Cambodians love their lake. Fed by the giant Mekong River, Tonle Sap is five times the size of Lake Tahoe and supports fishing and farming by 3 million Cambodians. In my five weeks in Cambodia, I hadn’t seen it and I needed a little adventure. So on Saturday, I signed up for a tour led by a local NGO called “New Hope” (which, you guessed it, provides health and educational services to Cambodian children and has two restaurants to prove it).
Except for me, the tour group members were New Hope volunteers who had been working together for several weeks so the drive was lively and fun. I was secretly happy to be traveling by air conditioned van. Most of my short distance travel in Cambodia — and everyone else’s — is by motorbike or tuk-tuk, which are good for the abs but hard on the eyes and lungs.
We arrived at the lake after an hour on back roads through rice fields and, well, really just rice fields. Our first stop was a small village that is built on stilts. During rainy season, the water rises so high that the stilts disappear and all transportation is by boat. The main work in the village is processing fish from the lake, mainly drying anchovies and making a very strong fish sauce called “prahak.” The whole village is super stinky! (I am fighting back the urge to say “and the smell is the only thing the guy in our tour group with the 20 pound Nikkon camera didn’t photograph”).
Then we went a couple of miles to a larger village built on higher stilts and boarded an old wooden boat powered by a barely willing diesel engine. Our destination was a floating village about an hour out into the lake.
The floating village is mainly houseboats of families who are subsistence fishers and they seem to be barely getting by. The residents of all floating villages on Tonle Sap are mostly Vietnamese immigrants. Our young tour guide suggested the Vietnamese live on the water because they love that kind of life. But I have also heard they are on the water because they are in the country illegally and are fearful of living on land. The government doesn’t bother them on the water. Or help them.
I am glad I went on the tour, although the harsh reality of the people I saw stays with me. It is the only time in Cambodia that I sensed resignation, maybe desperation.
Former US Ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, said “Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” I feel this and I hear it from the westerners I meet, but this past couple of weeks in Cambodia has been a rich experience for me. I have learned more about Cambodian culture and politics, and made a few friends. After meeting with a number of NGO leaders, I feel some kind of commitment to Cambodia and I plan to return.
But right now I need a break from the air pollution in Siem Reap and I still have a case of wanderlust (wander-lost).
I have just arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is unlike anything I have seen so far in Southeast Asia!
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien