Water, Water Everywhere – Floating Villages, Thingyan Festival, and Typhoons in Kompong Pluk, Cambodia & Inle Lake, Myanmar

Thanaka Inle Lake, Myanmar

One of the most eye opening living arrangements that I have come across in South East Asia are the floating villages. Floating villages have been around for hundreds of years in Asia and have typically popped up as a result of land scarcity. I have now seen floating villages and stilt houses in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar given the number of rivers, lakes, and deltas across Asia’s network of waterways, and each one is spectacular in and of itself.

20 Foot High Stilt Homes in Cambodia

Over the last two weeks, I had the opportunity to visit a floating village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia called Kompong Pluk. Kompong Pluk is other-worldly and looks as if it is straight out of a movie set. In order to get there, my friend Kathrin and I took a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride to the countryside just outside of Siem Reap.

Here’s a short video of the tuk-tuk ride.

We got a longboat all to ourselves, steered by a young man and his son who helped navigate the boat through the narrow passageways. Given we visited during the dry season, the water level was quite low so we had to slide down a slope to board the boat. Along our journey, we passed several stilt homes built on stilts 6 meters (~20 feet) high!

Once past the narrow channel, we were out on the open Mekong Delta where we stopped at a floating restaurant for dinner and sunset views.

On our return trip to shore, stilt home owners were busy cooking, fixing their boats, and preparing dinner – certainly a sight to see!

You can see what the boat ride looked like in this little video.

If you are ever in Siem Reap visiting Angkor Wat, I highly recommend adding a trip to Kompung Pluk to your agenda.

Thingyan Water Festival and Lake Living in Myanmar

After my trip to Siem Reap, I met my friend Kara in Myanmar. We happened to arrive the first day of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Festival. Yes, that’s right – this is my third new year celebration this year between New Year’s Day in January, Chinese New Year in February, and now the Cambodian/Burmese New Year celebrated in mid-April. The first three days of the new year are celebrated with the Burmese dousing each other with water, considered an offering or prayer to wash away the sins of the previous year. When passing through towns, you see groups of kids and teenagers ready to throw buckets of water at you. Our taxi driver made sure our windows were up before passing through several small villages. Good luck to anyone on a motorbike! We also had several little guys squirting us with water using water guns on Inle Lake.

Here is a group of teens throwing buckets of water at our car.

My first stop in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was Inle Lake. Side fact: Burma officially changed its name to Myanmar in 1989 after thousands were killed when a popular uprising was suppressed. Inle Lake is a freshwater lake, and Myanmar’s second largest lake, that spans roughly 45 square miles at nearly 3,000 feet elevation. It is largely inhabited by a group called the Intha who have built four cities bordering the lake and on the lake itself. Most are devout Buddhists who live in simple houses made of woven bamboo on stilts and are self-sufficient farmers who farm vegetables on floating gardens that rise and fall with changes in the water level.

Transportation on the lake is primarily by small longboats fitted with diesel engines though some local fisherman still row using the distinctive style of standing at the back of the boat (stern) with one leg on the boat and the other foot wrapped around the oar, which evolved from needing to stand up to navigate the boats through the reeds. Click on the second photo on the top row above for a closer look at how it’s done. Here’s a view from the boatride.

Our hotel, Paramount, was quite nice with a fantastic, onsite restaurant and the loveliest staff. We stayed in one of the overwater bungalows crafted in the traditional bamboo style for Inle lake.

On our second day in Inle Lake, we hired a private boat for the day (for $20) to take us to a number of markets, workshops, a Buddhist temple, and the floating gardens. Despite being a popular route, there were not many tourists aside from us. We certainly received the royal treatment! Upon arrival at one market, we had the opportunity to get beautified with thanaka – a paste from the bark of the Thanaka tree that is applied to the face and used by Burmese all over the country for aesthetic and sunblocking purposes. Apparently, my pale skin called for a full on thanaka application, as you can see below, though the Burmese typically only apply some to their nose and cheeks.

Here I am, getting beautified!

The markets were full of gorgeous textiles, wooden statues, and hand forged ironwork. Kara and I purchased our own hand-woven textiles that the saleswomen sewed into longhis, or traditional skirts, onsite.

One of the textile workshops that we visited was run by a Kayan Lawhi family. The Kayan are another tribal ethnic minority in Myanmar that live in the nearby Kayah State. Women within the tribe are known for wearing neck rings made of brass coils appearing to lengthen it. They are known as ‘giraffe women’ and start wearing the coils as early as 5 years old. Over the years, the coil is replaced by a longer one, typically wrapped by the women themselves.

The clavicle is essentially deformed over the years, though experts say they don’t actually limit movement as much as they appear. There is no documented reason for the women wearing the rings though there are many theories – beauty (to resemble a dragon – the most revered creature in Asian culture), tradition, or to scare off slave traders in the past. You can read more here as I was both fascinated and horrified by the practice. The older women we encountered did seem proud of the coils, showing pictures of what they looked like when they were younger. There are, however, reports that some Kayan groups only keep the tradition for tourism.

During our trip, we also had the opportunity to visit an open air market, full of all sorts of interesting trinkets and jewelry, including a crown made of water buffalo teeth, ceramic pipes, metal tattoo needles, and wooden slingshots. Tattoos were traditionally popular among the Shan group in Burma, who believed tattoos had magical powers.

After our shopping trip, we toured a number of small factories, including a welding workshop, lotus silk weavers, a longboat factory, and cheroot production line. Cheroot is technically a small cigar with tapered ends, made of cheroot leaves.

We ended our tour of the lake with a visit to a dancing cat monastery and the floating gardens, at which time a two-day typhoon (tropical storm) started to pass over the lake. Sadly, the dancing cats were nowhere to be seen – perhaps the rain scared them away! While it dampened our plans to go on a bike ride around the lake the next day, it gave us an opportunity to further enjoy our over water bungalow and get some much needed work done!

Have you visited any interesting floating villages in the world?

Next on A Gilded Globe – touring the sacred temples of Myanmar alongside its monks.

4 Comment

  1. Lena Thelin says:

    Love your pictures!

  2. I found this fascinating, thanks! We visited floating cities in China and Hong Kong, quite a unique way to live.

  3. Rachel Bautista says:

    Finally catching up on your travels! Amazing stories and experiences! Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  4. I love all your vibrant pictures; especially the ones of the beautiful women and children. What an experience!

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