Cambodia’s Floating Villages

With Cecilia in town, we wanted to take a trip somewhere fun! We settled on Cambodia – flying Silk Air into Siem Reap and spending the weekend exploring Angkor Wat and hailing tuk-tuks through the dusty roads of the country!

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Our first impression of Cambodia was a collective, “OMG it’s HOT!!!” We struggled off the plane and onto the tarmac instantly sweating as we made our way into the airport. Was it hotter than SG? I definitely think so. I was pouring sweat the entire weekend and my face was constantly wet. TT thinks the climate was pretty similar so maybe my intensely hot experience was just due to the fact that we were exploring and walking around for hours in the harsh midday sun, whereas in Singapore, we are at work during peak heat.

Our hotel, Cheathata Suites Hotel, sent a car to pick us up at the airport and bring us back to our home for the weekend. Cheathata is a nice hotel – very centrally located with one of the friendliest staffs I’ve ever encountered. It seemed completely empty when we arrived and we spent much of the weekend thinking we were the only guests in the hotel (we weren’t). We learned it’s currently low season for tourism and numbers will pick back up in a few months. Greeted with lemongrass juice and refreshing tiger balm towels, we sat in the lobby and basked in the AC before being shown to our massive room.

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Our driver had convinced us that with our schedule focused on Angkor Wat Saturday, we should take the opportunity Friday to go see one of Cambodia’s floating villages. We agreed on a pick-up time, recharged a bit in the room, and headed out to the water. Despite the rain, we boarded our longboat, met our Cambodian crew, and set off through the weeds.

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At first glance the floating village was fascinating – an entire village living entirely in the water! There was a floating school, multiple floating markets, and colorful tin houses along both sides of the waterway. A police station, a garden, and a chicken farm came next. Men waded through murky water to check their fishing traps and dogs lazed on bobbing “porches.”

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As we went farther down the river and learned more from our guide, the truth of the extreme poverty that exists in these villages became almost overwhelming. There is no electricity – families use batteries and generators to help power TVs and small electronics. Many of the residents have lived on the water for their whole lives. Since the houses float off of the land, there are no taxes. Cambodians are able to construct small houses which are really more of a two walled tin shack with an open back and front and live there on the water, fishing and not paying taxes or rent. They do not have access to any water that does not come from the lake and since the lake, while enormous, is landlocked, they are basically reusing the water again and again and again for years.

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All chores are performed in the water including the bathroom. This means washing clothes, dishes, or yourself is done in the same water as the toilet. It also means the fish and food that they catch have been living in the dirty water before being eaten.

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Since the weather was not good, we were unable to go out into the actual expanse of the lake to see the other floating villages. There are over 100 villages in total that float on Tonle Sap Lake, housing almost 1 million residents.

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We learned that the villages themselves move as the seasons change. During low season with less water in the lake, they sit where we saw them. When rainy season comes and the lake swells, some houses are flooded and residents have to move out to a different home and wait to return once the water recedes. Other structures are built to float along the river and rise up with the swelling tides. So each year the floating villages can move to different spots depending on the rain and the lake, and get higher or lower, if they are built to move up and down with the water.

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Since this tour, I’ve done a lot of reading about the floating villages and the poverty there. Two things that stuck out to me:

  1. Since the lake is a stagnant body of water, the fish that live inside are not infinite which puts a strain on those trying to fish for food or to sell at the market. The government limits how much fishing can be done in the lake but this is often not in agreement with how much fishing a local needs to do to survive and provide for their family. This has led to a lot of people illegally attaching fishing nets underneath their houses so they can’t be tracked.
  2. There have been discussion about how to help residents of the floating villages capitalize on the thousands of tourists that pass through each year. The tour boat companies are privately owned so the tourism money often does not go to the villages. Residents have said that they’d like to make souvenirs or something to sell to the tourists but that the banks will not give them loans to start as they have no credit since they live basically unknown on the water. There were a few boats with women and children selling small knicknacks while we were there but the largest draw seemed to be children with giant water snakes allowing people to take pictures of them for $1. The tourists throwing dollar bills at the children to take pictures of them standing in their boats with the snakes was the most unsettling part for all of us.

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I think it is important to experience other cultures and learn about the billions of people that live in this world that are not like you. Often, those cultures are harshly different than the ones we inhibit. Count your blessings and be grateful for the things you do have and try and think about how you can give back to those who aren’t as fortunate.

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