The floating village of Tonle Sap

There is a small floating village in Cambodia.   Inhabited by mostly Vietnamese migrants, this is a fascinating little village!

The village is on the backwaters of the Tonle Sap lake.  People in this village live on their boats in the middle of the lake.  The only mode of transport is by boat.   So, how do they build houses in the middle of the lake?  They all have tiny wooden houses that they take on a motor boat to the centre of the lake.  They carry bamboo stilts on boats and stick them into the ground to stabilise their wooden houses and make them stationary.

Men casting their fishing nets around the village, women cooking on their boats, children rowing back from school, vendors selling their ware on their boats, people doing their laundry and generally doing everything we would at home but on a boat in the middle of the lake – it was an awesome sight.  They seem to have most things they need to have for a living – including a little floating school and a floating church all within a kilometres radius.

We were told that the backwaters that they lived on would recede in the dry season, the lake would become cultivable land.  We were also told that they cultivated rice in the dry season and that the rice from these paddy fields was very tasty as the land was very fertile.  Well that’s interesting I said to my guide but what happens to the floating village?  The response was – “some of these people set up little huts in the dry area and cultivate and others move deeper into the lake where there is water and continue to live on the floating village.”

As we went on our motor boat through this village, I felt like I was in a dream world.  Hundreds of questions crossed my mind.

  • How do these people earn a living?
  • How do the kids learn?
  • When the waters recede and people stay back to cultivate, what happens to their children’s education?  The floating school floats away!
  • How do they get fresh water to cook and clean?
  • What happens when they have health issues and need medical care?
  • Where do they buy their grocery, spices, etc.?
  • What happens if it rains?
  • Do they have electricity?

The questions were endless.  I didn’t ask my guide all of these questions.  I thought every tourist he accompanies would probably ask the same questions and I didn’t want to torture him with typical tourist questions.  I tried to learn through observing.

The answer is really simple.  Like we have our definition of living standards, they have their own.  You just can’t compare the two.  Some work 9 to 5 each day, come back and watch TV to relax, go to the gym to get a physical work out, take a few weeks off each year to travel and our lives revolve primarily around the children, their education and their future.

The people in the floating villages live in perfect harmony with nature and in an environment where everything is spontaneous.  Their needs are frugal and their expectations are minimal.  They have no aspirations to travel or conquer the world.  They are satisfied to earn enough to eat and sustain themselves.  They work when they have to and rest when they can, their physical work out is what they do day to day (row, fish and cultivate), their children are taught the art of survival – that’s far more important than formal schooling.  Creature comforts are unheard of.   In fact, I don’t think I saw a television or heard a radio anywhere in the village!

Their primary occupation is fishing.  They catch enough to feed their families and sell the rest to buy other things they need.  They have minimal possessions.  They don’t aspire to buy cars or expensive clothing.  The children go to school in the day and work with their parents for the rest of the day.  They have learnt what can supplement their income.  They breed crocodiles for leather.  They make bags, baskets to sell in the markets.  They breed snakes and scorpions to make novelty wine and sell them to tourists (incidentally, they believe that rice wine flavoured with snake and scorpions improve virility … natural Viagra)!!!  They are happy, hard working and content.

Yes they don’t know much about the outer world; they are totally inwardly focused and will never see the wider world.  So what?  You don’t miss what you don’t know!!  The lure of this kind of idyllic existence is pretty strong but would I be able to do it long term – I don’t know!  For starters, I am vegetarian 🙂

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