Updated: Apr 27, 2019
Visiting Kampong Phluk, the floating village, is not an alternative to the temples of Angkor Wat. One of the reasons I wanted to explore this village floating on stilts was to gain knowledge of their sustenance. Kampong Phluk, a cluster of villages anchored about 16 km southeast of Siem Reap is a permanent village as opposed to floating. This village sees comparatively fewer foreign visitors and offers a close look at the submerged forest and lakeside village life.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon when I headed to the floating village, and all through the journey, the narrative of the countryside kept me busy with exciting images of Khmer (Cambodian Ethnicity) lifestyle. Dropped off by my Tuk Tuk driver on the shores of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia found myself welcomed to a line of boats of different colors and sizes.
Soon as I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to a 9 & 13-year-old brother who happened to be the steersman and guide of the tour respectively. I assumed their father or an elderly figure would accompany them, as I didn't think they could manage to motor the boat all by themselves. Oh, how wrong was I? They had mastered the skill of streaming through the river. They weren’t up for small talks or any talks for that matter.
A few minutes into the boat ride, the rest of the village was in sight. I had gotten there during the dry season where the color of the water had turned mustard. I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the setting. The lake was low and the stilts long exposed by lack of water. Homes are built high on stilts (around 6 meters tall) to protect the houses from the yearly flooding. During the wet season when the forest floods and water levels rise the base is shielded safely.
Life here does seem to throw you back a few decades, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they had courageously adapted to some of the undesirable conditions. The experience is dainty to visit as a tourist for a couple of hours, click photographs and trust you explored something unique but I couldn’t comprehend their folkways. Why would one want to go through all the effort of building a house on water instead of land, wherein having the essential amenities like electricity, transportation, conventional sewerage are all going to be critical? Knowing it wasn’t best to quiz the kids gliding with me, I waited until later I got acquainted with other residents of Kampong Phluk on a floating restaurant.
The village surrounded by forest has roughly around 3000 inhabitants, and fishing is the primary occupation and a source of their livelihood. The villagers live on cabin-size houseboats where every family, rich or poor, has a wooden cage for raising crocodiles. Learning that was an eyebrow raiser moment for me.
When I got to the makeshift restaurant, I was greeted with a lot of cheer and then taken in to illustrate some of their unique breeding of creatures and other insects. Presented with food from the same kitchen did make me nervous to swallow or nibble. Watching the locals do it, I told myself to brave up and do it. Smart move on my part.
And, then the probing of thoughts began. I asked the fisherman who was dining beside me as to why people live here? Especially here? To which he replied, “ We live on the water because it’s easy to catch fish.” And I probed again, “Yes, but why does your family live on the water?”, He stared point blank into my face. Now, that stare didn't quite explain whether I sounded brilliant or bizarre. Only later did I understand the complexity of that question.
To my leverage when heading back on the boat, I was accompanied by a man who had left the floating village community when he was little, much to his accident. He now occasionally visits the village who shed some light on the whole situation.
When Cambodia was declared Independent after the borders were formalized, the ethnic Vietnamese had no place in the new nation. Having almost no right in their home country, Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese were forced to live on the water in poor conditions and fewer opportunities. The law restricts land ownership, but when it comes to water, there are no such regulations. So, the ethnic Vietnamese started flocking into the lake building houses and raising families. Thanks to the unique hydrology of Tonle Sap, one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet which drew the rice farmers, fishers to the rich shores. They live on the water because they are not able to live elsewhere, gradually the whole set-up on the river started to make sense. The solution then and later today to their problem is to live on wooden homes floating on bamboo rafts and barrels, a consequence of politically waterborne lives.
I really couldn’t help wonder how they managed to build such large-scale makeshift houses. It was just like any other township. The floating village had numerous homes, schools, restaurants, and playgrounds too. I learned that due to lack of electricity they use car batteries to power the houses. I was floored to learn about the living condition of the villagers. I felt conflicted about the thought of having their villages and lifestyles on display for people like tourists and me. Maybe it helps them reasonably monetary wise but to us, a tough yet an enriching experience induces you to be able to appreciate your rootstock better.
Transportation: Hire a Tuk Tuk (Rickshaw)
Cost : Trip may cost you about $35 to $50 per person inclusive of transport, ticket and a meal.
Photography Courtesy: @flohwithme