes, machetes, axes, and knives. Then, they shoved their victims into mass graves, which the people were sometimes made to dig themselves. Due to the crude manner of killing, some prisoners were buried alive. Soldiers killed babies as their mothers watched, smashing them with all their force against a giant banyan tree. They then killed the mothers. There is a special mass grave just for the babies. If a man had his whole family with them, the soldiers killed every last member in front of him before ending his misery. The rationale for killing entire families was to prevent them seeking revenge for the deaths of their husbands and fathers.

The soldiers were themselves mostly children. They were identified by their shoes; everyone else was barefoot. They were told if they betrayed Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, they would forfeit their lives. When an unfortunate young soldier was suspected of betrayal, he would be decapitated, and his head paraded before all of the other soldiers as a warning of what would happen if they dared to question, challenge, or defy. There is a mass grave just for these heads, too.

In 1979, Vietnamese troops entered the country and easily toppled the Khmer Rouge, whose soldiers after all were mostly children with little more than knives, sticks, and stones. I get a lot of pleasure imagining the Vietnamese troops marching into Phnom Penh in neat, disciplined lines and ousting the Khmer Rouge empire with their pinky fingers.

Then my mood sours when I remember that the US supported Pol Pot, who fled into the jungle with other high-ranking officers of the Khmer Rouge and stayed there until his death of natural causes in the 1990s. I can only imagine this was because, in the years immediately following the Vietnam War, we were never going to support any action that portrayed the Vietnamese in a positive light. So we swapped out one dictatorial Communist leader for another, and one who had orchestrated a genocide of his own people, at that.

In the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, they decimated the Cambodian population. Today, the whole country only has about 15 million people, smaller than the populations of California, Texas, Florida, or New York. One third of the population is under 15 years old.

When I looked up the rural village Loung Ung and her family had been forced to relocate to, I saw it lay in a province bordering on Tonlé Sap Lake, a huge body of water in the Western half of the country that occupies territory in five separate provinces. It's well-known among birdwatchers. It was a strange conflation of imaginations, to envision the lake of my fantasies, filled with cool birds, existing as much then, in the middle of a homegrown terror, as it does now, in the midst of recovery, resilience, and healing. When on Tonle Sap Lake, you don't think of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, or the genocide. You think rather of what you see—the birds soaring, the plants swaying, the water spreading out for miles around you, lapping up against the sides of the boat, glittering in the sun. The lake, then and now, reminds of Cambodia's identity apart from what Pol Pot did to it; the land and the people who work it in all the glory of what they are now, not as victims living in the shadow of the past.


A few days after the day in Phnom Penh when we learned about the Cambodian Genocide and experienced the unmemorable drinking cruise, we found ourselves with a free afternoon in Siem Riep, a cute, walkable resort town swarming with expats and narrow streets of bars and restaurants. I had read in my guidebook about a fantastic area for bird-watching outside of the central town. It was a small plot of conservation land called the Poeraing Biodiversity Conservation Center, located on Tonlé Sap Lake.

I am not a pro birder, keeping a lifelong list of the species she has spotted. I don't get up early to go birdwatching, and I own no special equipment. I love birds, though. My first word on this planet was not "mama" or "dada" but "birdie," which my mother told me I proclaimed during one of the times when, as a toddler, I would sit on her lap and we would watch the birds who came to the bird feeders she had set up in the backyard. I went to Cornell University for undergrad, which happens to be home to one of the foremost centers of ornithology in the country. In fact, I took a bird-watching class through the center while I was there. Now that I'm an adult, I have my own pet cockatiel named Klink. I love all birds from the rarest finch down to the common American Robin. Their quick, flitting movements and their songs and calls captivate me. But it wasn't until this day in Southeast Asia that I saw in myself the length to which I was willing to go to see a bird.

When traveling in unfamiliar territory, the easiest way to access places that are far out from town centers is usually through an organized tour, but I couldn't find any online that weren't through third-party companies I had never heard of and didn't trust. It was unlikely those websites would have accepted same-day bookings anyway. I tried calling the Biodiversity Center, but realized I couldn't because my local sim card didn't cover non-wifi-based calling, and the organization didn't have a Whatsapp account I knew of. All of the reviews online said it was super-convenient, a quick 30-minute tuk-tuk drive (a tuk-tuk is a mode of transportation in which a covered carriage is hitched to a motorized bike), so I decided I would just get out there and see if I could hire a tour guide at the entrance or even simply walk around for a while inside. I was a little nervous about getting there, since my English-language Google Maps wasn't giving me an exact address, just the English name of the place. English is widespread in Cambodia in cities and tourist areas, but the average proficiency level is low. I hoped the center was a popular enough attraction that drivers would recognize the name.

When I went down to my hotel's front desk, though, the situation didn't look promising. The front desk person had never heard of the place. Glancing over at the table next to the entryway with brochures advertising a number of sightseeing attractions in and around Siem Riep, I didn't see anything about it. I walked outside and sat down at a little table right outside my hotel, studying my guidebook and deciding whether it was worth it to go forward with this enterprise. While I was there, a hotel employee who was closing down a little coffee booth walked over and asked if I needed any help. I showed her the name of the biodiversity center and asked if she knew it. She examined the map I showed her on Google for awhile, then told me she had never heard of it, but that it looked to be close to a site she really liked outside of Siem Riep, a hill with an ancient temple on top from which one could get a great view of the surrounding landscape. She suggested I go there instead, then left me.

I wandered down the alleyway in which my hotel was located, dejected. I had now shown the place to two people who worked in the hospitality industry, and neither knew where the conservation center was located. I had a decision to make. Was it worth it to still try to get out there? What if I got lost? What if in the isolation of the countryside, a young woman traveling alone, I was robbed, raped, or murdered? Yet, nothing in town was as alluring to me as the call of the Biodiversity Center. In my early 30s and married, chomping at the bit to start a family with my husband, I was long over the expat scene of bars and restaurants just like the ones we already have in the US. I had paid thousands of dollars to come all the way across the world. I wanted to see some cool birds.

As I was having these thoughts, a tuk-tuk driver idling on the road called out to me, "Tuk-tuk? Do you need a tuk-tuk?"

A voice in my head boomed "When will you be back in Siem Riep? This is your only chance to view this lake! Don't waste it." I showed him the name of the center on my map.

The driver spoke okay English, I could see that. That was a plus. He spent a long time looking at the map I showed him on Google, turning it this way and that, zooming in and out. Then, he nodded, handing the phone back to me, and told me he understood how to get there. I asked him again, because I like reassurance, and he confirmed, "Yes." He even offered to wait for me and then take me back. I asked him how much, and he said $15. My guidebook said $5 or $6 was normal for short trips in Cambodia, and this guy was offering to drive me round-trip 30 minutes out of town and back in addition to waiting for me. I nodded and jumped in. Before we left town, he stopped for gas, then turned around and asked me to put his little orange backpack in the storage space underneath one of the benches for the journey. As I did so, an ominous line from one of the reviews I had read on TripAdvisor rattled around in my head: "Make sure you get a driver who knows where it is." I remembered with unease how this driver I had just made a commitment to clearly had not known the place by name, but seemed confident he understood the route. That was enough, I assured myself. Practically the same thing.

We set off, and before long, the expat town feel of central Siem Riep gave way to dirt roads and less manicured-looking homes—the outskirts of town, I imagined, where the tourists didn't venture. As we drove further from the center, the surrounding bustle of people moving around and selling wares fell away, as did the number of homes we saw. Eventually, we found ourselves driving continuously down one dirt road, surrounded on either side by rice paddies as far as the eye could see. Occasionally I could spot a farmer waist-deep in the muck working. More frequently, I saw cows wading around chewing the grass around the paddies, their ribs clearly visible underneath their thick hides. There were still homes out here, humble abodes, many of which had makeshift thatch-and-wood carports. The homes were spread far out from each other, dots on the landscape of the rice paddies. I remembered hearing that 80% of Cambodia's population are still farmers.

We had been driving down this same road for so long, at least 30 minutes, with no signs of the landscape changing. I started to suspect we were going the wrong way. Google Maps confirmed this for me, and I let the tuk-tuk driver know. After some discussion back and forth about what my Maps app was telling me, we agreed I would just let the app direct the tuk-tuk driver from this point on. As he turned around and started speeding away in the direction from which we had just come, I looked at the estimated route time and grumbled when I saw "25 minutes," a length of time we had easily just spent driving in the wrong direction. Because the dirt roads out here were rougher than the ones in town, I was also having a less comfortable ride in the tuk-tuk than usual, my body bouncing up with every bump.

Google Maps is a great piece of technology, but after what happened next, I was hit as if by a runaway train with an awareness of the shortcomings of machines. The prerogative of the app was to get us over to a main road on the other side of the rice paddies from us, which I could just barely make out. I could tell it was more of a main road than the one we were on, which seemed to be primarily for the purpose of getting to the rice paddies. Even at our distance from it, I could make out cars and trucks zooming back and forth. To get us to that main road, Google Maps told us to take a left onto what looked like a mud bank between the rice paddies. Still, neither the driver nor I had any idea where we were going, so we obeyed the machine.

The "road" was hardly wider than the tuk-tuk itself, and pockmarked with holes. My impression was it was intended more for farmers to walk out to whatever rice paddy they wanted to work in than as a thrufare for vehicles. If I had been uncomfortable before, now I was practically flying, my body thrown from one corner of the carriage to another. Ten minutes into this new leg of the journey, the driver stopped and got out. We were now literally in the middle of a sea of rice paddies, the main road still a distant blip on the horizon. Oh no, I thought with dread, what now?

Looking ahead, I saw the mud-bank-turned-road we were on had almost entirely fallen away into the rice paddies, leaving a wide gap. There was one narrow strip of embankment, about one foot across, still remaining connected to the road. A person could have walked across this, putting one foot in front of the other—a bike, more perilously. A tuk-tuk, though, was a no-go. Sighing, my tuk-tuk driver reversed and, for the second time in our journey, sped back in the direction from which we had just come. Again, I cursed the time we were losing, thinking of the dinner I had to be back in town for that evening and all of the unnecessary time I was spending on dirt and mud roads being bounced around every which way.

Google Maps had us turn left onto another one of these embankments rather than return to the road we had recently been on. This time, we got to a spot in the embankment that had been flooded. The driver came to a stop again. I moaned thinking of another round of reversing course, more bumpy riding, and then running into even more obstacles, further delaying us in this maze of rice paddies. But this time, the driver walked over to a nearby farmer, and they exchanged some words. Then, he came back, started the engine up without a word to me, and forged full speed ahead into the veritable lake ahead of us. As we entered the water, the farmer came up behind us and pushed us forward, giving us the momentum we needed to get out of the water and going again on the other side. The driver and I turned and waved our thanks, as internally I thanked the heavens that finally, we had foiled one of our roadblocks.

We got to the main road we had been aiming for without further incident and were back on track to get to the Conservation Center. My stomach was also grateful to finally be on a smooth, firm road again, even if it was still dirt. We had no other issues from that point on until we finally got to the spot where Google Maps said the Conservation Center was, because we couldn't find the entrance. We were surrounded at this point by lush, high plants on either side rather than rice paddies or homes, and I had a feeling we were literally driving through the conservation lands. But where was the main entrance? A few men running a tiny pit stop shop told us to go in one direction. A truck driver we stopped while going in that direction told us to go around the other way. We swerved back and forth on the patch of road where Google Maps said the entrance was for a few minutes, searching.

The driver pulled the tuk-tuk up by the side of a sparsely forested area, on the other side of which could be seen a few men, a makeshift shelter, and a bunch of small boats on the edge of a large lake. It looked like an amateur loading dock. He ran over to ask the men for directions, then ran back and told me this was the entrance. He said I would need to take a boat. I accompanied him back across the trees to the lake's edge, where the two men explained in greater detail, through the driver's translation, that they would take me around the lake, which it turns out was Tonlé Sap, in their boat, for 45 minutes, in return for a fee.

Based on what I had seen online, I was confident this was not the official entrance of the Biodiversity Center. Reviews had mentioned "guides" and an entry fee of "ten dollars," whereas these men were asking for twenty. Still, $20 wasn't much for 45 minutes of a personal tour around the lake, and I was pressed for time at this point. While it did occur to me I was possibly endangering my personal safety by going out on the lake in a boat with two strange men who didn't speak English, I simply had come too far at this point to just turn around. I determined if I was going to die anyway at some point in my life, I might as well do it in the middle of a beautiful lake in Cambodia surrounded by marsh birds flying overhead.

After I accepted, I watched the two men work as fast as they could to clean out a small, four-person boat. Definitely not the main entrance, I confirmed to myself, as I watched them shove a bunch of empty plastic bottles strewn across the boat's floor to the back where the guy who ran the motor would sit, and re-insert into its sides the wooden planks that served as seats, which had also been strewn on the floor. Everything looked to be covered with a thin film of dirt. As they helped me walk into the boat and take a seat on one of the middle benches, I saw my tuk-tuk driver jump on, clinging his little orange backpack in front of him. My heart jumped with joy, which was strange, since I didn't know him much better than the others. Still, I felt like we had been through something together earlier in the rice paddies, and I felt safer with him on board. In retrospect, I realize they must have invited him along to serve as translator, since the two fishermen spoke no English.

Whatever trepidation I still felt fell away as one of the fishermen steered the boat away from the dock and out into the middle of the lake, the steady hum of the motor forming the soundtrack to our excursion. The lake itself glistened in the sunlight, as the islands and banks of long grasses and trees swayed in the wind, beckoning us out further. At first, there wasn't much wildlife to be seen, but the mood in the boat was bright—the fishermen were smiling and seemed at ease. They murmured something to the driver, who told me there weren't a lot of birds out now for some reason I have now forgotten—perhaps the time of day. I didn't mind—even just being among the presence of the grasses and trees on the lake, away from the cheap plaster and bright lights of central Siem Riep, felt refreshing. But as he spoke, I could see some birds flitting high over the lake between the treetops, which was already more wildlife than I had seen in a week of traipsing through Southeast Asian cities. I'm not an avid birder, remember, in the sense that I don't keep a species list. But even just seeing the motion of their little bodies flying through the air, I felt like I was right up there flying alongside them. The fisherman running the motor slowed the boat down whenever we came across other wildlife. At several points, we saw water buffalo, two and three at a time together, lounging in the water. Twice, we passed what looked like a conference of herons, gathered around in a circle in the water facing each other, still as statues, like they needed to discuss something important and solemn. Many other birds flew overhead besides the initial small ones I had first witnessed. Some I recognized as a kind of pelican, but most of the others were unknown to me. Several species were quite big. The men accompanied me in my quiet reverie, the one piloting the boat only occasionally chiming in to tell me some detail about what we were seeing, my driver translating.

At the end of the 45 minutes, the fishermen drove us back to shore, I paid them, they thanked me profusely, and the tuk-tuk driver took me back to my hotel with no trouble (he told me getting back to town was much easier than going the other way, and apologized again for taking a wrong turn). The whole affair ended with little fanfare, but something about that dusky afternoon on the lake stayed with me. If I could paint, I would paint an image of the unlikely four of us together in that boat on the lake: the smiling fisherman running the motor, the tourist, the tuk-tuk driver clinging his little orange backpack in front of him, and the second fisherman who sat quietly on the other end the whole time, an oar ready beside him to steer us through more narrow pathways between the grasses or change the boat's direction. I would paint us among the trees and underneath the birds, the conference of herons behind us, the lounging water buffalo beside us. And if I could paint thoughts somehow, I would paint my own mind, running back over the scene I had witnessed on the river cruise a few nights before—the American exclaiming in his spontaneous iambic trimeter, "That's how a bridge is built!"