Kampong Phluk: A Visit to Tonlé Sap’s Floating Village.

‘As the boat glided through the murky water, the houses, built up on stilts, slowly started to appear in the horizon.’

I became aware of a lot of things when travelling for an extended period of time – where to get the best egg fried noodles for $1, and how long sitting on a bus for is bearable before going insane amongst others.

Though well aware of the fact that we were going to a poorer part of the world before leaving for South East Asia, we’d started off in Singapore, and then Kuala Lumpur, two very westernised and cosmopolitan cities, and I wasn’t wholly prepared for the poverty of Cambodia. As a whole Cambodia was the first experience I’ve ever had of a third-world country. Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, during which around a fifth of the entire population was killed, Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world. From the moment we arrived in Siem Reap it was evident that we definitely were in a very different part of the world, and this contrast was highlighted by our trip to the floating village of Kampong Phluk on the Tonlé Sap lake. This excursion was not a part of our original itinerary – we had just finished a half-day at the Angkor Wat temples, having attempted to go see the sunrise at the temple. This is a breathtakingly beautiful thing to witness, or so Google tells me. There is nothing quite as anticlimactic as getting up at 4:30am only to see a cloudy sky get gradually brighter over the duration of an hour or so. With the rest of the day to kill, our tuktuk driver suggested that we go see this floating village.

The experience was somewhat unreal. After a very dusty and long tuktuk ride, we finally arrived at the banks of the lake and got aboard a boat that would take us to the canoes on which we would tour the village. As the boat glided through the murky water, the houses, built up on stilts, slowly started to appear in the horizon. Before long, we were in the middle of what was, essentially, a town centre, complete with churches and schools, even a basketball court, all floating above the surface of the lake. There were children playing with buckets in the water, and riding to school in their uniforms on a small canoe. Another canoe floated along, door to door, acting as a mobile grocery shop. It felt ethereal, otherworldly really, a mark of just how far away from home we were. And yet, a marked separation was still incredibly apparent between the villagers and us. We were allowed a look in, to see their way of life, but we could still not really feel what it might be like to experience living here. Entering one of the family homes – a single room, with rickety beds, and the lake visible from between the cracks of the floorboards – the old woman served a lunch of boiled rice and dried fish to her grandchildren outside on the porch. She barely even acknowledged our presence, and the children stared at us blankly. We weren’t the first tourists to awkwardly clamber into their home, and definitely would not be the last. Upon leaving we were predictably asked for donations. I found that this was general practice across South East Asia, but every single time I felt as though I was presented with a dilemma – either I give them money, hoping that it goes to the community itself, or I don’t and feel like a bad person.

On the way back from the Village, as we once again passed the wooden roadside shacks that the locals live in, I couldn’t escape the pervading sense of guilt over my own privileged position – how many here would ever get the luxury of taking a year out to travel before going to university?