5 January 2013. Our friend Paula, who has been living in Phnom Penh for some time, organized a day trip for us to some places outside of the city. A tour company offered a trip to a floating village, the temple at Oudong, and a pottery village, for exhorbitant rates, but Paula was able to hire a driver for the day for a fraction of the cost. Even adding in other expenses it still came to significantly less than we would have paid the tour company. It always pays to know someone ‘on the ground’, this time literally. Thank you Paula. We had a fabulous day.

There are several floating villages in Tonle Sap Lake and River, which runs more or less down through the middle of Cambodia. The usual way to get to see any of these villages is by boat from Siem Reap. In fact you can travel by boat all the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap but we decided against eight hours on an uncomfortable thumping fast boat passing what has been described as monotonous scenery. We had also read that the villages near Siem Reap have become very touristy and if you go on a tour there you will be taken to a ‘shop’ in the village to buy rice to donate to the orphanage. From our reading – the orphanage is real, the children’s smiling and posing maybe not so much, and the rice is loaded onto boats and taken back to the shopkeeper to sell again. Ouch. Alternatively we’d read that it is possible to just go down to the water and negotiate your own boat, but all our research indicated that going to the floating villages from Siem Reap could be pandering to the local “mafia” and that they are no longer worth visiting. As it happens we were wrong, but that’s for another post. All this negative information led me see if there were any villages at the south end of the lake, or on Tonle Sap River that flows from it, near Phnom Penh. And yes, there is Kompong Chhnang. Even better than we could have imagined!

We drove out of the city for a couple of hours, arrived at the village on land, and negotiated with a young woman to row us around the floating village for two hours. What a sweet time. Silent, slow and easy with plenty of time to really see the village, and the lifestyle of the people, and connect with some of them, however briefly. I love excursions like this. I love seeing such different and unique ways of life. This was my first experience of an Asian floating village and I was completely enthralled.

These houses on land show how high the water rises in the wet season.

Morning gathering: some of these women have grocery boats, some would be waiting to be hired to go to the floating village

This is the young woman who rowed us around. She’s no doubt been getting around by boat all her life so doesn’t even have to think about it, a natural rhythm flows organically. And yes, just about everyone has a cell phone.

Don and Paula

Kids learn from very young how to manoeuver a boat

Heading home from school. Gotta get that homework done – well I think that’s what  he’s doing.

And if you don’t have a boat, use what you do have 🙂

The houses are more or less arranged in rows, or “streets”. Some are made of wood and palm leaf thatch, some of wood with tin roofs, some look quite modern in a floating house kind of way. Some have gardens, most have some potted plants. Most, if not all, have electricity – you can see the power poles, and lines, strung between the houses. Many have TVs – we could see them on.

Everything is done by boat. You don’t have to go grocery shopping on shore, the shops come to you

Kids all over the world, apparently, have to do their chores.

What a fine time we had there. I remember my heart and senses being filled. I wonder if I’ll ever get tired of exploring all the different ways people do life. I’m always, and still, thrilled and amazed by the endless creativity that comes to us, how we make life and a living from our surroundings and frequently create beauty along with it. These people are not rich by any means. I think most of them (though not all) are not poor, not desperate anyway. They live ordinary lives. On the water. All over South East Asia people live on the water. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it is an answer to the continually fluctuating levels of the water. As you can see from the first picture the change in water level from wet to dry season is drastic, so a floating house seems easier than dealing with those gigantic stilts needed just to keep your house dry.

It was an excellent and fascinating glimpse into a completely different kind of life.

Driving through the countryside – cattle grazing in dry season rice paddies

Oudong was an earlier capital of Cambodia (17th-19th century). A temple was built on top of the mountain there to house one of the Buddha’s bones. We climbed a lot of stairs to get to it and were greeted by a wonderful view, and a beautiful temple

These young women have lotus flowers as altar offerings to Buddha. I think they are not Cambodian, but are from another Buddhist country in Asia and are tourists like us.

And this young girl is definitely Cambodian. I think she had something for sale but I can’t remember what. It may have been lotus blossoms. She was with a couple of other children. It was so much fun making them all laugh.

At some point towards the end of the day we drove by the Polo/Ralph Lauren garment factory just as hundreds of workers were spilling out at the end of their work day. There were many vehicles waiting to transport them home. That must be one powerful motor bike.

Since Paula had been doing some NGO work to help the garment factory workers in Cambodia she immediately requested a stop to get some photos and to see if she could talk to some of the women. They are paid a pittance and are not well treated. Last year Walmart and H & M simply abandoned their factories in Cambodia, owing severance and back pay to the workers. Paula helped make a video to help get their plight known in the western world. The workers also went on a hunger strike outside the abandoned factory. As a result they have just now (March 27th) been paid 85% of what they were owed. Even that makes me mad. 85%? What is that? As if Walmart can’t afford to pay all that is owing! And we in the west, yes, me too, shop in these places buying affordable clothing without really thinking, or wanting to think, about the lives of the people who made them. Paula said those who’ve been paid by Walmart and H & M don’t have bank accounts since they live from pay check to pay check (if they’re lucky enough to get a pay check), so they’re using the money to buy gold for safekeeping.

Paula’s video of the garment workers

I so admire her, and people like her, who are moved to help at a grass roots level.

Next post: By boat to Vietnam

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.