Floating in a big blue, plastic bucket, with a long stick propelling her towards us, came a little girl asking for ‘dollars’. We were on a half-day cruise on Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and were about to stop by at a floating crocodile farm for some refreshments, souvenirs and selfies. The girl had comfortably wrapped a snake around her body, which she seemed to have plucked out of the water.
According to our guide, the girl was from one of the floating villages on the lake, mostly inhabited by groups of people who were “neither Cambodian nor foreigners”. With more than 170 floating villages on Tonle Sap, most of the 80,000 people living here are considered non-immigrant foreigners, he explained.
In the ’70s, many Vietnamese living in Cambodia faced deportation after a change in regime. Stripped of all Cambodian identity documents, those who returned in the ’80s could neither reclaim nor buy land. Their solution was to live in wooden homes floating on the lake. So, their children don’t get birth certificates, they can’t attend public schools, own property, get regular jobs, or even open bank accounts. They subsist primarily on fishing and tourist dollars. That’s what had brought the little girl to us.
Located 17 km outside Siem Reap, the 10,000-sq-km Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake of Southeast Asia. It is home to crocodile farms and in its mangroves breed a variety of fish, that are said to feed half of Cambodia. But, the biggest tourist attraction is the floating villages.
The three noteworthy villages here are Chong Khneas, Kampong Phluk and Kampong Khleang. While Chong Khneas may not be the most beautiful, it’s the closest to Siem Reap, which makes it most accessible for eager tourists with less than two hours to spare. The villagers dwell in stilted and floating houses which keep moving according to the level of water. One can spot a floating school here and even a church suspended on water next to it. If one is not into the usual tourist activity of dining at one of the crocodile farms on the lake, there are Korean eateries in Chong Khneas, and the chance to buy local artifacts from the floating markets.
Kampong Phluk literally means “harbour of tusks”. It is 30 km from Siem Reap and the community in this village thrives on catching fish and shrimp. Some even rear crocodiles for a living. You can even sample some crocodile meat at one of the floating restaurants here.
The idea of living on a floating riverboat house may be romantic but the life here is far from it. People in these floating villages wash, bathe, swim, and fish in the river. Most of the houses here are one- or two-room dwellings with scant furniture.
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