FLOATING VILLAGES OF CAMBODIA

Villages floating on a lake? Yes! All things are possible for those who dare says

As my father and I, disembarked from our two-and-a-half hour Silk Air flight from Singapore to Siem Reap in Cambodia, we were stunned by the beauty of the ‘Khmer’ architecture of the Siem Reap International Airport. Nowhere in our travels, had we come across an airport which beckoned us to explore the culture, and history of its people by its sheer architectural design.

The term ‘Khmer’ (also, ‘Cambodian’ or Kampuchean’) refers to around 90% – 95% of the total population of Cambodia (14.8 million), with the balance 5% – 10% distributed amongst the Chinese-Khmers, Khmer Islam or Chams, thirty different ethnic hill tribes, and the Vietnamese.

Around 10% of the Cambodian population lives in Phnom Penh, the capital, making it a country of farmers, rural dwellers and artisans.

Siem Reap is the gateway to (1) the ‘Angkor’ group of temples, and (2) the Floating Villages of Cambodia. Although we visited the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm temples, we leave a treatise on that for another time, and focus on our trip to the ‘Floating Villages of Cambodia’.

Villages floating on a lake? Yes! All things are possible for those who dare. The reason we chose to spend an hour on a boat cruise up and down the Tonlé Sap Lake was to witness the indomitable and resilient spirit of these villagers, who have made it their home.

This is the story of a community of Vietnam refugees that has rehabilitated itself in a novel and daring manner.

The ‘Floating Villages of Siem Reap’ were fashioned by the Vietnamese who fled war-torn Vietnam in 1979. The reason as to why these settlers chose to make the Tonlé Sap Lake their home was because of the fact that they had no identity cards, revealing their citizenship status in Cambodia.

Both Cambodia and Vietnam share a long history of innumerable wars, both within, without and between themselves. Amongst all the infiltrators, Cambodians have always viewed the Vietnamese with suspicion, because unlike the Thai or Chinese, they took over Phnom Penh (1979 – 1989), and tried imposing their culture, religion, language, political structure, and education. Even now, they are referred to as ‘yuon’ – a derogatory word in the Khmer language.

A lot of them (more than 100,000) were deported to Vietnam by the Lon Nol (1970 – 75) and Pol Pot regimes (1975 – 1979). Many of them were persecuted, tortured and killed as part of the latter’s ethnic cleansing, which took place in the ‘Killing Fields of Cambodia’ (the rural areas).

Even today, the Vietnamese have no legal rights to citizenship in Cambodia. They cannot hold property nor land rights. As a result, their only option is to live on water.
A whole population of men, women and children live in houses built on stilts on the Tonlé Sap Lake. Births and deaths take place, kids are schooled, and basic health care is available here – all on water! Despite years of slaughter, destitution and political insecurity, they carry a smile and a patient, gentle, and calm demeanour.

Map of Tonlé Sap River, Tonlé Sap Lake and Mekong River – Cambodia


Courtesy: Wikipedia

Tonlé Sap Lake

The Tonlé Sap, the largest in South East Asia – is an amazing fresh water lake. The Tonlé Sap River links it to the mighty Mekong River at Phnom Penh. What’s so special about these water systems is the way they are nourished and emptied out by the Mekong.

Between mid-May and early October, the Mekong expands rapidly, flowing into the Tonlé Sap River, which causes the Tonlé Sap Lake to swell from 2,500 sq km to 13,000 sq km, its depth increasing from 2.2 m to 10 m. From the start of October, as the Mekong contracts, the Tonlé Sap River empties the lake into the Mekong.

One of the better households

This seasonal filling and draining of the lake makes it one of the world’s richest sources of fresh water fish (more than 200 varieties – carp, giant barb and Mekong catfish, amongst others). And the Vietnamese have put to good use nature’s rhythms, for in the lake thrives a fishing industry, which supports one million Cambodians.

The eco-system and habitat surrounding the Tonlé Sap Lake also pulsates with its seasonal flooding and draining. A great majority of the trees, plants and shrubs are deciduous. Instead of shedding their leaves during the dry season, they loose them when the lake deepens, when they are inundated. However, there are also several plant species that remain evergreen, despite being waterlogged for six to eight months, each year. They are laden with fruits and seeds, at the time of flooding.

Various biosphere reserves located around the Tonlé Sap Lake serve as protection to a wide variety of animal species (pileated gibbon, tiger, wild dog, sun bear, clouded leopard, otter, alligator, crocodile, common leopard, endemic bat macaques), and snakes (pythons). There are also many exotic birds (Greater and Lesser Adjuncts, Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican, Grey-Headed Fish Eagle and many more species) at the Prek Toil Bird Sanctuary.

The floating villages are self-contained units. They are electrified using diesel transported by boats. Shops on the lake sell groceries, fish and rear crocodiles for their skin. They even have a floating school, basketball court, hospital and a church.

Woman transporting vegetables and grocery

Basketball court

Crocodile farm

School

Store

Store with satellite dish

The houses are built on stilts. By an ingenious mechanism, aided by the ebb and flow of the lake, they manage to always remain above water. Although, the Vietnamese lead extremely hard lives to eke out a living, they have managed to make nature work for them.

As we bade adieu to our Vietnamese friends, we were struck by this thought – ‘In today’s world, where man typically harnesses his knowledge to exploit nature to its detriment, here is an inspiring example of how he has used his ingenuity constructively, to work in harmony with nature.’

Photographs: G. Sankaran
Jayanthi Sankaran

GETTING THERE:
‘The Floating villages’ are 15km South of Siem Reap International Airport. There are many convenient flights from Singapore and other SE Asian cities.
WHERE TO STAY:
Somadevi Angkor Hotel (four star). There are a number of other hotels suiting all budgets:
www.agoda.co.in.
HOW TO TRAVEL:
For two people a tuk-tuk is very convenient and cheap. If a personalized tour guide is needed, it’s better to hire a van with a driver.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT:
The best time to visit Siem Reap is in the winter months between November and January.
BEST SEASON TO AVOID:
The summer months between March to May are very hot and humid (33 degree Celsius).

A useful web link is www.tourismcambodia.org/ which is the Department of Tourism, Cambodia website.

47 Comments

  • A warm welcome in Ghumakkar Family, Jayanthi.

    This is one of the best story in recent times. Brilliant. You are a journalist…so, you look at the places from a different angle, which a normal traveller do miss sometimes. I am really surprised to see some of the pictures e.g. Floating School, Basketball court…

    Do share with us about Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm temples and many more…

    Regards,

  • Dear Amitava,

    Thank you very much for your kind comments. I appreciate it. I do have a piece written up on Ta Prohm which will be my second article for Ghumakkar. I am still editing it and hope to send it by the end of next week.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Amitava,

    I made a mistake in my above reply. Sorry about that. Instead of putting in my name, I put yours!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Warm welcome to the ghumakkar family, Jayanthi. Your journalistic pedigree is evident in this very informative and well written travelogue.

    We have heard of the boat people from Vietnam who sailed all the way to Australia to seek asylum there but never heard of the boat people who have created a “Trishanku Swarga” of their own on the Tonle Sap lake. There people remind me of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, people who belong to no country; sad that political establishments behave in such an inhumane manner. It is also a tribute to the spirit of the residents of these floating “villages” that they manage to eke out a living in the face of such insurmountable adversities.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Mr Narayan,

    Thank you so much for your kind compliments and comments. I especially marvel at your in-depth observation of the Tonle Sap refugees with those who sailed to Australia to seek asylum. The comparison with the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar is striking and timely. It is indeed tragic that their daily lives are such a grind but as you also point out is a tribute to their indomitable and resilient spirits.

    Thanks, once again.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • SilentSoul says:

    Welcome to Ghumakkar with this unique piece of travelogue on a relatively lesser know place.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Jayanthi,

    welcome to Ghumakkar.

    Thanks for letting us know about Siem Reap and floating village. It origin is very interesting and yet another instance, as said above of human resilience.

    Thailand has this concept of floating village…but a full-blown village on stilts is quite unique.

    Compliments for a precise narration which makes the article more interesting.
    Thanks,
    Auro.

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    I heard about the flotting villages but saw first time through your post.

    Due to political reasons Vietnamese does not have rights to citizenship in Cambodia. They cannot hold property but how localities behave with the Vietnamese ‘s refugees .

    Great Job , one more gem added in Ghumakkar family !

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Hi Auro,

    Thank you very much for your compliments and comments! Yes, a full-blown village floating on stilts is indeed extrememly unique.

    So glad you enjoyed my piece.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Thanks for your compliments! As far as the interaction between native Khmers and the Vietnamese refugees go, the former have tried evicting the latter many times. So, it is indeed very hard for the latter to eke out a living, in addition to the other factors that deter them.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear SS,

    Thank you very much for your compliments!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Thanks, Auro in pointing out the correction regarding the Floating market of Thailand.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Anne says:

    Dear Jayanthi,

    You made it. I am happy for you. Congratulation! We have visited the floating villages some years ago and it is wonderful to read about them again in such a sensitive matter. When we were “floating” along the floating villages I enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere there and I was surprised what is possible by living in this uncommon way. I still remember the children playing and swimming happily in a water using an old truck tyre as floatation device; nearby their moms would do the laundry… Sometimes children used big washbowl as boat – funny and amazing. There were women who combed their long black hair in front of tiny huts, men playing cards, families coming back from the grocery store by boat, workmen using their long boats as transporter and, of course, fishermen. At the floating school students cheerfully waved to us and we greeted them back… However, a glance inside the huts made it clear how poor these people are and what a hard life they lead.
    The historical background is very complicated, inhuman cruel and almost unbearable sad…

    I hope to see you soon although it seems you are very busy with writing (what is great for you).

    Hugs
    Anne

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Hi Anne,

    Thanks for your comments and compliments! Thank you also for adding additional material to my article, thereby, enriching it. I remember you mentioning that you and your husband had also visited the ‘Floating Villages’.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Wonderful Post with new concept that I have seen.

    Photos are phenomenal.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Vishal,

    Thank you very much for your comments and compliments on my posting. I appreciate it.

    Kind regards
    Jayanthi

  • First time I heard of these floating villages. Very interesting. Life is not so easy for many persons in this world. Thanks for taking us through.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Deependra,

    Thanks a lot for your comments and compliments! Yes, we take a lot of things for granted in our daily lives. These people show us how to lead life without complaining.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Lalgudi Saptarishi Ganapathy says:

    Excellent and you made a wonderful journey and took all of us!!
    Thank you very much and the pfotos are excellent.
    with regards,
    lsg

  • Brig N B Subramanian.( Retd ) says:

    I loved going through this exciting article, well augumented by good visuals It tempts me to visit some of these floating villages of Cambodia. A job well done, congratulations to the author Jayanthi Sankaran.
    nbs.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Lalgudi Sir,

    Thank you very much that I was able to take you, with my father, on a virtual tour of the ‘Floating Villages of Cambodia’. Appreciate the compliments and comments!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Balu Uncle,

    Thanks so much for your feedback. Also, so glad that I was able to take you, with Appa and me, on a virtual tour of ‘The Floating Villages’.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Eric Bhai says:

    Very nice, Jayanthi!

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Thanks, Eric Bhai. Thanks for all the encouragement, which means a lot to me. More so, for taking time out of your busy schedule!

    Take care
    Jayanthi

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Welcome aboard Jayanthi. Very happy to see this in print. :-). All the hard work paid.

    When I look at T3, I always wonder that how did we goof up at a great possibility of exposing the visitors with the true India. It smells and feels same as any large airport outside of India. Cold and Big. May be we can borrow a oar or two from Siem Reap. A photo or two would have further helped our readers to get a sense of what you describe about the airport.

    Now the lake village, my memory fails me here but probably this is a FOG (first on ghumakkar) so congratulations. It is indeed a work of art with gallons of sheer hard effort. Bravo. I was left craving for more photos and more details (some of which Anne did describe) about the local life.

    Hope to read more from you on Cambodia and beyond. Best wishes.

  • Vasanthi Jayaraman says:

    Hi Jayanthi,

    Lovely article! I thoroughly enjoyed it – very informative! Keep it up and look forward to your next article.

    cheers
    vasanthi

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    Very informative and interesting article. I can’t imagine a floating village with all necessities like school, badminton court, grocery and vegetable shops everything floating…………. It was really a great post. Thanks for sharing………..Keep it up.

    Thanks.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Nandan,

    Thank you for your comments and compliments! I appreciate it. Originally, I wanted to put up pictures of the Siem Reap international airport too. Especially, since I start out with it and describe it as a unique structure that beckons tourists to Siem Reap. I will send you the pictures of the airport separately. Maybe you can still insert it in the beginning.

    As far as the village goes, you are right. We really did not have much time to interact with the villagers since we had a flight to catch. We were in Siem Reap for only three days and we had to squeeze in all the Angkor temples (Angkor Vat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and so many others) plus the Floating Village. I guess that is why the social interaction with the villagers got somewhat short-changed. Sorry about that!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Thanks, Vasanthi! Appreciate your comments and support.

    Take care
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Thanks Mukesh sir,

    I really appreciate your comments and compliments! So glad that you enjoyed reading my article.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Dr. Radha Shankar says:

    pl feel free to use my mail any way you wish to and you more than deserve the accolades .
    regards

    radha shankar

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Dr. Radha,

    Thank you so much for your encouraging comments! It means the world to me.

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • Susheela V says:

    It’s lovely, Jayanthi!
    So nice to see the level of detail in the article.
    The small tidbits, the descriptions – they all serve to bring alive your experience to a reader who perhaps has never heard of such a place!

    And the pics have come out very well – compliments to your father on taking these really good pictures.

  • Leela says:

    Congratulations on your first publication in Ghumakkar, Jayanthi! I read it late last night
    and thoroghly enjoyed it. It is such an interesting place to read about. The people are so resilient! The photos make the article come alive. I felt as though I was right there on the boat with you! I am looking forward to your next article. God bless, Leela.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Susheela,

    Thanks a lot for your comments and compliments. It really means lot to me!

    Take care
    Jayanthi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Leela,

    Thank you so much for taking the time out to read my article late at night and in the midst of your travelling. I am so glad that you felt that you were right next to me on the boat. It would have been lovely if you had actually been there!

    Love and God-bless
    Jayanthi

  • Jayalakshmi says:

    The article is very informative and has taken me imaginatively to the floating village. This shows how these things are made possible. The photographs taken by yourself and your father are awesome. Thank you so much – love jayalakshmi

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Jayalakshmi,

    Thank you very much for your comments and compliments on my article. I am so glad that you liked it.

    Love
    Jayanthi

  • Antoinette Hinckworth says:

    Hi Jayanthi

    Thank you for sending the link. Your article and photos look fantastic and i can see that you have received some very positive responses.

    Well done!

    Best wishes
    Jane:

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Dear Jane,

    Thank you so much for your all your encouragement and good wishes. You have and will always be a great instructor who helped me complete my journalism course from the London School of Journalism.

    Kind regards
    Jayanthi

  • nandinee says:

    Janaki, Thanks for this wonderful post. I did not know about the floating villages until now. Although born in distress and desperation, this has become a very beautiful thing.

  • Jayanthi Sankaran says:

    Hi Nandinee,

    This travelogue was written by me – Jayanthi Sankaran, and probably distributed by Janaki. Just wanted to clarify – no problem!

    So glad to know that you liked it. Did you get a chance to read my other post – ‘Trees Trounce Temple’?

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

  • jaykakarla says:

    Dear jayanthi, very well written article with good photos. You have touched upon the history of the place too, in a nice short way!

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