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Living on Water: Floating Villages

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During my jaunt to Cambodia last month, when I was not hauling bricks to build an outdoor school kitchen with my studio, I had the chance to see a multitude of informal building in both urban and rural areas of the country. On one of our precious days off, we dashed off in tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and boats to explore the legendary floating villages on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake.

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    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  My first stop was the village of Chong Khneas, located on the northwestern edge of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and the closest to Siem Reap (the city just outside Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temples.) WIth over 1300 houseboats and 5000 residents, Chong Khneas also boasts a floating school, a floating church, and even a floating basketball court.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    My first stop was the village of Chong Khneas, located on the northwestern edge of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and the closest to Siem Reap (the city just outside Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temples.) WIth over 1300 houseboats and 5000 residents, Chong Khneas also boasts a floating school, a floating church, and even a floating basketball court.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  Several of the colorful wooden tourist boats lined up, also known as ‘river taxis.’ (I rode one of these.)  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    Several of the colorful wooden tourist boats lined up, also known as ‘river taxis.’ (I rode one of these.)

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  The houseboats and other transportable dwellings are constructed by each family, occasionally with a the help of a more experienced builder in the community. Many are built from bamboo, teak, thatched palm leaves, corrugated metal, and found materials -- plastic sheeting, discarded banners, tarps, fabrics, and the like.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    The houseboats and other transportable dwellings are constructed by each family, occasionally with a the help of a more experienced builder in the community. Many are built from bamboo, teak, thatched palm leaves, corrugated metal, and found materials -- plastic sheeting, discarded banners, tarps, fabrics, and the like.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  For the most part, living on the water is very harsh -- there is no sanitation or drinking water connections, and little electricity. (According to one fisherman, a government boat comes by once a week with a charger so that villagers can recharge their lights and small appliances.) Many families tether cages to their houseboats, where fish and crocodiles are kept and fattened with everyday wastes.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    For the most part, living on the water is very harsh -- there is no sanitation or drinking water connections, and little electricity. (According to one fisherman, a government boat comes by once a week with a charger so that villagers can recharge their lights and small appliances.) Many families tether cages to their houseboats, where fish and crocodiles are kept and fattened with everyday wastes.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  A few children playing on the village basketball court.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    A few children playing on the village basketball court.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  After chatting with my boat guide, I was able to glean that many of these villagers on the Tonle Sap lake are, in fact, not Cambodian -- a few are indeed Khmer households, but a large proportion are ethnic Vietnamese refugees.  Since they are not legally allowed to settle on Cambodian land, they must make their homes and livelihoods on the lake, where poverty is a daily struggle.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    After chatting with my boat guide, I was able to glean that many of these villagers on the Tonle Sap lake are, in fact, not Cambodian -- a few are indeed Khmer households, but a large proportion are ethnic Vietnamese refugees. Since they are not legally allowed to settle on Cambodian land, they must make their homes and livelihoods on the lake, where poverty is a daily struggle.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  This is the ‘Freshwater Fish Exhibition’ - a fish farm and a large gathering hall. All floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake depend on fishing to survive. The Tonle Sap is the largest inland body of water in Southeast Asia and is a true nutritional bounty -- its annual fish catch provides Cambodia with two-thirds of its protein.  Environmentalists, however, are worried about the alarming deforestation of the surrounding flood forests, which is destroying wet-season fish habitats.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    This is the ‘Freshwater Fish Exhibition’ - a fish farm and a large gathering hall. All floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake depend on fishing to survive. The Tonle Sap is the largest inland body of water in Southeast Asia and is a true nutritional bounty -- its annual fish catch provides Cambodia with two-thirds of its protein. Environmentalists, however, are worried about the alarming deforestation of the surrounding flood forests, which is destroying wet-season fish habitats.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  As I learned from the Gecko Environmental Center in Chong Khneas, the Tonle Sap lake is unique because its flow actually changes direction twice a year.  I visited in January, during the dry season, and the lake was draining southwards into the Mekong River.  However, when the rainy season begins in June, the river will start to flow backwards to fill up the lake to five times its dry season size.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    As I learned from the Gecko Environmental Center in Chong Khneas, the Tonle Sap lake is unique because its flow actually changes direction twice a year. I visited in January, during the dry season, and the lake was draining southwards into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season begins in June, the river will start to flow backwards to fill up the lake to five times its dry season size.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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  As a result of the seasons, the position of these villages must constantly change with the ups and downs of the water level.  When the water rises, many people move further ‘inland’ along a narrow channel. At the pinnacle of the wet season, much of the Chong Khneas community settles around an isolated hill nearby called Phnom Kraom.  Photo by: Tiffany Chu
    As a result of the seasons, the position of these villages must constantly change with the ups and downs of the water level. When the water rises, many people move further ‘inland’ along a narrow channel. At the pinnacle of the wet season, much of the Chong Khneas community settles around an isolated hill nearby called Phnom Kraom.

    Photo by: Tiffany Chu

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