A willingness to go with the flow is key to any major travel experience. Our family has learned to welcome uncertainty over these past ten months, and as a result some of our most memorable moments on this journey have unfolded on their own without much planning or research on our part. On the flip side, we’ve also experienced situations we would rather forget, where a spontaneous adventure leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. Going without knowing can lead to both good and bad outcomes.
The Floating Village of Chong Kneas
During our time in Cambodia people kept telling us to go down to the famous Tonle Sap Lake. Situated just south of Siem Reap, the Tonle Sap is not only the largest freshwater lake in all of Southeast Asia, but it’s also a rather unique ecological area. Although it stands just 3 feet deep and 1000 square miles in area during Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonle Sap swells to a massive 6200 square miles and up to 27 feet deep during the rainy months. The lake is also unique in that it changes the direction of its flow in August and September. Snow melt from the Himalayas and monsoon rains throughout Southeast Asia converge in the Tonle Sap and push the water to flow away from its ocean delta for part of the year.
Over a million people live on or around the Tonle Sap, fishing its waters or growing rice in its floodplains for their families’ livelihoods. Villages of homes built atop tall stilts or constructed on large floating rafts surround the perimeter of the lake. Seeing the primitive yet ingenious engineering of these communities has become one of the recommended experiences during a visit to Siem Reap.
Hearing this, we told our regular tuk tuk driver we’d like to follow the advice of our local friends and go see the lake at sunset. We didn’t research it or plan it. He just picked us up one afternoon and off we went. He dropped us off at a large center next to a waterway and instructed us to go inside to get tickets for the boat ride. We’d had no idea that seeing the lake involved a boat, but we went with it and headed for the ticket counter. We were shocked when the cost for our family was $50, by far the most expensive thing we’d done in Cambodia. However, again we just went with it expecting it would turn out to be something great.
After sliding through the coffee-with-cream colored water of a long canal while the cracking roar of the boat’s diesel engine rattled our ears, we eventually popped out into the Tonle Sap Lake. Immediately homes floating on intricately joined oil drums dotted the waters.
Day-to-day life went on as usual, it just happened a significant distance from shore. Children played on porches or passed by in boats bringing them home from school. Gardens grew out of plastic barrels, and chickens lived in pens floating alongside houses. Residents glided by in canoes carved from tree trunks as they ran errands and socialized at the floating markets and restaurants.
If we’d spent our time on the lake simply drifting through the village and observing life being lived in a very different way, we probably would have considered this experience a highlight of our time in Cambodia. This water world gave us a sense of the resiliency and ingenuity in the spirit of the people living there. The inventions they’d created for life away from land and the cheerful attitudes we saw on our ride through the village underscored the fundamental truth we’d witnessed over and over again in Cambodia – happiness is based on your state of mind, not the estate you live in.
Unfortunately, this tour of the floating village quickly turned sour. Our first stop was a platform where people were loading into kayaks. We disembarked and were told we would need to pay $60 to have a guide take our family through the mangrove trees for half an hour. Um, no thanks. Back on the boat we go.
Our driver then took us to a shiny metal building with a neat sign bearing the name “Community Store”, which looked abnormally new and pristine among this village of weather-beaten, wooden structures. A gentleman wearing a crisp white shirt and sporting a large, expensive-looking ring greeted us and explained how we now had the opportunity to buy a bag of rice for $50 to support the local school. We would buy the food from him and then deliver it to the poor, struggling school children ourselves. Needless to say, red flags went up. Something felt very off, but at this point we had a kid who, not seeing those red flags, was begging to buy something to take to the school. How do we explain to an 8-year-old that we think the whole thing is a big scam not benefiting the school children at all? I found myself handing over $10 for a box of rice noodles.
Five minutes later our suspicions were confirmed when our boat pulled up to the floating school. Liv was instructed to walk into the classroom and put the box on the teacher’s desk. Then we were paraded over to the school kitchen. The looks on the faces of the students, teachers and cooks conveyed what we had already guessed. This was a ridiculous tourist ritual they had to tolerate. Some people, like the guy with the fancy ring and the officials taking our $50 before we boarded the boat, were making a lot of money on all of this. The chances this money was actually benefiting the community seemed very slim. The whole thing felt wrong.
Our last stop was a double-decked restaurant and shop where we were to stay to watch the sunset. While it may have been a pretty view, it was hard to enjoy it. We’d unwittingly participated in poverty tourism at its absolute worst. We thought we were simply going to see the sunset of Tonle Sap Lake, and instead we watched people use the difficult living conditions of locals to rake in massive amounts of money. In talking to a long term expat later, she confirmed that the Chong Kneas floating village tour was a scam. The food “donations” purchased at the store for the school were simply cycled back to the store to be sold again. I can only hope that some amount of the money taken in from the boat rides, mangrove tours and school food purchases actually went back into the community, but I’m not optimistic. The floating village tour of Chong Kneas was an example of “going without knowing” gone bad. If you’re ever in Siem Reap, learn from our mistake and don’t do it!
Waterfall and Temple Tours of Northen Thailand
At the completely opposite end of the “going without knowing” spectrum were the last-minute, minimally-described tours we took around Northern Thailand. We aren’t usually into the group tour thing, but since we didn’t have a car during our two weeks in Chiang Mai, we had to find other ways to explore the area. We hiked to waterfalls, walked through villages and explored temples while riding from place to place in a mini-bus or pickup truck taxi. In all cases these tours turned out to be much better than expected and we met some great people from around the world.
Our first “going without knowing” experience in Thailand kicked off with a 3-mile hike through the jungle to see a waterfall. While the hike wasn’t all that long, it turned out to be rather arduous in some places. We found ourselves carefully sloshing through rocky streams and scaling up rickety bamboo ladders. Not knowing what this little tour really entailed before we started, Brian and the kids were all wearing flip flops. Trust me when I say our three girls earned their stripes as serious trekkers having completed that difficult hike in flimsy sandals. We were proud of our kids, although not necessarily our parenting preparedness. With or without appropriate footwear, it was well worth the trip. We learned from a fun and knowledgeable guide, enjoyed gorgeous weather and spent time in a refreshing rain forest waterfall.
After the hike to and from the waterfall we had a traditional Thai lunch served on banana leaves, and then headed out for our next activity – white water rafting. Under the direction of our trusty river guide, the seven of us helped steer our raft around rocks and through some fast-flowing water. With it being the dry season, this rafting experience was extremely kid-friendly and the girls loved it. This tour did include stray animals and random naked people, which seems to be a common occurrence during our family outings lately. Friendly cats and dogs made appearances in the villages we visited, and a rather immodest Thai gentleman gave us the full frontal as we floated by during our rafting experience. Alison of course had to yell out, “I can’t tell if that’s a man or a woman!” Let’s not insult the poor guy’s manhood, dear.
Another positive “going without knowing” experience for us was the the Doi Inthanon National Park tour. We did short walks to Wachirathon and Mae Ya waterfalls, two gorgeous areas nestled in the mountain rain forest. After a great lunch at a restaurant set at the base of one of the falls, we took a walk through a nature trail and gawked up at the canopy of massive trees. We went to the highest point in all of Thailand where it was a chilly 62 degrees, the lowest temps we’ve experienced in a very long time. Liv, our little cold-weather enthusiast, loved it and was running around yelling “Why can’t it be this temperature all the time here!!!!” We visited a local village and watched traditional weavers at work making fabric, and then ended our tour at two mountain top temples dedicated to the King and Queen of Thailand.
Our tours in northern Thailand allowed us to discover places we never would have found on our own and taught us a little about Thailand’s ecology and history. They were examples of “going without knowing” gone right. For the most part, this typically rings true. The few times we’ve been disappointed by a spontaneous adventure are greatly outweighed by the many times uncertainty has led to good things for our family. So, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and take the turns down the unknown paths every now and then. It winds up being worth it in the end.