We motor on through the flooded forest, past matted clumps of sea-poison blossoms and dense tangles of lianas garnished with little yellow flowers. From time to time, drowned branches scrape menacingly along the skiff’s hull, and in one brief moment of alarm, our canvas canopy catches on a low-hanging bough and rips open. But soon enough the channel widens and we glide to a stop about 100 meters from a pair of treetops that have been colonized by hundreds of Asian openbills, a type of snail-eating stork. The ranger informs us—with Visoth translating—that the birds arrived from the swamps of northern Cambodia two weeks ago, and that here they will stay until April, raising chicks and stuffing themselves on mollusks. It’s an impressive sight, as is the spectacle that greets on the way back to the Aqua Mekong half an hour later: a sky peppered with spot-billed pelicans, dozens of them, wheeling against the clouds on wings spanning two meters. I’m mesmerized, until the spell is broken by a series of plops just off our bow. Visoth doesn’t miss a beat. “Pooping, pooping,” he says gleefully. “This must be their WC!”
Of course, the Tonle Sap isn’t just for the birds. It’s among the richest freshwater fisheries in the world, one that nurtured the Khmer empire in ancient times, to judge by the abundance of fish (including enormous, deer-swallowing catfish) depicted in the 12th-century bas-reliefs at Bayon Temple in nearby Angkor. Today, more than three million people live on the lake’s floodplain, and a good many on the lake itself—Tonle Sap is home to 173 floating villages, off-the-grid fishing communities that drift with the lake’s seasonal ebb and swell.
Needless to say, village visits are written into the cruise’s script, and after lunch we’re back in the skiffs and heading to Moat Khla, home to 190 families as well as a rudimentary Buddhist temple buoyed up by oil drums. We moor alongside the latter for a blessing ceremony with an orange-robed monk and his novices, who chant their mantras under a tin roof festooned with parti-colored cotton bunting. I get the sense that we’re not the first tourists to come this way, but we could well be at our next stop, Kong Meas, which we reach via a labyrinth of backwater channels. Home to just 75 families, it’s literally off the map; Visoth says this is the first time he or his fellow guides have ventured there. One household, a family of ethnic Vietnamese (a minority that has shared the lake with the Khmer for countless generations), is kind enough to invite us into their home. About 25 of us—two skiff-loads full—crowd into the floating house and crouch down on its creaking floorboards. It’s a rustic affair, with walls of grass matting, a small TV hooked up to a car battery, and rafters packed with fishing gear; the sole concessions to decor are framed pictures of the Madonna and Christ hung behind a cat’s cradle of tinsel Christmas garlands. As our guides question the head of the household about life on the lake—“We live in peace, it is good,” he says—the water below us thrashes and churns. I briefly wonder if we’re being attacked by one of those monstrous Bayon catfish. But no, it’s a convulsing mass of snakehead, thousands of dollars worth, that the man raises in a fish pen under his house.
By the time we leave it’s getting dark, but we have one more stop. In a patch of open water, the skiffs tie up against each other and the crew begin shaking cocktails—caipiroskas of some sort, muddled with palm sugar. We down them to the beat of a boom box that has appeared as magically as the drinks. “Welcome to Tonle Sap’s floating bar!” Visoth shouts over the music.
More drinks await back in the Aqua Mekong’s lounge, which takes up half the upper deck and doubles as the venue for our morning briefings and midday lectures about Cambodian culture and economy. It’s a convivial space and passengers mingle over glasses of wine and Angkor beer, recounting the day’s highlights or sharing stories from their other travels. They’re a cosmopolitan and worldly bunch: a German couple from Hong Kong, retirees from Chicago and Boca Raton, a pair of Muscovites, a group of friends from L.A., and two ladies from New York, Debbie and Jocelyn, who tell me they have both sailed on one of the Aqua’s sister ships on the Amazon, and who, like most on this boat, are “seven-nighters,” doing the full cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m only aboard for the Cambodian leg, finishing the trip at Phnom Penh, which makes me a four-nighter. But no one holds that against me. And Debbie is great. Having visited plenty of other poor countries in her time, she’s taken to toting around a little Polaroid camera and asking villagers if she might take their picture, leaving them with the digital print. “When you visit these places as a tourist, it’s all very one-sided. I thought it would be nice to leave something behind,” she says. That might sound a bit patronizing, but the villagers we meet don’t seem to think so: they giggle and grin as they watch their images slowly materialize on film.
After dinner, I snoop around some of the Aqua’s other facilities—there’s a library stocked with Kerouac and Steinbeck and a crystal-and-teak foosball table; a movie room outfitted with Eames lounge chairs; a small spa—before retiring to my cabin, where I step onto my balcony and lean against the railing. Dark water races against the hull a meter below me. In the inky distance, fluorescent tubes mark the locations of myriad fishing nets—the lights attract insects, and insects attract small fish. They glow like stars, and for a moment it seems that the water has become the sky, and the sky the water.