Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cambodia- Floating Village

Besides Angkor Wat, the other "sightseeing" trip I took was to a village situated on Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia.
This is a fascinating lake and terribly important to the region in terms of fish and livelihood. It actually is a relatively small lake, 2700 square km and only a meter deep part of the year, such as when I saw it. Then during the monsoon season it swells to 16,000 square km, draining all the way over into my beloved Mekong River! Today some 80,000 people live on the lake, 5,700 in the single village I visited. The government has built some facilities to capitalize on the unique lifestyle here, but the conditions there are very poor and basic, and it felt fairly uncomfortable coming to gape at people just barely getting by. I suppose this is the same as the mountain tribes in Thailand that tourists are bussed in to glimpse, including the tribe which puts the rings around women's necks. I suppose coming across these tribes as an anthropologist, or just as an early traveler, would seem purely amazing and exciting. When one takes a taxi or an organized bus and is met by children hustling them to buy a soda or pay to take a picture, the experience becomes far cloudier. If aliens, superior to us in wealth, technology, and accessories, spent their vacations pulling up in front of our houses to take pictures and gawk while we mowed the lawn or ate dinner, how would it feel? I was fascinated contemplating such a watery existence, while at the same time disturbed by the poverty, lack of sanitation,  and the underlying sense of sadness on the childrens' faces. I also felt like an overly privileged jackass- not perhaps a wholly unneeded reminder, since as a consuming Westerner I fit this bill more than I care to admit.

This was my private boat and driver, thanks to my usual lack of understanding- I could have waited and loaded up to 8 people on and split the cost and mitigated the environmental impact had I spoken Cambodian- though I was of course hustled through as brusquely as possible to capitalize on my confusion. Cost? $30 plus I tipped my very sweet driver, another 11th grader on vacation, 5$. In some ways these mistakes were worth it since I got to hang out with him up front and talk about growing up locally. His English was again quite serviceable.

This was on the waterway accessing the lake. During the big lake season everything in view is several feet underwater. The houses shown all packed up and dispersed. You may be able to see the high water mark on the tower on the left in the photo. When the river floods it provides an excellent breeding grounds for fish, and when it diminishes it leaves fertile silt floodplains.
A family home.
A couple navigating the village- notice she is poling rather than rowing and that the water is chock full of a greenish algae.
This was the village school, the fencing to prevent children from falling in the water. There was a bit of a scam, I was taken to the village store and told I could help the school by buying food or school supplies for the kids, which we then delivered. I felt the same way I feel when the elephant handlers try to sell me sugar cane to feed the elephants. I bought about 2$ of notebooks for 15$ and gave them to the director, but who knows? They may have delivered them right back to the store at the end of the day. I was allowed to wander about the school, which seemed pretty much straight up chaos, and I met a few staff. Again, because it was such a tourist visit, and not a professional one, it felt fake. Still, I know these people all need money and I had to accept that they were working the system the best they knew how.
These ladies were pulled up to deliver food. That is a teacher in the collared shirt.
Moments before this photo, this baby fell in the water. We all watched for a moment as it floundered and then the mother fished her out with a laugh, completely unshaken. I wondered how many drownings occurred each year..

These girls were upstairs and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I could tell by their muted reaction to me that they had seen far too many tourists shuffled through their school.

Not all the children were in school. From the minute I got on my boat I was accosted by children either boarding my boat trying to sell me sodas (brought alongside in boats driven by their fathers), or children like these two, out in small tubs with a paddle and a python who would row up and shout, "Picture? 2 dollars". Not the coal mines of the 19th century, but child labor and not very pleasant. How can we live in a world where this still exists? I compare their lives and prospects with my new little niece Lei Lei in Australia and know I have to do something, no matter how futile or small.

Here is the village Catholic church. I would love to visit it and find out what kind of work the church is doing in the village, but there was no one in when we stopped by.
This was on the way back, a transport boat headed to the village with food and supplies.
 The lake is under severe environmental pressures, naturally, because of the pressures of over fishing and industrial and domestic waste.  Someday I hope to come back and see it when the lake is at its height. 

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