Sarah Price leaves the beaten track to peek at life in the floating villages of the Tonle Sap.
The last thing we expected to see on a trip slightly off the beaten track in Cambodia was a bunch of couples followed by camera crews racing through this south Asian wonderland.
It was an odd sight - pairs followed by a camera and soundperson, racing from boats docked on the river we had just arrived at to big trucks driven by helmet-clad men and then racing back along the road we had just come along. It seems that, along with more than 2 million tourists each year, US commercial television has discovered this travelling hotspot.
It was on our way to see a floating village on the huge Tonle Sap lake that we came across the groups of people speeding away to their next destination; they looked suspiciously like competitors on the latest series of The Amazing Race.
As if that was not enough, things got a little more odd when we were snapped by a local wielding a digital camera as we were making our way down the riverbanks to our boat.
I briefly wondered if it was for safety reasons in case the boat sank but I didn't really want to think too much about that and put it promptly out of my mind before climbing into our vessel and setting off down the river.
About 16 kilometres out of Siem Reap, in the northern half of Cambodia, Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia, filling with water from the Mekong River each year.
Designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997 - which lists the area as vital for the Cambodian economy because of the many varieties of fish found there - the flow of the lake changes direction twice a year with the change of the dry to the wet season.
It is also home to entire communities of people who live in several floating villages, some of which are open for tourists to take a ride around.
It is a fascinating look into a waterworld existence where the main form of transportation is by boat or bucket.
The village we visited - Chong Kneas - features everything from floating houses to small shops to pig pens, a hospital, a school, a church and a basketball court encased by floor-to-ceiling wire to stop the ball - or players, for that matter - from falling into the lake.
About 300 people inhabit the village, with fishing their main income.
There is the obligatory tourist trap - a floating open-air structure where souvenirs and local crafts are sold, along with food - and there is, bizarrely, a pen full of crocodiles with a slightly rickety walkway above for tourists to take a look. It is a fascinating contrast to the other big tourist drawcard at Siem Reap, the temples at Angkor - a World Heritage site made up of 260 temples.
While the temples are a must-see, the lake is also highly recommended. It is not yet the tourist mecca that Angkor has become and is therefore worth a visit before it starts to attract the masses.
Back to the riverbank and up we clambered to be met by some enterprising locals wanting to sell us a plate as a souvenir of our visit. All very nice but no thank you, until we took a closer look and found that the plate featured a photo of, you guessed it, yours truly.
Suddenly it dawned on us.
The person snapping our portraits before our trip was not doing it for safety's sake.
For the bargain price of $US5 ($7), you can get your piece of Cambodian tourism history: a souvenir plate complete with your photo in the middle of it.
With the help of car batteries, the crew had a pretty decent set-up. A lap-top, a couple of printers and piles of blank plates just waiting for not-so-flattering portraits of tourists caught off-guard. And it was all housed in a wooden structure with a tin roof on the water's edge.
Sadly for them, the racing couples appeared to go by too quickly to get their own collector's item. A lost opportunity to own one of the best tacky souvenirs around.
The writer was a guest of Vietnam Airlines.
Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Australia to Vietnam, departing from Sydney four times a week and Melbourne three times a week. Vietnam Airlines flies from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap six times a day. See vietnamairlines.com
The Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa is a tranquil five-star resort built in the colonial architecture of the 1930s in Siem Reap. Rates start from $US115 ($160) a night. See victoriahotels.asia
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/travel/wowed-by-a-waterworld-20090108-7cny.html