On one of our days in Siem Reap we took a day off from temples. We had heard about the floating markets just outside the city from our tuk tuk driver, so we decided to go check it out. After a nice leisurely drive through the countryside we arrived at a dock with hundred of boats waiting to take tourists out to the floating villages of Tonle Sap.
However, when we went to the desk to inquire the guide told us that it was 30$ each for a one and a half hour boat tour. I asked who the money went to, if it went back into the community in Ton Le Sap, but they could not answer my questions although they were desperate to sell us tickets. We decided that the whole situation was a bit off and it was far too much money, so in the end did not see the floating village. We walked around for a bit in the area but were turned away as we had not purchased tickets. Something about this experience just did not sit right with me. We got back in our tuk tuk and after a short stop at roadside café for a fresh coconut and a rest in a hammock we went back into town.
Once back in town I was still thinking about why that experience had bothered me so much, I had been scammed before after all. Then it hit me: it wasn’t just the exorbitant fee for the boat ride but also that we would be quickly herded through the village as if it were a museum exhibit, as well as the lack of communication about where the money goes and who profits from the tours. 1.5 million people rely on the unique ecosystem of Tonle Sap, but due to overfishing and overpopulation it is in serious trouble. The area is one of the poorest in Cambodia so unsustainable practices such as illegal fishing and poaching are common. This is where my issue with the tours lie. There was nothing acknowledging any of these issues or any attempt educate tourists about how they can help, and after much research I am still not sure if the profits from the tours go back to the people who live in Tonle Sap or not. I am sure that not all of the tours are like the one we avoided and that some may be educational and supportive of the community, but if you are going to make the trip out to Tonle Sap be sure to do your research before hand!
For an interesting read about the future of Tonle Sap and the environmental impact it has on Cambodia and the surrounding region check out this article from the New York times
As well, a coalition of local and international NGOs (Fisheries Action Coalition Team) is working to educate and raise awareness about the issues Tonle Sap is facing as well as provide training for sustainable livelihoods. You can volunteer with FACT, but they only take on long-term skilled volunteers. Please visit their website for more information.