A floating village on a lake, awakening each morning to the chirping birds and the dawn reflecting on serene water surrounding one’s dwelling. Casting your net to gather fish for breakfast and buying fruit from a passing market boat laden with produce – the dream of an unfettered life. Romantic is it not? You do not want to live in the Floating Villages on Tonle Sap unless you have a death wish.
The great lake of Tonle Sap is the largest body of fresh water within Southeast Asia and since 1994, a UNESCO World Biosphere Site – a major world bird sanctuary. In Khmer, Tonle Sap means “large fresh water river” since it’s both a commercially important river system and an immense lake connecting Siem Reap in the north with Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to the south. It is the color of mud. On a typical hot, muggy day when the humidity shimmers in the air, both lake and sky meld on the horizon. I had the sensation of floating in a beige bubble.
The villagers are mainly Vietnamese – refugees from wars – and other displaced social outcasts from the Cambodian hills. They live in six floating villages scattered around the lake eking out a living fishing and selling trinkets to tourists like me. Comments from visitors in many travel guides and internet sites are either horrified at the “waste of their travel time” or, like me, stunned that life actually survives in such conditions.
Tonle Sap is teeming with life – alligators, dozens of fish, poisonous snakes and enough parasites to populate billions of human bodies. The water is fetid with raw sewage and we’re told to keep our mouths closed so that we don’t ingest spray from the boat’s wake while it’s in motion. We do as we’re told.
Yet this is home to thousands of people. Mini-market boats laden with everything from cans of Coke to fresh produce float past. A floating pen holds several fat pigs. The Catholic Church is a modest floating blue painted building. There’s a school and a huge floating gym complete with basketball court. Babies are washed in the stinking lake water. Several floating gardens are anchored to the lake bottom and some houses have Martha Stewart touches with bright tropical plants in contrast to the gray/brown of the floating huts.
For tourists, there is even a floating cafe, museum and gift store. Even before our boat docks, we’re surrounded by boats that look like they could barely float no less contain the mothers clutching babies begging for money and children wrapped in snakes for photo ops. It’s well rehearsed but genuinely wretched and dirty and smelly. Exotic items are for sale – crocodile skins, bottles of Vietnamese rice liquor with small pythons and scorpions floating inside (for real – US$7), and crocodile jerky.
You can buy beer and ice cream as well. The museum contains displays of live crocodiles, large river fish, a mainstay of the Cambodian diet and quite delicious properly prepared, and ingenious fish and eel traps created over the centuries.
So why visit? Because you have to, not out of “sympathy,” or prurient interest, but human experience. Just seeing Angkor Wat or dodging the hordes of tourists and tuk-tuks in bar laden Siem Reap is not Cambodia. Neither are the floating villages Cambodia, but it’s all a part of the reason for travel, even if you can leave and be humbled by the immense life of privilege the rest of us lead.
It is best to go with the private certified guide that you arranged for Angkor Wat and the other surrounding sites. The additional cost is US$15 per person on private boat with driver (your guide is included). The port of Siem Reap is undergoing major expansion and upgrading. It’s a strange juxtaposition to the experience you will have, but port improvements will enhance commercial development in Cambodia’s north. In contrast to the mud of Tonle Sap the lush green of the adjoining rice paddies is eye candy.