A life, afloat – Tonle Sap Floating Village, Cambodia

Hidden between the ruins of the Angkor temples, along the freshwater highways of the Tonle Sap, lies a community unlike any other; a series of villages born out of water, the wooden stilts emerging from the mud and into a hazy air clouded by innocence and humility. This is the birthplace of dreams and their resting place, a community where life moves on just as much as it stays the same, the rusty boats passing by only a reminder of the impermanence of it all. I sat on the edge of the boat, floating on the high tide, and watched the story of the land unfold, each turn surprising with its raw scenery. Here, you feel the heartbeat of the people. The water, like glue, shaping and defining the way you build a life.

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, covering an area of almost 3000km. It is a place rich in biodiversity, a blessing for the population living and sustaining itself mostly from fishing and related aquatic activities. Named ‘the heart of Cambodia,’ this body of water is not only a powerhouse for Cambodia’s economy (accounting for 60% of Cambodia’s production of freshwater fish and 12% of rice harvest), but also acts as a symbol of the unity between humans and nature. Water sustains, yet at the same time, water constricts; more than 80% of households do not have access to safe drinking water. It educates, passing on trade secrets across generations, young fisherman learning the ropes from their elders, yet at the same time, 70% of children do not finish primary school. It is a beautiful place of contrasts, a reality that inundates hope, just as the water engulfs the boats parked along the stilts on a rainy day.

The sheds built from timber and rusty iron plates give us a glimpse into the local’s lives, and the boats manned by women in colourful dresses, filled with fruits and fish, remind us of their sustenance. As many as four generations live under the same roof, all scattered on one level, hiding behind the ornamental cloths dancing in the wind. The villages are bustling with life, boats crossing from one side to the other, picking up people and dropping them off across the water, often getting stuck in the midday traffic. A group of children in one of the nearby sheds monitoring the activity, and after a reluctant wave, smiling, before quickly hiding inside.

Life on the Tonle Sap moves with the seasons. Some of the structures are seasonal, villages embracing the rhythm of nature, entire families moving with their livestock to places where the water levels are high enough to sustain daily life. The motto here seems to be one of survival and adaptation, communities coming together to face each day with joy and optimism, their occasional soft smiles brushing away any doubt of worry or desolation. Everyone has a role to play, it’s a place where routine is more than just monotone, but a familiar adventure.

Life on the lake moves on; that’s the only constant.

At the same time, life is lived.

And no tide, regardless of how high, can ever take that away.

Tonle Sap, 2016

© Tonle Sap, Experience And Lessons Learned Brief, 2006 | Tonle Sap Information Guide, Ministry of Environment, 2007

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