We’re sitting in a wooden boat cruising through the Tonlé Sap, floating plants lining both sides of the path we’re taking. We’re making our way towards Chong Kneas, one of Tonlé Sap‘s floating villages and perhaps the most popular and touristy.
We finally reach the village and see rows of floating houses and buildings – a school, a basketball court, makeshift shops, and even a church. The villagers go about their daily chores, almost seemingly unaware of our presence. After all, with the sheer number of tourists that visit Chong Kneas, we are just one of many that pass through on any given day. But they are aware, and some, most observant.
Just like many who have come before us, we were there to view the sunset. We stop our boat momentarily in the middle of the lake to take in the cool evening breeze and to wait for the sunset. A young girl, probably no more than six years of age, and her father, spot us and ride their boat towards ours. My travel companion, upon seeing that the girl had a huge python around her neck, takes a quick shot of her on his camera. The girl immediately stretches out her hand and demands for money and would not leave till we give her some. Upon receiving the 2000 riel (USD0.50) we had given her, the girl and her father ride off towards the next tourist boat and I take a mental note to never photograph a local in a boat holding any reptile.
Moments before, another boat were “attacked” by another boat of locals. A speedboat carrying two local ladies raced towards the tourist boat, and one of the ladies quickly leapt into the latter boat, bearing with her some bottles of soft drinks. She shoved the bottles in front of the tourists’ faces, asking them if they would like to buy drink. They paid for the drinks, and just as quickly as she first made her way onto the boat, she jumped back into her original speedboat, and sped off to accost her next “victim”. Such is the life of many of these villagers who make their living through such means.
Despite the touristy-ness of the whole experience, there is still something most remarkable about the lives of the villagers who survive in these floating houses. The villagers, many of whom are illegal immigrants from Vietnam, have no choice but to stay in floating villages. They make do and many spend their whole lives in these houses, some of which are mere wooden boats converted into tiny houses. Smaller boats for transport are what cars are to us. Motorised boats are a greater luxury and many solely rely on a simple paddle to aid the navigation process through the waters.
The more I observed the villagers, the more enthralled I became with their lifestyle. I could not even imagine living the life they have and that was what truly fascinated me. In addition, the sounds of happenings around – water splashing as the paddles hit the water, children’s laughter as they spun around in little wooden tubs during their playtime, the throb of the boats’ motors as they passed – all created a sense of calm in my heart. And for a moment, I forgot the how god-damn touristy this place was… and how harsh the lives of the locals truly were.
Here’s a video for you to take in the sights and sounds of Chong Kneas, just as I did: