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The Floating Village at Tônlé Sap

Tonle-Sap-dockThe diesel stench knocks me off balance. I gag and topple into the vehicle. The two youngsters, neither more than twenty years old, laugh and hold out eager hands to catch me. Dinghies, canoes, and ferries are scrunched up and down the dock like olives jammed inside a jar. All anticipate the hordes they will carry to Tônlé Sap Lake. Their toxic fumes rise in a smoggy cloud and blend with the Cambodian morning air. Scrawny, half-clothed striplings jump and shout above the roar of fifty engines. 

Tonle-Sap-tours“Welcome, welcome,” the boys greet us. “Watch head, watch head,” the guide advises aboard our twelve-foot wooden raft painted vivid ultramarine, with cinnamon colored tarp roof and cane chairs as seating. A four-foot lawnmower motor is attached to it rigged with strings like an underfed kite. The rudder is scrap metal ingeniously held together with twine. The crew introduces themselves: Boran, Hout, and Savath, before scurrying to their respective tasks. One pushes off with his foot from the mêlée of vessels, the other pumps the engine, while the third hovers on the prow yelling directions. We veer left, then right, then smack into a scow. Hout chuckles and tries to shove off, however, the lip of our vehicle is stuck under the other’s stern. The captain of the barge glowers and reluctantly lends a hand. We swivel, the motor sputters, and we are at a standstill.

Tonle-Sap-storeA lively discussion ensues before Savath says, “Sorry, no gas.” Boran jumps into the tenebrous river and shoulders the craft towards an emerald shed leaning upon cement pillars on the side. It is an enterprising gas station and fish market. Five minutes later we have filled up and glide towards Tônlé Sap Lake. For centuries this floodplain has been one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in southeast Asia, home to the Mekong giant catfish, the Manchurian reed warbler, and the Siamese crocodile. Although I would love a glimpse of these creatures I realize they are undiscoverable in the madness of this river. Instead the channel fills with corpulent multi-tiered tour vessels growling past us.

“I didn’t realize it would be so crowded,” Jesse says.

“Yes, too many boat causing traffic every day,” Boran answers with a rueful laugh. With the best command of English, he is designated as our guide, the rest content to smile and nod in agreement. “Everyone goes this way in morning. We have traffic. Then in evening everyone goes other way. So we have traffic again. Boat companies dig out river to make bigger, but more space not big enough!” A behemoth cruiser honks and Savath scurries us to the side to avoid being overrun. Savath chortles and says something which makes the two boys laugh. The thread like mud strand and spindly trees will surely collapse with further enlargement. Notwithstanding, above us on the raised bank, excavators and bulldozers stand at attention. Underneath the machinery a father and son cast their net with a practiced flick of the wrists. I point the pair out to the others, marveling at how the edge of their trawl swishes in the light before splaying under water.

Tonle-Sap-fisher“Do the fishermen catch a lot of fish?” I ask.

“No, only small fish,” Boran says, holding his thumb and index finger three inches apart to indicate size. “Most fish gone now.” A knot begins to form in the pit of my stomach at this point. I had read about the thriving ancient riparian culture upon this lacustrine basin and wanted to experience that unfamiliar lifestyle: a world where one’s path, one’s existence, even one’s perspective was dependent on water. Without the viable employment, I am nervous about what I will witness at the floating village towards which we head.

Tonle-Sap-hutThe caramel channel widens into a mere with no visible shore. Pockets of raised huts appear in the distance, like flocks of sleeping stork. As we approach the flimsy houses look even more precarious, lurching as if they are soused. The village lies in wait. Old men, their knees drawn into their chests, smoke on verandas. Middle aged men lean against doors with blank expressions. In contrast, a handful of children inside metal washtubs paddle swiftly towards us. “One dollar, one dollar, one dollar!” they shout as we bolt by them. Life plays out upside down here: the adults lounge while their progeny panhandle.

Tonle-Sap-kidMost of the community and almost every tour ship congregates on a large stationary two-story raft where we finally dock. It is an amalgam souvenir shop, café, and sundeck wherein postcards, chips, and dried fish can all be had for the right price. A surge of visor-wearing visitors troops onto the platform, the men swinging long lens cameras from their necks, the women holding Vuitton bags. Every local on board pounces and we are awash in haggling. Jesse and I wriggle through the magnet hunters and waggle in between the beer drinkers until we find breathing space near a pit of crocodiles. The scaly beasts nudge each other aside for a chance to bask in scarce sunbeams — an eerie counterpoint to the humans around us seeking shade.

Tonle-Sap-crocodilesAfter lunch we head to the school and en route I spy an impeccable blue-and-white structure suspended in the distance. “What is that?” I ask.

“Chinese restaurant, very popular with visitors, much money,” Boran answers. Wherries surround the delicate mansion. I wonder how many times the wasted food there could feed the population of Tônlé Sap. Unlike the crowded eatery, five children loll on plastic chairs as we enter the schoolroom. There is no teacher in sight, no books, and no desks. Boran, imperviously enthusiastic, says, “Children travel far to come here. Every day children have cooked rice lunch. Very important that school provide lunch for all children because for many this is only time they eat. School cook lunch in here.” He leads us into the tandem kitchen which is dark and unattended.
“This feels like a setup,” Jesse mutters to me and hurries out to the stoop. I want to ask Boran where the other kids are, why they are not in school, why there is no lesson being taught, nonetheless, I am terrified of the answers.

Tonle-Sap-school“Donation of rice help children eat,” Boran says, “we go to store now where you can buy rice to help feed children.” I am appalled by the situation. Hot under the collar, I meet the gaze of a girl seated by the door. She smiles at me, a face both sweet and sad, as if she understands me. Her smile disgorges tears which I fight back by grinning at her. Though we are two feet apart, we awkwardly wave at each other. I can hear Jesse rebuffing two of the washtub children demanding their dollar. My stomach knot mushrooms and as I climb onto our vessel I wish I could disappear under the murky depths of Tônlé Sap Lake. Whatever georgic ideal I held about this place has been vanquished by the disingenuous lure of tourism. The dilapidated shelters and the poverty remain.

Tonle-Sap-houseThe grocer’s consists of a large room piled higgledy piggledy with rice sacks, ceramic urns, and torn seines. A drunk man in a ripped sleeveless shirt rolls out of his hammock at Boran’s prodding and greets us with a grin. “This is Choum,” Boran says introducing us, “you can buy for village from him. Best thing to buy, rice to feed children.”

“How much is rice?” Jesse asks.

“Fifty dollars,” Boran replies. Jesse and I glance at each other, startled by the price.

“How big is the rice bag?” I ask next.

“Thirty kilograms.”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t got that much cash,” I say, “Do you have any smaller bags of rice?” Boran consults with the inebriate, then shakes his head.

“Can buy thirty kilogram or fifty kilogram bag, because smaller rice will not feed all children. Thirty kilogram only last one day for school.”

“Sorry,” Jesse reiterates, “we don’t have money to buy the rice. Is there any other way we can help?” Choum lurches to his hammock and Boran looks disappointed.

“No, rice is best thing. You can bring back to school to see they get bag.” Jesse and I shake our heads and apologize. Anger suffuses me at the turn of events. I want to scamper home, cleanse myself of this anathema, and repair into a protective cocoon. Rather than immersion into an authentic society, I have been privy to the erosion of decency. Behind the curtain lies an ugliness of the industry I increasingly encounter, one I am implicit in as a traveler. On our voyage back to the dock, I contemplate how tourism has arisen as the panacea for populaces sundered from their resources and historic existence. I think about the tragic girl in school used as a stooge. I reflect on the exigencies that compel these men to scheme for a living. I want to make a meaningful impact upon this populace, yet cannot fathom how to do it. My head and hands and heart manifest useless here. I am a minuscule grumbling voice, hoping to balance the scale by refusal. It is not enough.

Tonle-Sap-boatBoran complains about his boat company on the return trip. He is the bread-winner for his family and finds the gig difficult in paying for five mouths. “We buy gas and food from our pay,” he says, “but pay not enough. We get small change from company after they take money for tour.” Exhausted by the ordeal, Jesse and I say our goodbyes, hand out what spare cash we have in our wallets to Boran, Hout, and Savath, and wish them luck. On the drive to our bungalow we deceive ourselves into hoping it will do some good.

I believe traveling deepens my humanity. Now I am coming to grips with the consequences of my travels. In the rush to provide a support screen within the commercial beast in which I partake, the very people I seek to help are being strained out. Under duress of survival, is tourism the answer for indigenous civilizations? When it wrecks reality and forges a spectacle, who is it benefiting? The floating villagers will continue to adapt and scrabble and endure. Meanwhile I grieve for their lost nobility.Tonle-Sap-family


 When the Tônlé Sap basin floods locals hold a Water Celebration. Three hundred and seventy-five teams race each other in boats. The winners enjoy a good fishing season in the coming year. After two days of competition participants light up firecrackers in honor of nāga, the snake god of the water, to ensure he gives up his power to the sun gods and brings sunny days back.

Have you noticed a place affected in a positive or negative way by tourism?


33 replies »

  1. Well told story. Unfortunately I have experienced the same in many parts of the world, which suggests to me tourism is not always the answer. My experiences have taught me to do as much research as possible about an area, it’s people and their culture to help me decide if my presence will be beneficial or not – but still this does not always help. Thanks for sharing this, I know how difficult it can be to share these types of experiences.

    • Thank you for understanding. As you say, even with doing a lot of research it doesn’t always help. But, I do believe as you do that it starts with trying to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible about what goes on behind the scenes of a tour operation, a hotel business, or a charity. Hopefully, more curious travelers demanding transparency and believing that the tourism juggernaut is not a cure-all will help. “Tread carefully and lightly” is a motto I am trying to practice in my travels!

  2. Travel has really opened my eyes to how so many in the world live but are all to often ignored by the mainstream media. I saw a village like this in Malaysia and it made a lasting impression.

    • Yes, it is an ugly underbelly of tourism that not many people want to discuss. Even in metropolitan settings like London and New York, one has to think about how much tourism is helping local businesses or hurting neighborhoods and communities. Thanks so much for sharing about your experience in Malaysia. Has it made you think differently about traveling to particular places?

  3. Very thought-provoking, you’ve opened my eyes to a side of tourism in a part of the world I realise I know so little about. Your last sentence: ‘ Meanwhile, I grieve for their lost nobility…’ moved me to tears…

    • Thank you Sherri. Your comment inspires me to continue writing about issues like this that matter to me. It is a sad reality of tourism in impoverished countries where resources are quickly dissipating. Someone said to me once that people could only focus on saving the environment when they had enough to save themselves. It’s easy to blame the locals for what they do, but the problem goes much deeper than that.

      • Yes, it is a complex issue, but you help raise awareness for those like me who aren’t as knowledgeable about what really goes on behind the scenes in such countries. So I say thank you again my friend, and keep writing friend…

  4. Very interesting read. It’s so conflicting to travel with the intent of seeing life authentically, only to find oneself complicit in the scheme of some aspects of tourism. Seeing children involved makes it even worse. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a difficult subject.

    • Thanks for reading! This is unfortunately a part of Asia where tourism has become an unruly beast, which is unfortunate since there are so many cultural and historical things here worth examining. Although I am not the type to take a few shots and run on my travels, I still wonder about how much my interactions add to the chaos.

  5. I visited in low season so did not experience the crowds at all (there were around ten other people at that raft). We were also asked for a donation of rice and I had suspected it was a scam, but thankfully they didn’t persist after we explained we had little cash on hand. The thing I hate most about travelling through developing countries is seeing children used as bait in schemes.
    Really great post!

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences at Tônlé Sap with me. Seeing children used in this way is indeed a tough pill to swallow and it will not change unless there is an incentive for communities to not do so. Unfortunately such schemes are not relegated to developing countries.

  6. This is an incredible post. This is very descriptive of many of my concerns as I travel through SE Asia. I have been in Thailand for 7 weeks now and only in larger cities, so I haven’t experienced those feelings you profess here, but I am here to do good in the communities I live in (as a teacher) and my fear is that I am only hurting in the long run.
    Thank you for sharing. It is hard to determine what the right thing to do in these situations, but at least your awareness and concern is a step above many tourists you’re likely to encounter.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story as well. The more we think about our impact as outsiders upon another culture, the more careful we tend to be in our actions. Small things we as individuals do so often seem inconsequential, but never are. I strive to respect cultural wisdom and be mindful of the relationships I forge in my travels. Are there specific concerns you have had as a teacher abroad? I would love to hear about them. Best of luck to your endeavors as an educator and have a wonderful time exploring the area.

      • I could not agree more with your thoughts, especially when it comes to respecting cultural wisdom. One of my major concerns when it comes to teaching is actually something I can’t always put a finger on: is something I’m teaching about or saying in class contradictory to lessons they may have learned at home or in their community. Many Thais see the value in learning English, but having western teachers teaching the subject automatically means that our western bias is engrained in our teaching. This bias includes competition, individual focus, and a drive to stand out as head of the class; these are all things that are somewhat opposed to Thai tradition. I try to focus on teaching conversational English in an open environment that shares my cultural, but respects their traditions.

        • I can understand your concern. Are you learning Thai also? If you are, has learning it helped you offset some of those cultural biases in your teaching methods? I am so interested in your nuanced perspective on teaching english in a non-english speaking country.

          • I am learning Thai, yes. On the whole I see more of an impact on my interactions with neighbors and the community, rather than with students at school. Even being able to have a short conversation and order a meal in Thai helps to garner the respect of those in town. I quickly see that they are more interested in helping me with my need at that time, as well as being more interested in continuing the conversation and helping me to improve my Thai.
            I see a small difference with some students when I am able to speak a small amount of Thai in the classroom. In more resistant students, I see that if I am willing to have a short conversation with them in Thai then they are more willing to listen to my lesson. The catch 22 is that English teachers are expected to speak only English in classroom. Obviously this will ever be held to the letter of the law, but as I teach conversational English I try to avoid speaking Thai. There is definitely a scale of interest in most classroom: the more proficient students want me to speak English and often in more complex sentences and regarding general topics. The students with a lower proficiency level will have a converation in basic sentences, but I get a greater response when I focus my material on their intereats, such as certain movies and video games.
            Overall, learning the language helps in the community, but learning the cultural and interests helps in the classroom.

          • As someone assigned to teach them English, there isn’t too much you can do about the cultural bias outside of respecting their perspective and becoming proficient in their tongue, which you are already doing. Perhaps what is needed is a holistic approach for the school’s education. I am wondering if concurrent with their English lessons, there are lessons in their native language which focus on literature, or native art and history? I have noticed that some schools in Asia focused on teaching English only teach literature and history as it applies to the western world, reinforcing the single point of view you were talking about earlier. Thus students lose knowledge of poets, writers, and philosophers who were masters of their heritage.

          • I couldn’t agree more, but the lack of input western teachers have in to school curriculum can be frustrating. We are very much here to focus on solely conversational English with our classes, and the Thai teachers handle the remainder of the subjects. The two are very unrelated. I try to be as encouraging of English discussions on other topics as much as possible, but being at a relatively low proficiency school this isn’t common. I’m taking a somewhat singular approach to teaching right now and focusing on my students who really want to learn and allowing those who prefer to yell in the back of class show their interest as they see fit.
            Western teachers also don’t have much ability to punish or control the students so unless the students are disciplined themselves, or you want to go to a Thai teacher and have them punish a student, classes (especially with 40-50 students) can be a tough environment.

          • 🙂 I am guessing that the limit put upon western teachers has to do with the school’s fears of losing their students to a westernized culture. With so many students to handle and your limitations, your teaching method seems the best way to make the best of it. Good luck!

  7. What an experience you’ve had ~ both in the region and sights you’ve seen (great photos!!!) but more with your connection to the people and then also taking the extra step to understand life from their perspective . A great way to bring in and to think about what the New Year holds. Take care and safe travels ~

    • It is something I am sure you have experienced in your travels through parts of Asia as well. Building genuine relationships that nurture the people and landscape is a complex and difficult process, and I am not sure if any one enterprise can best achieve it. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Take care.

  8. Floating in and out of the tourism industry myself, I often wonder if tourism promotes more bad than good. For example, an area that has given up on any other means of production because tourism generates more income… which creates a false economy and culture and as tourists we are seeing something false. Well, it’s an issue too big to discuss in the comments section but I thank you for this insightful post.

    • Yes, I am leery of when tourism is pushed upon an area as its saving grace. I do not think any one industry can be that, least of all tourism which brings with it so many environmental, economic, and cultural impacts. This is such a danger, especially when it falls under the label of ecotourism. I hope that as more travelers talk about and think about this, though, more changes for the better will come. It thrills me to be able to have these discussions with fellow travelers and bloggers and to know that people like you share similar concerns.

    • Thank you. I do not usually dwell on travel’s heartbreaking moments, but feeling powerless about my experience at the floating village, I felt that writing about the experience would be part of my contribution to making things better in the future. Hopefully I have done so without judgement on the locals. They are sweet and miss their old ways of life desperately. They do what they do out of necessity, which was the worst part of the situation for me.

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