Floating, drifting, paddling; however you want to call it, the locals of Tonle Sap are literally living on the water. Though this unique body of water is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the water levels change drastically in size throughout the year. It is because of this considerable change in water levels that fishing families who make their living on the lake began living in floating villages, which move with the changing water levels.
The water levels are about nine metres deep during the rainy season (June to October) and about 1 – 2 metres deep in the dry season (November to May). In the rainy season the lake becomes flooded with water from the Mekong River, and in the dry season the water levels deplete so much that the flow reverses to deposit water back into the Mekong.
I visited during February, so I witnessed the water levels extremely low. Because of these shallow water levels, most of the locals had literally moved their homes into the central area of the lake where there continues to be a water source. On the journey towards the lake, I witnessed several stilted homes completely barren and dry, without a drop of water present.
Life amongst the villages is really tough on children and the fishermen. About 12% of the children die before the age of 5 due to the harsh living conditions, lack of medical care and malnourishment. The fishermen leave their homes for weeks at a time in order to fish, and many never return due to unsafe water conditions combined with delicate boating equipment.
How poverty stricken the villages are is very apparent. During our boat ride, countless families would follow us in their motor boats or paddle boats for what felt like ages, constantly asking for money. The children would be wearing a snake (either dead or alive) around their necks with the hope to make a tip off a tourist’s photo. It was incredibly heart wrenching, as is the fact that there is no clean or fresh drinking water. The lake consists of sewage and hundreds of different species of fish. The locals bathe, swim, and drink this sewage water. It is even what they will fill their baby bottles with. I can’t believe how this way of life continues based on such shocking living conditions as this.
Most of the locals that live in these floating villages never step foot on land . . . and they have no need to. Fish make up the majority of their diet, they get around via paddle or motor boat, (and if a child, possibly a bucket), and there are gas stations, restaurants and schools right on the water. Seeing these painful and harsh living conditions hit me hard as I remember how lucky I am to live the life I do.
Still, it is incredible how they maintain their homes, with floating vegetable gardens and floating barns where they keep goats, alligators, pigs and chickens.