The Floating Village

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Floating Village: a photo essay for the children of friends and family

By Michael Yon

The seasons so change the size and shape of the Tonle Sap, that to live “near” the water is to live “on” the water.

I am in Cambodia, in a boat, visiting a “floating village.” There are many floating villages in Cambodia where the rainy season drastically changes the water level from where it sits in the dry season. This floating village is on the Tonle Sap lake, the largest body of water in Cambodia. The villagers stay semi-permanently in places for some months, and then move as the water moves.

A floating store in one of the floating villages.

The people live like other villagers except that the “roads” are water. (Keeps the dust down.) Tonle Sap lake feeds about half of Cambodia and the people export fish to other countries nearby. This is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. There are gigantic catfish and many smaller fishes and the people eat them all. They also eat spiders: big, tarantula spiders. They’ll eat just about anything, actually. Some small boats drift around selling eggs with half-formed birds (embryos) and the people love to eat the un-hatched baby birds.

There are no crocodiles in the lake because the people have caught-killed-sold them all. They say Italians liked to make shoes from the crocodiles. There are crocodile farms around, but mostly where there are a lot of people, the kids are safe to swim.

Crocodile Zoo in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Crocodiles are not as friendly as alligators. I rarely see turtles anywhere in Asia where people live. They eat them all. Nearby, in Thailand and other places, they eat dogs at roadside stands and in some restaurants. They prefer black dogs because they say black dogs have more nutrients.

Once, when I was walking for many weeks in the Himalaya mountains in Nepal, I was VERY hungry and cold, and walked into a village and asked for something to eat. They had no chickens and little else that I wanted to eat, but there was one orange rooster. I was told that in that village they would not eat an orange rooster, so I bought it and ate it.

The villagers are curious about outsiders but they are very friendly.

If you needed a place to sleep, they would allow you to sleep in a boat or in their house, and they would cook for you. (No telling what they would cook!)

Some houses are made of wood, while others are made out of thatch.

Got to be careful with fire or the floating village will be the swimming village!

This boy climbed on the roof for a better view.

Granny and Granddad did not like me to play on the roof because they said I would make it leak. But look at this kid! I think he doesn’t have to worry about it leaking as much as he should worry about falling through and landing in a cooking pot!

The kids in this photo must have been visiting family (but I did not ask), because they were the only kids or anyone in the entire village that I saw wearing life jackets. Plus they were screaming with delight at being out on that boat alone, and had no idea how to use the paddle. They were just drifting around and people were smiling at them.

One man told me there were about 2,000 families in the floating village, but I got up very high and looked around and did not believe him. Maybe a thousand or two thousand people might live in this one. It’s very big for a village. They have a floating school, a floating hospital, a floating police station and a floating generator to provide electricity. One government place has solar electricity, and when I was having fish-dinner in a floating house with a Cambodian family, two older men asked me how it is that the solar panels are working at night. (They could see the lights from the small government building.) I explained that during day they store the electricity in batteries and they were like, “Oh! We should have known!”

Careful with that cooking fire, woman! Or you’ll be swimming to the neighbor’s house!

They were very friendly but were trying to feed me too much. They have a floating-dancing place where people dance for a couple of hours then get in their little boats and go home. There was a wedding and they were making terrible music day and night and it was hard to sleep!

Cambodian kids do dangerous stuff just like American kids (only ten times more dangerous here). It’s nothing to see a naked, barefooted baby running down to a river waving a big knife. They are very happy here. Totally free to climb a tree as high as they want to go. I was on a boat yesterday and a boy kept trying to wrap himself in a boat rope and sleep on the bow. His dad had to keep unraveling the rope from him!

The men and women bathe in the lake, but the kids just swim. Imagine that! Instead of your mom saying, “Time for a bath and then a bedtime story,” She says, “Go for a swim and help me clean these fish!” Late at night, boats keep coming in with more fish, and the boats flash a light quickly across the floating houses. Any house that wants to buy fish will quickly flash a light back, and the boat will come over and sell fish. Then you can hear CHOP-CHOP-CHOP-CHOP in floating houses as people chop the fish.

A few hours after the sun goes down, and the CHOP-CHOPPING is done, the floating generator turns off the lights for the whole village and it goes very quiet, though some boats can still be heard coming in with no lights. Very, very quiet.

When they go to school, the kids learn English and love to try to say some words with Americans and others who speak English. The mothers and fathers are very proud when a western man comes to their store for some water, but nobody speaks English, so the father will holler for a young daughter or son to translate. It makes the whole family proud to see the kids translating!

The money here is called the “Riel,” but they use dollars more than anything else. If you buy something that costs $2.80, and you give them $5.00, they will give you $2 in change (American dollars), and the difference will come in Riels. So, you will get two dollars plus some Riels back. One dollar is worth about 4,000 Riels. (So, how many Riels would you get back?)

The children love to wave.

They have dogs and cats in many of the floating houses. They say all the dogs can swim. They also have floating chicken and pig coops! Boats come in from the land loaded down with vegetables and fruits, so there is more than enough to eat, that’s for sure. These floating houses mostly have television, too!

The big boat belongs to the Vietnamese

There are many Vietnamese in Cambodia and mostly the Cambodians do not like them. I am going to Vietnam later today to talk with Vietnamese people.

It’s truly a floating village: kids travel by boat to go to floating school.

The kids were getting home from floating school, and changing from their school uniforms back to normal clothes, and going to visit friends and family. Why do you think the villagers seem happier here than the villagers in New York!?

School kids rowing home.

Inside the schools, they study just like you do, but after school, they get in their little boats and row home. Notice how skinny the paddles are. If the paddles are fat, it makes the boat hard to steer. (Ever notice how hard it can be to get a small boat to go straight with a fat paddle?) They laugh at big paddles, because they make you go in circles.

At floating school, the girls all wear white shirts and dark skirts; for the boys it’s dark pants and white shirts.

The kids in this picture look like high school students. (Notice the skinny paddles.) I was in the same kind of boat making photos. Behind them is a Pagoda, which is like a Buddhist church. Buddhist people never hurt people in the name of religion. (But often hurt people for other reasons!) In my travels, usually Buddhists are some of the easiest people to get along with in the entire world.

School’s out!

They take turns paddling because some kids have to go a long way to get home!

A house like this would cost maybe $100.

That’s cooking wood behind these kids. Very dark-skinned men and women come in every day with small boats full of cooking wood to sell.

Dangerous in more than one way. . . .

I bought some food in a market, and some ice. The melon was not ripe yet. I bought water and soft drinks and it’s easy to get blocks of ice because they sell fish, and they make the ice to preserve the fish. But chopping the ice . . . be careful! It’s normally a very bad idea to use ice in drinks in countries like this—your mom or dad or teacher can explain why—but I have traveled so much that I don’t get too sick anymore.

Outside the restaurant, I noticed some men were watching their roosters fight.

Back on land . . . I stopped at a restaurant. At most of the restaurants you eat while sitting on the floor, with no shoes on, and they have hammocks at each setting where you can sleep after you eat.

A deadly dance.

I was trying to get good photos of their rooster shadows as they fought. Making animals fight (except for humans) is illegal in America, but in many other countries it’s no different than watching a boxing match.

The people are very friendly, but you have to be very, very careful in countries like this. Just below the surface is a different world.

They have shooting ranges here where foreigners can shoot machine guns or pistols, throw grenades or shoot rocket launchers. I went to one and made some photos, but did not shoot any guns.

Don’t just stand there!

At the shooting range, some men said I could shoot a chicken or a duck for $50, or I could shoot a cow with a rocket for $300. ($100 for the rocket, $200 for the cow.) I said no thank you. They said they give the cow to villagers after you shoot it with a machine gun or blow it up with a rocket. There were cows everywhere and you could pick the one you wanted to shoot. They say some foreigners like to do this.

The cocks kept fighting.

We are not allowed to fight animals in America, but people of course can box and do ultimate fighting! Other people look strange to us, and we look strange to them.

I finally got a few good pictures of the birds and their shadows .

And they were still fighting when I left.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gwendoline Davina · 3 years ago
    Thank you for this.
    I home school my ten year old daughter and am always looking for interesting things for us both to learn about.
    I find this very interesting and informative so thank you for taking the time to post it.

    It is easy to see 'surface' things of people in foreign countries but hardy ever do we get a true insight, I am delighted to be able to get more of an insight because of your photo essay, so again... thank you.

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