The young girl stands motionless balancing on the weather worn wood of the boat her mother rows. The dark waters of Tonle Sap Lake so muddy one can only guess if the live, massive snake hanging on her neck has just been plucked from the water. Her infant brother sleeps soundly, cradled in the lap of their mother, precariously close to the murky waves.
The guide’s voice startles me with a terse, “Don’t take her picture!”
Although I have already snapped the distressing image I immediately understand. She and her shawl-like snake accessory are a quest for tourist dollars from those on the Tonle Sap boat tour. The complexity of photographing children for money is a world wide issue. Her dark eyes stare blankly at me as our boat quietly glides by. Nearby another child paddles at the dark brown water floating in a giant plastic bucket.
Where are the people of Tonle Sap from?
With more than 170 floating villages on Tonle Sap the majority of the 80,000 inhabitants are considered non-immigrant foreigners. Made up three ethnic groups of Vietnamese, Khmer and Cham they are a people without a country.
Enduring the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnamese living in Cambodia faced execution or deportation to Vietnam. Many were traded for rice and salt and laboured in farm fields in the late 1970’s.
Stripped of all Cambodian identity, property and papers, those who returned to Cambodia in the 1980’s could neither reclaim or buy land. Their solution then and generations later today, is to live in wooden homes floating on bamboo rafts and barrels.
Life in Cambodia’s floating villages
Caught in an unending cycle of poverty the thousands living on Tonle Sap lake are unable to overcome their status of being a people without a country. Children born to those who survive on Tonle Sap are not issued birth certificates. Those who call the floating villages home can not attend public schools, own property, get a factory job, attain a driver’s license or open a bank account.
Surviving primarily on subsistence fishing the average household annual income of a Tonle Sap family is $500USD.
With floating schools for young children only, the literacy rate of 46%, 17% lower than the general population of Cambodia, comes as no surprise. With no sanitation in the Tonle Sap villages (let that fact sink in for a moment), water born diseases take a huge toll on the population.
The average life expectancy of a Cambodia floating village resident is 54 years. When one drinks and washes from the same lake used as a toilet the staggering statistic, although appalling, is not unpredictable.
How big is Tonle Sap Lake?
The largest body of water in Cambodia ebbs and flows depending on the time of year. The Tonle Sap Lake feeds the Tonle Sap River which is a tributary to the Mekong River, connecting in Phnom Penh, the most populous city in Cambodia.
In monsoon season the water flows in reverse with the Tonle Sap river filling the lake. From 2500 square kilometers, Tonle Sap swells to 12,000 square kilometers. As the lake size changes floating houses are moved closer to places that remain navigable all year round.
Wildlife of Cambodia’s largest lake
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Tonle Sap Great Lake is of tremendous ecological importance. As the largest freshwater swamp forest habitat in Southeast Asia, 149 species of fish have been identified. Estimates put the annual fish catch of Tonle Sap between 180,000 tonnes and 250,000 tonnes.
Numerous endangered waterbirds seek refuge along with the floating village residents. The lake supports Siamese crocodiles and the world’s largest water snake harvest of more than 6.9 million snakes representing 11 species each year.
Tonle Sap Tour – Part of a Cambodia travel experience?
When I am asked what the most shocking thing I have seen in our travels is, my answer is the day we toured a Tonle Sap village. Perhaps I was naive to think that 15 minutes from the modern city of Siem Reap with its bustling Angkor Wat tourism, things could be so stunningly different.
Perhaps in some ways the now burgeoning boatloads of tourists with jaws agape at the garbage and sewage isn’t so much different than the thousands surging into the ancient city of Angkor Wat. The residents of Chong Kneas, the village situated closest to Siem Reap, now focus on tourism to aid there poverty stricken lives.
A young boy from the floating village appears like a stowaway on our Tonle Sap boat tour. Persistently he insists on massaging my shoulders while shouting “one dollar” in my ear.
As he stubbornly refuses to take his hands off me I can’t help but wonder if tourism will be the saviour of Tonle Sap Cambodia. Or will the interest of travellers in Tonle Sap present a different sea of snakes.
Click on the video below to see glimpses of our boat tour of the floating village near Siem Reap.
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What is the most shocking thing you have seen in your travels?