I’ve been all over the world and seen some amazing things, but nothing compared to the unique cultural experience of visiting the floating village of Kompong Khleang in Cambodia. My taxi driver/tour guide/English teacher/spiritual advisor first suggest we head out to see one of the floating villages after I’d seen the rest of the sites in Siem Reap, including the temple ruins of Angkor Wat (one of the 7 man-made wonders of the world.)
Kompong Khleang certainly did not disappoint. The village, home to about 1,800 families or 6,000 total residents, is on Lake Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s immense central lake that covers about 7,400 square miles when it floods (Lake Tahoe is only 191 square miles!) The Lake receives the water from every river and tributary on the peninsula, from rivers way up north in China to the Mekong delta in Vietnam, making it a flood plain that swells enormously during the wet season. The lake is Cambodia’s greatest natural resource, making it unique among other neighboring Southeast Asian countries and the largest fresh water body. More than three million people live around the lake, 90% of them earning a living from fishing or agriculture, especially rice that grows hearty in the flood plains.
So the residents who live near the shores of the lake have to live there to make a living and eat, but also have to endure epic floods for months. The solution is that they build floating villages to survive. That could really mean two things – there are houses built on along the banks of the lake on giant stilts – sometimes 30 feet high – and residents get in by long ladders. Other people live right on boats, or floating pontoon structures that look like extremely primitive houseboats. So when the floodwaters rise, their houses rise right with it. They have whole families living in one-room bamboo hovels on the water, and you’ll see cooking fires, general stores, schools, and even medical clinics floating along.
There is actually a big class divide between the inhabitants who live in stilted houses, which are considered higher class (even though they are just simple one room bamboo huts, themselves) and the floating village people. But when the lake rises every rainy season, the floating villagers move right along, while the water could come right up to the floorboards of the stilted houses, or even partially submerge them.
The people were all amazed to see a tourist as I was enthralled by how they lived, but their big smiles and warm vibe never ceased to amaze me. On the way out of town my driver stopped so I could take a picture of the rice fields and flood plains from a bridge, and I encountered a group of kids and a family who welcomed me. I bought a bag of candy at the storefront next door and shared it with the kids, who all happily posed for a photo, waving and flashing the peace sign.