Cambodia / Updated on

The Floating Villages of Siem Reap: An Inside Look at Poverty in Cambodia

There’s a part of Siem Reap that most people never see.

Many of those who visit Cambodia have only one thing on their agenda: the temples of Angkor Wat. It’s a UNESCO Heritage Site that draws more than 2 million tourists every year. There are day passes and even weekly passes, meaning some people visit Siem Reap and only ever visit the temples, never choosing to explore beyond what the guidebooks tell them.

I spent two weeks traveling in Cambodia, which is hardly enough time to really grasp the climate, but I did spend more than a year living and traveling around different parts of Asia. I genuinely believe that, by this point, I had had the opportunity to understand the direction and pace of life in this part of the world. I had seen both opportunity and poverty side by side, and had made local friends who helped me to comprehend what life in Asia is really like.

I’m not one for “typical” tourist activities. Whenever possible, I like to stray from the normal tourist path by trying to unearth a greater insight into what local life is like in any given community. I had heard about the floating Chongknease Village on the Tonle Sap Lake just outside the city of Siem Reap, so I arranged transport and a local guide.

To be honest, I hadn’t quite realized what I’d be seeing. I had not expected to come face to face with poverty; the type of poverty where people have no clean drinking water and people must evade the government in order to survive.

Being a Tourist in Cambodia

After having learned about corruption and abuse within the tourism industry in Thailand, I was sure to ask my guide all the appropriate questions about how the dollars I spent to see the village would contribute to the local community. He assured me that a large percentage of the price I paid would be given to the leader of the village, who would then decide how best to utilize the funds.

I couldn’t be sure if he was telling the truth, especially after coming face to face with deception and greed in Laos, but I took him at his word. I liked my guides. They were locals, too, and had grown up in the region.

One of them had actually spent his whole life learning English, just so he could make a living catering to the tourists.

Of course, a lot of people in Southeast Asia cater to the tourists. It is the largest industry there, and simply having white skin is grounds for becoming an immediate target. Later in the week, I would get pick-pocketed by a local prostitute, but that’s another story for another time.

On board our vessel on Tonle Sap, making our way to the village, a ragged little motorized rowboat came up behind us. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere, like something out of a Jason Statham movie, and a small boy jumped on board with a box of candy and cans of soda, all on sale for a very good price, indeed.

This happened two or three times over until one boy actually jumped on board with a giant snake wrapped around his neck. He wanted to charge us a dollar to take his picture.

For some reason, everything in Cambodia costs a dollar and, as a white boy, I was always the one they wanted it from.

Poverty in the Floating Chongknease Village

We rode for a few minutes, gliding over the calm water, taking in the unique landscape around us. The guide explained that the village we were visiting was one of seven in the area, inhabited by more than 5,800 people in total. As the water levels would change throughout the year, the villages would be forced to relocate, meaning peoples’ houses were never in the same location. As they would move, certain sites would become more popular than others, and there were often disputes in the village over who would get to settle where.

In some ways, the village here was just like any other township. There were small restaurants and bars, floating schools and floating basketball courts where the children would congregate.

The Chongknease Floating Village

The Chongknease Floating Village

But my inquisitive mind got the better of me and, in trying to understand the way the people of Tonle Sap live, I began asking questions about their living conditions. I was informed that, due to the lack of power lines in the middle of a lake, every household used car batteries to power their cell phones and other electronics.

“But what about water?” I inquired. “Where does their drinking water come from? Do they bathe with water from the river? How do they wash their clothes?”

“It’s all the same,” my guide told me. “All of their trash, scraps, and waste become pollution in this water, which is the same water they use to drink and clean their dishes.”

It’s the same water they go to the bathroom in, the same water they clean themselves with, and the same water they drink to survive.

I was floored. Regardless of the prevalence of large charity organizations who raise awareness about clean drinking water in poverty-stricken areas, I had never quite wrapped my brain around the reality of the situation or come face to face with a people who literally did not have access to clean water.

Even in the Dominican Republic, we filled a bucket from a tap and poured the cold water over our bodies in the tub.

But these houses were floating on stagnant water. There were no pipelines or wells or irrigation systems. They had no choice but to eat their meals off dishes which had essentially been “cleaned” with their own fecal matter. Every. Single. Meal.

And, what was even harder to wrap my head around was the fact that the village had greater access to electronics like cell phones than they did to clean water.

Floating House

Floating house on Tonle Sap Lake

Local Residents Working Illegally

My visit to the floating Chongknease Village had unexpectedly become a rather eye-opening experience. I asked my guide about the locals’ jobs because I assumed that living in a floating village would greatly limit ones accessibility to the world beyond it. To no surprise, the men in the village were all fisherman. But, because there is a finite number of fish in a lake, in recent years, the government has begun to regulate their fishing.

The people of the floating villages have essentially been stripped of their only plausible occupation.

In response, almost every single family on the lake keeps traps under their house, away from the eyes of the government, and is forced to fish illegally just to make enough money to survive.

Sunset on Tonle Sap

Sunset on Tonle Sap

To top it all off, these people and their villages are essentially on display for people like me, the people who come to Cambodia to see what life is like in new countries, an incredible luxury that many world citizens are never afforded.

After having seen what I saw in the outskirts of Siem Reap that day, let us please never forget how lucky we are, and do our best to give back to the world in every way that we can.

READ NEXT: Volunteering in Cambodia: When Second Chances Change the World

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