The 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.
“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.
A 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.
“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.
The 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.
Most 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.
After 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.
“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.
The 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.
“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.
Boran 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.
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?