Cambodia: The Floating Villages of Chong Khneas
The wood creaks beneath the soles of my sandals and the boat rocks back and forth. The captain extends his hand, I grab hold -- it’s hard and calloused. I duck beneath the rotting ceiling and climb aboard.
They hide their faces in their hands, peak out at me from in between their fingers, turn to one another and giggle.
The captain’s bare feet putter along the floor as he runs through pools of water and makes his way to the back of the boat. He takes his place, adjusts his baseball cap and hovers over top of the steering wheel. He turns the key, the motor sputters out grayish water and he gradually maneuvers our boat out into the open.
We slowly rumble past a shore full of shops, seasick looking tourists, mangy looking street dogs and dilapidated local restaurants, until finally we make our move and set sail for the floating villages of Siem Reap.
I turn around, notice the children by the water jumping, shouting and waving at our boat. We gain momentum, pick up speed and then they grow small, smaller, tiny until finally they disappear.
Home to many local Cambodians, the floating villages of Chong Khneas lie along the Tonle Sap River lake system, and is eleven to fifteen kilometers outbound from the lively city of Siem Reap which is the gateway to the kingdom of Angkor Watt.
One of South East Asia’s largest fresh water lakes, the Tonle Sap, is connected to the Mekong River, which starts in the Himalayas, flows down through to China, Cambodia and eventually discharges out to sea in Southern Vietnam.
The floating villages of Chong Khneas are rich with life and overflowing with culture. With more than 5,000 residents living along the waterway, in over 1300 houseboats, a trip through the floating villages enables tourists to get an up close and personal experience with local Khmers and Vietnamese who inhabit these waters in some of South East Asia’s poorest housing projects.
We’re full throttle, cruising at top speed past floating neighborhoods. The wind blasts through me, rickety house boats sway to the melody of our on coming waves, and the sun slowly sinks along the horizon as we continue to disappear deeper and deeper into the unknown.
I stare off into the distance, and find myself transfixed by the locals who glide effortlessly across the water. Their boats are filled with cans of soft drinks, Angkor beers, fresh fruits and souvenirs.
They slowly fight their way past motor boats full of on comming tourists and paddle towards home in their tiny tin boats after a hard day’s work of selling goods to wealthy foreigners and local merchants.
The Kingdom of Cambodia has surely seen their share of hardships. From internal conflict, to genocide, the country's past has not only scarred locals with horrific memories, but has also left some struggling to make ends meet.
In Chong Khneas, poverty and strife is a daily reality for most. Not only do villagers struggle from a lack of basic facilities, but pollution, a decline in their fishing industry combined with the unwelcome onset of tourists have made life on the Tonle Sap a real struggle for some.
An unsuspecting wave creeps along side us and showers me with droplets of water. I wipe them from my brow and smile as a young boy in a bamboo boat floats by us. He’s all alone; I wonder what he’s up to and how long it took him to paddle out so far.
His long brown oar extends far beyond his head, and he waves at us shouting happily as we speed by. I watch as tourists in passing boats congregate together, huddling over guide books, pointing into the far off distance, or shielding their eyes from the last bit of sunlight.
Suddenly, our boat comes to a halt as our captain guides us alongside a young girl who’s anxiously paddled over to sell us cans of soft drinks.
She’s about four years old and she has sad eyes, tattered clothes and a smile that would melt anyone’s heart. I wonder where her parents are, and how she managed to stay afloat with a cooler full of soft drinks on the floor of her tiny tin boat.
Breathless, she examines us one by one with her big brown eyes.
I reach down and take the ice cold can from her tiny hands. I slip her a dollar bill and a fist full of coins, while other passengers empty change purses, bags, pockets and anything that has money in it.
Everyone tells her how pretty she is, she blushes, and for the first time since our encounter she starts to smile.
A few phrases are exchanged in broken English; everyone takes out their cameras and snaps photos of the little girl clutching what will probably help to feed her family tonight, a single can of Coca Cola.
Our captain winds up the visit by motioning for her to go. He starts up the motor; we say our goodbyes. She sits back down in her tiny tinny, waves goodbye and starts to paddle home to her family just like the rest of her neighbors.
As we continue our journey down the river toward the restaurant for dinner, I take out my camera and re-examine her photograph. Her downcast eyes seem to represent everyone’s story here. A story of struggle, years of poverty and an innocence lost amidst the cloudy waters of the Tonale Sap.
It’s mind blowing to imagine that this youngster has probably never owned a Barbie, a new pair of shoes or a pretty dress. Instead her family probably worries where she’ll get her next meal, or if she and her tiny tin boat will return home safely after a hard day’s work.
I turn around to see if I can still see her, and manage to catch a glimpse of her silhouette before she’s finally consumed by the darkness.
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