Beautification – two things come to mind when people use that word. The first is primped-up gardens, litter-free grass, and a nice coat of paint on an old building to enhance a visitor’s perception of a site or region – not bad, huh?
The second, unfortunately, is often what it takes in order to get that desired effect. The existing filth and squalor are covered up by the removal of both the people and infrastructure accused of creating said condition so that tourists won’t leave the country in question with a negative perception of the living conditions of the average citizen.
Conditions of environment and poverty can be heavily improved by increased open access to education, but in countries whose governments don’t want their citizens thinking too much because their continued milking of the system through corruption (and gerrymandering, thanks Arnie!) keeps them driving the latest model of Lamborghini while their constituents can barely afford motorbikes, education is considered dangerous to their grip on power. Plus, that enormous defense budget (with further cuts to education) just bought your Major General a house in the Loire Valley, because he can stage a coup whenever he wants.
So beautification is both the “safest” and most politically-correct choice, especially in countries without democracy.
My point in saying all this is that, as I’ve been told, the banks of the Siem Reap River as far as Preah Einkosei (in northern Siem Reap City) were lined with fishing villages on stilts as late as the 2000s. These were traditional dwellings that had for the most part survived the Khmer Rouge Regime, and if they hadn’t they were repaired quickly following Pol Pot’s retreat towards the Thai border.
Around the early 2010s (before my time), as tourism to Angkor (Cambodia’s one reliable financial resource) increased due to both the establishment of the Banana Pancake Trail by Western backpackers and the rise of regional tourism in the form of giant tour groups from China, Japan, and Korea, the government in Phnom Penh decided to beautify the Siem Reap River in its main tourist hub.
The old wooden stilt-houses were torn down, boats and families were moved downstream, fishing all but ceased along the Siem Reap River within the city, and the traditional juxtaposition of sleepy French colonial buildings alongside traditional Khmer waterside villages came to an end, replaced with flashy new neon Night Markets with English, Chinese, and Korean writing alongside vibrant loud clubs and restaurants catering to tourists and upper-class Khmers.
An unprecedented construction boom began in Siem Reap around 2010 has been continuous during all four of my trips to Angkor; I remember coming back in 2015 and realizing that my favourite convenience store in 2012 had been torn down and replaced with a boutique hotel. Not only that, but 2.1 million people visited Angkor Wat in 2015, generating $60 million worth of ticket sales; while it’s sad from an anthropological perspective to see traditional communities disappear in the face of modernity, a fishing-village-lined Siem Reap wasn’t going to be able to handle feeding, bedding, and disposing the waste of 2.1 million people without a complete overhaul, which has been incredibly positive for the local economy.
That said, the “old way” of life didn’t die out, it simply continued on downstream as it always have. And the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake, two very different types of “floating village” still exist.
The first, with the best example (or at least the best example I’ve seen) at Kompong Phluk, is the village on stilts, which if we deteriorate into semantics is not actually floating.
The second, with the best example at the ever-moving village of Chong Kneas, is the village floating on barrels. This one definitely is waterborne.
I’ll expand on these in a minute.
Anyway, the tourist influx to Angkor undoubtedly created a gradual demand for something that could potentially serve as a “break” for visitors to Siem Reap suffering from a bit of a Khmer Empire overdose, i.e. something that wasn’t temple after temple after temple, and would get them out of the awful heat of the jungle. The solution was, ironically, to showcase the very culture that the government had booted out of Siem Reap during the town’s beautification process, and sell the experience for a profit.
It’s hard to trace when exactly tourists began lining up to see these floating villages, but visitors have been jetting by them on ramshackle motorboats and rickety rowboats for decades (if not for a century when the French were here) on their way to catch the sunset on the Tonle Sap.
The story goes, and I’ve heard this from more than once source, that at some point in the late 2000s a few shrewd and well-connected businessmen from Phnom Penh bought up all the riverboats, employed local people from Kompong Phluk, Chong Kneas, Kompong Khleang, and other villages on the Tonle Sap to drive them, created a network of tourist companies and drivers in Siem Reap to drive visitors down and print admission tickets, and made a business of it. The sunset, now no longer the sole purpose of one’s visit to the Tonle Sap, became the added bonus to a bit of obscure ethnography (my friends in anthropology might refer to it alternatively as poverty porn, as fishermen in these villages are clocking in at an annual wage of $500 USD), and the business thrived.
Tourism brings a constant trickle of money to floating villages in the form of worker’s wages, but not in terms of upkeep, infrastructure, or support – that comes from various NGOs who have mostly invested in education and fishery resources. Considering the aspirations of the tourguide my parents and I had at Kompong Phluk to open his own travel company (he’s at university in Siem Reap – the first guy I’ve met in town who’s actually getting a degree), this might change in the next few years/decades, but for now while the profits are owned by someone else, tourism is still a secondary source of income to traditional subsistence farming and fishing.
But every rural family’s got a foot in the door in the cities, even if it’s just for the dry season before the harvest. This is because you simply can’t afford to just be a fisherman or farmer in this crazy money-driven world anymore, especially considering Cambodia’s rice exports are extremely limited and the price of rice rarely keeps up with inflation. Cambodia, essentially, is a subsistence economy whose people are tied to the land by both necessity and choice (culturally)/lack of choice (politically), so when the rural folks aren’t harvesting or fishing, the breadwinner and their unmarried adult children leave for 4-5 months/year to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or Battambang to get paid for basic urban labor. For example, many help out in construction, drive a tuk-tuk, wash laundry, cook, work at hotels, or even, unfortunately, traffic drugs and prostitution.
Anyone who’s ever been to Siem Reap knows how many tuk-tuk drivers try to sell me a dimebag of weed every night when I’m walking home. Or, before the government cracked down on prostitution in Siem Reap, the “Siem Reap Four Questions”: 1) tuk tuk? 2) boom boom? 3) weed? and 4) coke? All in that order. Now they’re only dealing weed, and while the folks dealing it look a bit shady, you eventually remember that no one enters the drug trade with a smile on their face – it’s an act of desperation to keep the farm or the fishery going or to put food on their plates.
ANYWAY, I realize I give way too much background info on things sometimes but I have an obsession with knowledge. And I research the shit out of everything before I go anywhere – my parents will attest to this considering I was a walking Wikipedia page for their four days at Angkor. Now, onto the lake:
The Tonle Sap, meaning “Large River” (Tonle) “Not Salty” (Sap), is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, and despite its size is incredibly shallow, not any deeper than 10m at any point. It’s both a lake and a river, being fed by the Tonle Sap River and the Siem Reap River which flow out of the Kulen Mountains, and it flows into the Mekong River around Phnom Penh – you can actually take a boat all the way up from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and I’ll be writing an entry about that boat trip in April when I go back down to Phnom Penh to finally resolve my lost bag issue once and for all (i.e. get compensation). The coolest thing about the Tonle Sap, besides for the flora and fauna of course, is the fact that the lake/river changes flow for six months of the year to coincide with the filling of the Mekong to which it is a tributary. I’m not quite sure the actual natural dynamics of reverse water flow, but I assume it has to do with flood plains or something beyond my scope. I dead with artificial hydraulic systems :P.
The lake is one of the main reasons the Khmer Empire was originally sustainable, and one of the primary reasons why Angkor was the seat of Khmer power for as long as it was. The flow from the Kulen Mountains to the Tonle Sap created the means for the hydraulic system that allowed the Khmers to have two growing seasons instead of one (which eventually led to their downfall but the Tonle Sap is a happy place!), and is depicted on bas-reliefs at multiple temples in the Angkor region.
Despite the abandonment of Angkor by the monarchy, Cambodians have continued living on the lake and farming the rice paddies surrounding it up until the present day. Currently, the modern Khmer population are joined by several diasporic populations who’ve migrated to Cambodia along various river channels. The Vietnamese, for example, live in houses/villages floating on oil drums within an inescapable legal loophole because the Cambodian government won’t grant them the right to own property on the mainland. It’s a bit of a contentious issue at the moment, but for the present time they’ve carved themselves their own little niche at Chong Kneas.
As you can see, none of the houses are more than docked to the land, and are usually pulled up and down by motorboats. It’s not a case of moving where the fish is, but because the Tonle Sap swells in the rainy season and shrinks in the dry season (a result of the change in flow) you don’t want to find your house beached and a Cambodian policeman waiting to deport you knocking on your door.
Ethnic Chams (southern Vietnamese), Thais, Hmong, and Laotians live at Chong Kneas as well, and for the last five years all of these groups have brilliantly adapted their floating town to appease the onslaught of regional tourism from China and Korea.
But there are some seriously funny instances of Sinocentric pandering.
But Chong Kneas’s real gem (and PETA folks please look away) are its crocodile farms. Having a floating village has its advantages to a stilted one when raising giant lizards in need of both sustenance and exercise – your crocodiles can swim with you!
Crocodile memorabilia, from belts to wallets to shoes to taxidermied organics are available in Siem Reap…yep, you can buy a stuffed skeletal crocodile corpse and take it home.
But, again, like tourism, the village just provides the raw materials – someone more business-savvy and more well-connected ends up making the lion’s share of the profits.
So those are gas-cans. But what about the stilts? Well, the houses in Kompong Phluk (and Kompong Khleang further down the Tonle Sap) are pretty much 100% Khmer owned. No regional minorities except for a few legal Thai migrants.
The stilt-houses of Kompong Phluk are both interesting in the dry and in the rainy seasons, but because I’ve only ever been there in the dry season I can only speak to that. In the dry season, two storeys of wooden stilts on every house, seemingly ramshackle but strong as steel, become visible as the Tonle Sap recedes. Waterway avenues turn into red mud roads, and hundreds of fishing boats crowd the narrow river to compete with the hundreds of tourists boats that pass through every day.
But compared to Chong Kneas, Kompong Phluk has obviously got a bit more “legal” NGO help, and has even been able to construct a surprisingly nice wat and the infrastructure to keep it dry.
It’s unclear exactly how many people make their livelihood from fishing on the Tonle Sap – estimates are anywhere from 5,000 – 20,000 (and 1/4 of the population lives around the Tonle Sap not as fishermen) – but the more people you have in your village, the more likely you are to attract NGO aid. And because the bong thom‘s in the Cambodian government shrug at peasant plight, private companies and NGOs are often the only means of funding large building projects such as secondary waterways and village-wide generators (although recently the government hooked up Kompong Phluk to the grid).
Tourism just goes through these villages, though – it doesn’t stay there. As I mentioned, the sunset on the Tonle Sap is the icing on the cake even though you’ve come to see the villages as a visitor, so like a museum the tourists file in and out between 4-5pm on their way to floating restaurants and some epic solar action:
But after the sun goes down, the town tucks in for the night and the tourist boats dock back at the jetty. No one’s lives have been particularly changed by each other’s presence (besides for a few $$ here and there in the form of dry-season wages), and that might’ve ended up being the case in Siem Reap if the government didn’t choose to beautify the city for the Angkor tourists.
That said, it’s tough to tell how the future of these communities will unravel with the continued move of youth towards the cities towards the opportunities that come with globalization. While many young fisherman (and I say fishermen because Cambodian women rarely make these choices) are completely content living the life their parents did, others with young children cite the lack of access to immediate economic resources, education, and proper sanitation as reasons to leave (these are the Cambodian ones, the Vietnamese, Chams, Thais, etc. are stuck). The Tonle Sap will always be the beating heart of waterlogged Cambodia, but at some point the world becomes smaller and traditional lifestyles become inconvenient and unfulfilling. Plus, some sibling, usually the eldest, will stick around to keep the fish on the family table, so if you strike out in Siem Reap you can always come home and start again.
Tips on visiting:
- Group tours are the best way to go to either Chong Kneas or Kompong Phluk, and most hotels and hostels can easily organize the usual $18 PP trip. If you’re willing to spend a bit more ($29 PP), Tara River Boat Tours does a nice lunch and dinner spread.
- Kompong Khleang tours don’t offer a sunset opportunity – nice lunch, though.
- There’s a scam at Kompong Phluk where NGOs donated school supplies to the school but the parents snatch them up from the classrooms and try to get tourists to pay for the donated supplies in the guise of charity. Walk away, don’t fall for it because it makes no sense and in terms of scams that’s one of the more fucked up ones.
- The floating restaurants are surprisingly affordable, and they cook the crap out of everything so you won’t get sick.
- Bring bug repellant – you often don’t get back to the jetty before dark and there are some big bugs that come out after sunset.
- If you’re an avid bird-lover go to Preak Toal – it’s much pricier but it’s also a UNESCO-sponsored wildlife reserve so they’ve kept it in great shape.
- At Chong Kneas, don’t give money to the boys rowing around holding live pythons – do what I do and tell them to go to school.
- This is a given, but don’t be a nuisance or be belligerent or fall off the boat 😛
Next entry: Jungle shrines at Angkor Thom and the ultimate predator-prey showdown between a spider and a giant moth.