A floating village on Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia


On 11 August 2011, a group of Rotary Peace Fellows from Chulalongkorn University visited Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. Our purpose was to learn more about the post-conflict reconstruction issues in Cambodia. A big issue for Cambodia is that the fisheries industry is one of the biggest in the domestic economy and thus our visit to the floating village on the lake. We visited a village with ‘Osmose’ , an NGO which focuses on the livelihoods of people living round the Tonle sap bird sanctuary. (The boy sitting at the front of the boat is 9 year old Mork. I managed to teach him to use an SLR in the 1.5 hour ride to the vilalge). We spent time in only one village which had 1000 households with a total population of approximately 6000 people. There are approximately 100 villages on Tonle Sap lake, with a total population of 80,000 people.

The Tonle sap lake is bordered by 6 provinces and is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia (19th largest in the world). The floating forest used to be around 1million hectares in area but has shrunk at least 30 percent in the last 30 years. In South east Asia, the wet season is from June to October, and in October, so much of what you see in the early parts of the video will be covered with water.  The water from melting glaciers in Tibet flows down the Mekong River and fills up the Ton le sap river and lake with 2500 t0 12,000 square metres of water. However, the lake is shrinking with time due to more dams being built along the Mekong River from China down to the Greater Mekong sub-region. The villages in this video is always moving between high ground and their ‘homes’ during dry season. The villages relocate their homes by using their small fishing boats and the use of motor.

During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975, 1979, the villagers were relocated to farms as Pol Pot did not consider fishing as true proletariat work like farming. At the end of that regime, the villagers returned and spent 30 years rebuilding village life. Many of the fisherfolk make very little from fishing: they often have to borrow heavily from ‘middle men’ in order to buy fishing equipment. In borrowing, they agree to only sell their fish to the middle at half the market rate. Obviously they wind up in a position of growing debt and borrow more to survive. These are the conditions that make us wonder when there will be another revolt by the poor and whether it will be as violent as the Khmer Rouge regime.

In terms of endemic corruption and structural inequalities, the fishing rights to 80% of Tonle Sap lake was given to 50 commercial companies, although in recent years this was reduced to 38 companies with a third of the lake now going to locals. However, it still remains that 60% of the lake can only be fished by big companies and not the common people.

In the video, you will see a mobile floating fish farm. The fish farmer actually has 700 fish in that small fish farm and the income from that farm is used to support himself and 3 children (not enough, so the kids have to also go fishing elsewhere). He makes approximately USD 1000 a year which puts him in the middle class bracket. When I asked what distinguishes a middle class family from a lower class family, the answer was that “middle class have tin roof, lower class have dried leaves”.

There is also a clip of a floating house being pulled to higher ground. It generally takes 2 hours to move a house to a new destination. After the wet season is over, people return to their dry season places and it is generally accepted that such places are ‘yours’ although there are obviously no land titles to parts of the lake. I discovered that during the wet season, the fish farmer drags his farm to higher ground as well. I cannot imagine how it manages to move the mobile farm without the sides of the farm breaking.

Interesting random facts:

1. Children on the lake must learn to swim before they can attend (a floating) school.

2. There are floating (police stations with generally one police station per village. Common crime (which isnt common) is domestic dispute or disagreements between neighbours which usually go to the village chief for resolution before reaching the police.

3. One popular career choice on the lake is to be a ‘diver’ who is contracted to dive for people in order to retrieve items that may have accidentally fallen ‘overboard’ and into the lake.

4. Some people do have electricity, although most people use car batteries. Thus, a lucrative business is to open a floating shop that recharges these batteries.

5. A common cause of child deaths is diarrhoea as people dont always have access to clean drinking water. The average life expectancy is 60 years old.

6. One of the villages has a floating basketball court donated by a Japanese company working in the area.

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Comments
3 Responses to “A floating village on Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia”
  1. Stephanie Chung says:

    The floating village video clip – very interesting! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. fhotofinish says:

    Nice Video! Sunset at Tonle Sap Lake is simply breathtaking

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