I’ve been putting off writing about our visit to Kompong Luong, a large floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia. Maybe it’s because I was uncomfortable being there. Also, my knowledge about the community is poor, so I feel ill-equipped to write about it. And, my photos, taken in the bright glare of midday, look as washed-out as I felt. Nevertheless, as I think back at our short time at Kompong Luong it was one of our most unique travel experiences. Imagine, a community of over 1000 families largely dependent on fishing, where everything floats: temples, markets, clinics, restaurants, a police station, even a karaoke bar…Sadly, it and other communities on the Tonlé Sap face major problems.
Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, has numerous floating villages. We opted not to visit the villages near Siem Reap, which are more accessible but apparently overrun with tourists and rife with scams that harm both visitors and residents. Instead, we decided on Kompong Luong, an ethnic Vietnamese village on the south west side of the lake near the town of Krakor.
We visited Kompong Luong as a brief stop on our journey from Battambang to Phnom Penh (about a 5.5 hour drive not including the stop). This is easy to do if you have your own vehicle or hire a driver. Getting there by public transportation is a challenge and I don’t think there are any organized tours to this village. There is nothing touristy about this place and not a trinket peddler in sight. It feels light years away from the boutique hotels, restaurants and shops of Siem Reap.
The first thing we noticed as our speed-demon driver pulled off the highway and onto the gravel road leading to the lake was the filth. Emaciated cows poked at the garbage on the flat, treeless fields. There was rubbish everywhere. We were met with rather aloof reception at a little hut where we bought our $10 tickets for the one hour boat tour. The guest book showed no other visitors that day. We felt awkward and out of place and it didn’t help that I desperately needed to pee. I was directed behind a short thatched wall—no toilet or even hole in the ground.
Our boat captain manoeuvred the wooden craft through the small channels that make up the village. Bright green and blue-painted buildings glistened in the sun. Somehow these cheery colours manage to partially negate the basic and dilapidated state of the village’s structures. There’s lots of life in Kompong Luong and it’s on full display. We watched ladies selling vegetables from tiny, overloaded boats, men working in machine shops, babies being dangled over the water to do their business, and people idling and socializing in their floating homes. I was fascinated, and at the same time troubled by our invasion into the lives of strangers.
Over the course of the hour, our captain warmed up to us, pointing and gesturing. Most of the time, with our nonexistent Vietnamese vocabulary and his five-word English one, we were left guessing. I wish there had been a local English-speaking guide who could have provided us with some background about this place.
After our visit, I spent some time “googling” and wasn’t surprised to find out that Kompong Luong and other Tonlé Sap villages are facing major economic and health issues due to overfishing, deforestation, and pollution. We witnessed firsthand the lack of sanitation and how the lake is being used for washing, bathing, cooking, and defecating. I learned too how the controversial construction of dams on the Mekong River has led to disturbances in water flow and fish migration. Things are not well for these villages, nor for Cambodians in general who rely on the lake for the vast majority of their protein. I’ve read about initiatives to mitigate these problems, but Cambodia, still recovering from the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge and struggling with widespread poverty and corruption has its hands full.
A one hour glide through the placid channels, packed tight with blue-painted homes and abuzz with folks going about their everyday business belies a precarious state. There’s more trouble than meets the eye.
Next post: Perhaps more on SE Asia (Bangkok). But, it will likely have to wait until I get home from a quickly approaching trip to Argentina and Bolivia. Happy travels!