Our penultimate day in Siem Reap was spent getting a glimpse of everyday life in Cambodia. We opted to skip out on more temple tours and instead mixed up our itinerary with a traditional Khmer cooking class in the morning, and a floating village tour near Tonle Sap in the afternoon.
Cooking at Lily’s Secret Garden
When Mr. Chuckles and I were in Luang Prabang, Laos last year, one of our favourite activities was attending a cooking class, so we decided to book one during our time in Cambodia as well. We figured that it would give us an opportunity learn more about the local cuisine and, of course, eat a bunch.
There are numerous options for cooking classes in Siem Reap, all catered to tourists. While researching for this trip, I came across overwhelmingly positive reviews for Lily’s Secret Garden. For $25 USD per person, they offer a half day class at a countryside home cooking school, including a local market tour.
We were picked up in the morning by Lily’s husband, Chris, who brought us to a small market about 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap city centre. He showed us around while picking up ingredients for the dishes we would be preparing.
Then we headed over to Lily and Chris’ home, which has been subdivided into their cooking school.
We were introduced to the chef, Darwin, who guided us through the preparation of three dishes.
Fresh spring rolls with chicken.
Lort cha (fried noodles with chicken).
And a dessert selection of either glutinous rice balls with palm sugar, or pumpkin in coconut sweet cream.
The food turned out well and we ended the class nice and full. I would definitely recommend this cooking class for anyone visiting Siem Reap and looking for a little break from temple hopping.
Tour of Kompong Khleang floating village
Another popular alternative to temple tours is to visit one of the several floating villages outside of Siem Reap. These villages are situated around Tonle Sap, a large freshwater lake that connects to Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong. The rich ecosystems in the region surrounding Tonle Sap have been of central importance to Cambodia’s food supply throughout its history, and are the primary source of livelihood for the substantial rural population in the area.
Over the years, visiting the floating villages has become an increasingly popular tourist activity for those travelling to Siem Reap and its surrounds. There are several companies that offer tours to four villages in particular, namely Chong Kneas, Kompong Phluk, Mechrey, and Kompong Khleang. Chong Kneas is the closest to Siem Reap at 16 kilometres away, and Kompong Khleang is the furthest at 50 kilometres.
Due to its proximity and easy access from Siem Reap, Chong Kneas has become a heavily touristed village and has become so commercialized that many travel blogs I read recommended against visiting there. The experience is also exploitative of the locals, as tours are run by outsiders who charge excessive fees, none of which is funneled back into the community.
In the course of my research, I discovered a local run non-profit organization called Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Village Tours which offers tours guided by people from Kompong Khleang and directs its income to outreach initiatives for the villagers. The organization donates funds to the Bridge of Life School, providing free primary education to village children. It has also developed additional educational initiatives including sewing and computer classes, along with a volunteer-run medical clinic.
This tour sounded like a a great opportunity to practice responsible tourism, so Mr. Chuckles and I signed up. We were picked up at our hotel in the early afternoon and joined 7 other travellers on a 1.5 hour drive to Kompong Khleang, accompanied by a guide who had grown up there. On the way, we stopped at nearby street vendors to taste bamboo sticky rice and some sweet treats. If you’re craving sticky rice, the ‘sticky rice village’ is the place to be; there was a vendor literally every 20 metres along the road.
Once we arrived at the village, our first stop was the Bridge of Life School. The school teaches just the first grade and currently has about 60 students enrolled. Teachers have living quarters in the space beside the classroom.
Then we headed over to the larger public school which students enroll in after grade 1. Community First also provides funding for a library here.
Sunset cruise on Tonle Sap
Our tour wrapped up with a one hour cruise on Tonle Sap. Along the way, we had views of all the stilted houses which will later be largely covered by water during the wet season that spans from May to October. During the rainy season, the school visit on this tour is actually done via a boat ride through the village itself.
Further down the way, we also saw some floating houses and locals going about their daily lives.
Finally, we arrived at the lake just in time for a majestic sunset, to cap off our awesome day of seeing a bit of how Cambodians live.