Flashback March 2016
Tonight I booked a sunset tour of Tonle Sap and the floating village of Chong Khneas with its houses, markets, villages & schools. I am solo, with a tour guide and driver. As we begin our journey, we stop to admire a landscape vista of lotus flowers, a deeply important flower in Buddhism and symbol of Southeast Asia. Next, a city built on stilts, where residents live in squalor surrounded by refuse and rubbish, glaringly visible in the dry season. Residents walk between the structures on the riverbed and build fires to burn the waste. Come wet season the area will be submerged in water, transport accessible by boats and baskets. Despite the lack of many comforts, i.e. running water and plumbing, connectivity and television access reign supreme. Satellite dishes are the highest visual point above the rooftops.
We drive onward to Tonle Sap Harbor and the floating villages. In the wet season, the lake is one of the largest freshwaters in Asia, swelling to an expansive 12,000 km. This is hard to imagine in the dry season, the water level is low and brown, resembling coffee milk. The brightly colored boats stand out a rainbow of red, blue, orange, and yellow against the shore. Tourist boats are everywhere. It makes me wonder how much of this experience is staged, how much of it is ‘real’. The color of the river deepens and is almost black the closer we get to the middle of the lake.
There are three floating village communities. Phom Kandal, is the larger floating village, home to ethnic Vietnamese displaced by both the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnam War. Chong Khneas is the smallest, inhabited by natural-born Cambodians. Motor boats and riggers are the main modes of transportation, and commerce thrives as villagers sell their wares and barter from the comfort of their barge. It functions as any city would making do with the resources at hand. There are a 2-story elementary school and a church nearby with a cluster of houseboats, anchored to bamboo reeds in the middle of the lake.
The lake feels like an ocean, the shoreline invisible to the naked eye. The stillness of the houses on the water’s edge brings back a childhood memory of launching newspaper sailboats on the rainfall streams running curbside to the gutter at the end of the street. A time when parked cars were few and streets were safe from unwieldy traffic.
The sun sets, its reflection shimmering on the water. The houseboats a silhouette against the blue-gray sky. The warm wind rustles nearby, boats come and go on the horizon. We stop for dinner at a homestay with a family of five: three adults, a young child, and a toddler. The youngest waddles over to the edge of the boat and instinctively knows when to stop.
The sun descends and melts into the sky revealing shades of purple, orange, and pink. The tour guide takes my picture, in every one my eyes are closed. The night is falling, the twilight witching hour has begun as the tour boats feverishly head back to the pier. It’s a frenzy as they jockey the shallow waters, waves water crashing against the sides. My boat hits a sandbar and we are landlocked amid the rubbish. I watch the water buffaloes graze the shore while the crew figures it out.