សួស្តី from Cambodia,
Tonlé Sap is the largest lake in South-East Asia and causes a large light blue patch to dominate the map of Cambodia. The torrential rain of the wet season brings so much water, the area covered by the lake ranges from 3000 square kilometres to 12 000 square kilometres. Incredibly, the depth of the water at lake’s edge fluctuates between 2 metres and 12 metres. Around the circumference of the lake, in amongst the mangroves, 170 floating villages accommodate approximately 30% of the nation’s total population.
Siem Reap to Battambang
The places of abode float on tanks or bamboo or are in fact boats that are moored to the one spot. We travelled by boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, first crossing the lake then travelling up the Sangker River. Most of the boat’s passengers were western backpackers and most of them were transfixed as we passed floating village after floating village. I suspect these westerners have never before witnessed poverty of this type. I ask Dany – a Khmer local – what the villagers think of all the voyeurs pointing their cameras into their lives. He thinks most are pragmatic about it, knowing it means there’s a slight possibility of the tourist dollars filtering down to augment their other sources of income: fishing and rice. (This is even more vital now that the catch from the lake is diminishing year by year.)
Some of the floating villages are clusters of Việtnamese refugees who have crossed the border without documentation and stayed to eke out a living as best they can. I find it curious that the floating villages obey some of the rules of terrestrial settlement ie. the houses are in clusters rather than dotted at random. It seems proof positive that we need each other close. The floating villages are a product of ingenuity beating real estate prices. I suppose it’s also one way to avoid the horror of meeting up with a landmine.
The adults know better.
As we steam past in the boat, the children in the villages – still with the vitality and exuberance of youth and not yet demoralised by the existence – wave excitedly. None of the adults wave. It’s almost as if the children can see the personification of hope out there in the boat. The contrast in the material wealth – theirs and ours – is beyond the comprehension of the children. The adults have a better inkling.
The floating villages display some of the worst disadvantage of the Khmer population. This country faces a long, hard uphill battle to rebuild after successive wars and centuries of poor governance have left it in tatters. The Khmer Rouge – not the only guilty party but by far the most destructive – liquidated 1.7 million people. They targeted the educated people and left crucial infrastructure in ruins. It is one thing to confiscate the assets of the rich but quite another to rid the nation of its managerial nous by killing off the intelligentsia.
Our tuk tuk driver in Battambang was a congenial Khmer called Virakboth from Phnom Penh. (He prefers the nickname Mr. Tea.) He speaks pretty good English (“I learnt it from the people.”) and teaches Biology, Physics and Morality (!) in a secondary school close to Battambang. (Tuk tuk driving is for extra money during the vacation.) He’s a bubbly personality with a zest for life which is borne of an appreciation of the worst luck life can bestow. Now 32 years old, his mother was killed by a landmine and his new wife (Khea aged 24) is an orphan whose parents were taken away by Khmer Rouge forces to an unknown fate. Virakboth took me to the Killing Caves which retains a number of skulls and bones of Khmer Rouge victims. Khea is not able to visit such places or even watch a television documentary on the topic.
The newlyweds invite us to their home for dinner and tell us about their lives, past, present and future. They live a modest existence but face the world with big smiles.
The Khmer people have been through so much in their recent past. It’s a wonder they can carry on. Somehow they muster a brave dignity scratching out a subsistence – ensuring their poverty is not so grinding but merely tolerable. They need all the help they can get. We visited the Battambang orphanage where 120 children are cared for by the state. We donated 120 exercise books and pens and also 10 green bottles of lemonade. (Guess which song we taught them!) We also gave a 90-minute lesson in English. We hope we did a tiny bit of good for them. I have a feeling English lessons can do a little bit more to ameliorate poverty in a country like this than the kind of voyeuristic tourism I described earlier.