Wander: Floating Villages

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Floating Villages

Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia

 

Siem Reap is where most tourists lay their head between tours of the famous Angkor Wat temples. But if you do find yourself in this part of the world, try to visit the Floating Villages of Lake Tonle Sap. Don't mind the TripAdvisor reviews. I'm sure there are those tour guides that might want to rip you off, but done the right way with the right attitude, a trip to Lake Tonle Sap is an eye opener and a first hand look at the impact of climate change, pollution and over fishing. According to a recent report in the Khmer Times, a Cambodian newspaper, the government there has just announced plans to relocate the families along the lake. 

So the Floating Villages will be no more if all goes as plan. But for now, many still call it a way of life.

We were there last summer when the summer heat hovered in the high 90s. We hired a driver from our hotel, a young friendly man, who was eager to chat with us about our life in New York. I, in turn, always a journalist at heart, asked him with questions about life in Cambodia. And we had time. 

The lake is about a 40-45 minute drive from Siem Reap and not for the faint of heart as our driver maneuvered past speeding motorcyclists and diesel trucks along a two-lane highway.  When we finally made the turn onto a smaller road, I thought we were close. But we continued driving through several neighborhoods packed with people, going about their normal Sunday routine. We even spotted a wedding.

Our driver drove along the banks of a very narrow slip of water. We were the only car on the one-lane dirt road, except for the two or three mini buses and cars we had to make room for going the other way. It was dry season, according to our driver, but every year they were seeing less and less water.

We continued to drive. We saw women washing clothes in the murky water, some children playing naked in the river, and a few men fishermen pulling up empty nets. Our driver "K", told us that every time he comes here he has to drive farther and farther to get to the boats that will take us to the lake.  During the rainy season, Lake Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake, known as the heart of Cambodia, swell into the villages providing fish and a livelihood to more than 1 million people.  

 

Sadly, the Global Nature Fund added the lake to its list of most threatened in 2016. According to the report, several issues are facing the lake including: droughts and storms caused by climate change, illegal fishing techniques, pollution and more.

Once we arrived, our driver found us two guides.  Our main boat operator, was a slight boy, not much older than 13 years old, my daughter's age. His assistant, a young boy with a big grin, I'm guessing was 11 or 12.

Our boat was the only one making its way down the river; the diesel engine sounded like it was complaining.  My guide "K"  tells me not to put my hand in the water, but I wanted to feel how warm it was.  He looks worried when I dipped my hand in.  You can't see the bottom, the water almost looks like the color of coffee with a little cream. Along the river are bamboo cages that sit empty -- even during the wet season.  We're told the containers used to be teeming with fish, but the fisherman are finding less and less in their net these days. 

We finally come upon the famous wooden houses, high on stilts -- built high to keep the water away. But today there is little water, just enough for our boat to come through. We pass by row after row of wooden boats, some bobbing in the shallow water, some on the shore, their once bright paint now dulled by the sun's rays. As we get closer to the lake, the river widens, making room for a floating school and church, and floating restaurants, their empty tables waiting for customers who may be coming later, maybe not. 

We finally arrive. The lake stretches for miles, like an ocean, but we are the only boat on the water. Then our motor stops.  Our young captain struggles with the engine.  It keeps sputtering, choking.  He adds more fuel, but the engine refuses to turn. I joke to my daughter, a competitive swimmer, that she will have to swim back and find us help. I actually wasn't too worried. I don't know why I had faith in this 13-year-old boy and his wooden boat.  But I did. (Maybe because I have faith in 13 year olds.)  And the engine eventually turned and we chugged our way back, a little wiser, sadder, having seen how the people here are surviving what may be the last days of the floating village.

See more photos below: