Travelling through Southeast Asia by bus is a thrilling experience that freshens the mind and helps destroy misconceptions about different parts of the region.
I recently had the chance to take such a journey with the China-ASEAN International Touring Assembly, which takes delegates through the region every year in support of the China-ASEAN Expo.
Along the way the group explored major urban centres such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, but I was less interested in seeing metropolitan areas than in observing life in the countryside.
One member of the tour group, Dr Ling Tung King, echoed my thoughts when he said that “everywhere cities have the same features, with high buildings, flyovers and colourful lights at night”.
But the countryside throughout Southeast Asia is much more diverse and appealing, he said, adding that we were lucky that places like Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia were on our travel itinerary.
“Tonle Sap Lake is a real place where we can see how the people there are living,” he said.
His comments really piqued my interest, and I was looking forward to visiting the lake, which I imagined was far removed from the dreariness of city life.
Located near the town of Siem Reap, Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It is usually reached by taking a boat along a canal that empties into the main body of water.
The lake even boasts a floating village called Chong Kneas, which is similar in some ways to villages on Inle Lake in Myanmar’s Shan State.
But while the houses on Inle Lake are set on wood pilings driven deep into the lake bed, many of the houses at Tonle Sap actually float, so they can be moved from one place to another to compensate for the changing size of the lake between monsoon and dry seasons.
There is even a moveable Roman Catholic Church, which can change locations so it is accessible to all the Catholic believers around the lake.
Another difference is that whereas Inle dwellers make their living from both fishing and tending floating gardens, those at Tonle Sap rely solely on fishing.
Our boat made its way through the canal and then headed across the open water of the lake. As we approached Chong Kneas village, another small boat came alongside. Onboard were three children and their father, who was madly rowing to keep up with our engine-powered vessel.
One of the children had a huge python draped around his neck. He showed off his pet, then asked us for money. Many were quire generous and dropped cash into the smaller boat.
They finally broke away from our boat, but when we reached a floating souvenir shop at the village, we saw several more children carrying pythons around their necks.
They swarmed around us for a few minutes, and then to our amazement they suddenly jumped into their own boats and, in a tempestuous rush, quickly rowed completely out of sight.
A moment later we understood why, when another boat carrying three policemen roared into the turbulent water left behind by the frantic rowing of the kids. The policemen did not appear to be too serious, though, and in fact were all smiling as they motored past our group.
As we enjoyed our tour around Tonle Sap, I told Dr Ling about how I had actually missed visiting Singapore because I had not procured a visa for that country in advance. So, when the rest of the group entered the country, I had to wait across the border in the Malaysian town of Johor Bahru until they returned.
“Singapore is only good for children,” Dr Ling said. “The last time I went there I took my children along. That was enough for me.”
Then he quickly steered the conversation away from cities and back to his appreciation of rural areas, and particularly the rich lake in Cambodia from which he clearly drew such inspiration.