The Fascinating and Troubled Floating Village of Kompong Luong, Cambodia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Kompong Luong floating village in Cambodia—C.Helbig

I’ve been putting off writing about our visit to Kompong Luong, a large floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia. Maybe it’s because I was somewhat uncomfortable being there. Also, my knowledge about the community is poor, so I feel ill-equipped to write about it. And, my photos, taken in the bright glare of midday, look as washed-out as I felt. Nevertheless, as I think back at our short time at Kompong Luong it was one of our more unique travel experiences. Imagine, a community of over 1000 families largely dependent on fishing, where everything floats: temples, markets, clinics, restaurants, a police station, even a karaoke bar…Sadly, it and other communities on the Tonlé Sap face major problems. 

 

Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, has numerous floating villages. We opted not to visit the villages near Siem Reap, which are more accessible but apparently overrun with tourists and rife with scams that harm both visitors and residents. Instead, we decided on Kompong Luong, an ethnic Vietnamese village on the south west side of the lake near the town of Krakor.

We visited Kompong Luong as a brief stop on our journey from Battambang to Phnom Penh (about a 5.5 hour drive not including the stop). This is easy to do if you have your own vehicle or hire a driver. Getting there by public transportation is a challenge and I don’t think there are any organized tours to this village. There is nothing touristy about this place and not a trinket peddler in sight. It feels light years away from the boutique hotels, restaurants and shops of Siem Reap.

The first thing we noticed as our speed-demon driver pulled off the highway and onto the gravel road leading to the lake was the filth. Emaciated cows poked at the garbage on the flat, treeless fields. There was rubbish everywhere.  We were met with rather aloof reception at a little hut where we bought our $10 tickets for the one hour boat tour. The guest book showed no other visitors that day. We felt  awkward and out of place and it didn’t help that I desperately needed to pee. I was directed behind a short thatched wall—no toilet or even hole in the ground.

Our boat captain manoeuvred the wooden craft through the small channels that make up the village. Bright green and blue-painted buildings glistened in the sun. Somehow these cheery colours manage to partially negate the basic and dilapidated state of the village’s structures.  There’s lots of  life in Kompong Luong  and it’s on full display. We watched ladies selling vegetables from tiny, overloaded boats, men working in machine shops, babies being dangled over the water to do their business, and people idling and socializing in their floating homes. I was fascinated, and at the same time troubled by our invasion into the lives of strangers.

Over the course of the hour, our captain warmed up to us, pointing and gesturing. Most of the time, with our nonexistent Vietnamese vocabulary and his five-word English one, we were left guessing. I wish there had been a local English-speaking guide who could have provided us with some background about this place.

After our visit, I spent some time “googling” and wasn’t surprised to find out that  Kompong Luong and other Tonlé Sap villages are facing major economic and health issues due to overfishing, deforestation, and pollution. We witnessed firsthand the lack of sanitation and how the lake is being used for washing, bathing, cooking, and defecating. I learned too how the controversial construction of dams on the Mekong River has led to disturbances in water flow and fish migration. Things are not well for these villages, nor for Cambodians in general who rely on the lake for the vast majority of their protein. I’ve read about initiatives to mitigate these problems, but Cambodia,  still recovering from the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge and struggling with widespread poverty and corruption has its hands full.

A one hour glide through the placid channels, packed tight with blue-painted homes and abuzz with folks going about their everyday business belies a precarious state. There’s more trouble than meets the eye.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A produce vendor floating through Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All kinds of motorized and human-powered transportation in Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bright colours mask the basic dwellings at Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Siesta time in Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Floating churches, temples and mosques are all found in Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Socializing at the store front—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of many little convenience shops—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Floating machine shop at Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pretty colours and bright accents adorn many dwellings—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was drawn in by her vibrant head scarf and poised carriage—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sanitation is a big issue—C.Helbig

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The garbage-strewn, denuded fields adjacent to Kompong Luong—C.Helbig

Next post: Perhaps more on SE Asia (Bangkok). But, it will likely have to wait until I get home from a quickly approaching trip to Argentina and Bolivia. Happy travels!

 

 

Categories: Cambodia, Places | Tags: , , , | 29 Comments

Post navigation

29 thoughts on “The Fascinating and Troubled Floating Village of Kompong Luong, Cambodia

  1. Pingback: The Fascinating and Troubled Floating Village of Kompong Luong, Cambodia — Writes of Passage - The Punk Rock Hobo

  2. Caroline, how wonderful that you were able to visit one of the less frequented Tonlé Sap villages. Your troubling post brought back uncomfortable memories of my own time in one of the sites closer to Siem Reap. The same pollution and unemployment problems with the added on burden of accommodating tourists wreaks havoc upon these unique hamlets. I too felt upset that there was so little I could do and a guilt for being an outsider who could so easily come and go. The growing resentment among locals towards visitors is not unwarranted. On a happier note, I wish you happy travels in Argentina and Bolivia!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s somehow reassuring to know that you also felt uncomfortable during this experience. Thank you for sharing your feelings. Yes, the added layer of accommodating tourists is complex. One would hope that at least some of the tourism revenue gets channelled back to the villages but I suspect this doesn’t always happen, and if it does, the funds are likely not allocated in the best way. Like I’ve said before, it was an eye- opening experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike Hohmann

    Hi Caroline. I meant to comment earlier, but lacked adequate time. Other’s comments above, mirror many of my thoughts. Be glad you got off the beaten path, and had the opportunity to view a sad, yet more ‘realistic picture’ of Cambodia -one that encompasses the lives of a significant segment of their population.

    The lack of basic, public-health related infrastructure; potable water and sewerage systems, solid-waste collection/disposal systems, industrial and agricultural waste, electricity/refrigeration, lack of broad environmental health infrastructure, and related public health issues. The sad thing is that it isn’t unique to Cambodia – similar issues are rampant throughout the ‘developing’ world. Check the World Health Organization (WHO of the UN) statistics on education, incomes, primary healthcare availability/communicable disease incidence, energy consumption, etc for nations around the world (per capita type stuff). It’s truly amazing! Low-elevation areas of the world will be devastated as global warming raises sea levels in coming decades.

    Thanks for the post, Caroline… too often, the ‘out-of-sight/out-of-mind’ scenarios seems to prevail in our everyday lives… our thoughts and actions! As you said, the experience made you feel uncomfortable, ill-equiped, awkward and out of place, troubled by your invasion into the lives of strangers. However, it was a great post, likely difficult to write, and a somewhat mind-altering experience overall. Thx. again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mike, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments. You’ve relayed many of my thoughts in a much more articulate way. Interesting you should mention WHO statistics. After visiting Kompong Luong, and even more so the last few week when pondering about this post, I’ve been looking up stats and have been completely amazed (horrified) by what I’ve been reading. Depending on the source, as many as a third to half the world’s population lack adequate sanitation. And of course there are all the other issues you’ve mentioned. Yes, witnessing stuff like this firsthand truly is mind-boggling and mind-altering.
      On that gloomy note, I’ll wish you a happy Easter holiday. Hope you’re out enjoying the fresh air. Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had very mixed emotions about this floating village. Lots to think about and take in

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You did a great job of articulating both your touristic interest and subsequent unease at visiting a place like this. I’ve had a few of those experiences and they are certainly the most difficult to write about. I know I come at the issue of garbage and poor sanitation from a western perspective and yet I still find it so hard to understand the hurting of an environment that gives you life. As you and others have said, though, there are so many other challenges that face these populations. You and I may never “get it” or feel quite right about it, but seeing and reporting is valuable, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lexi. I think it’s important too, even if just to occasionally challenge our perspective and remind us that the majority of the world doesn’t have proper water sanitation or the convenience of our weekly curbside garbage and blue/green/grey box pickup. Mind-boggling, scary!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Even though language was a barrier and you were fighting your conscience about almost invading Kompong Luong, these villages introduce a different note to your life, isn’t it? That this world is cobbled together by so many different modes of existence. Here is an example of why I adore travelling. It shows you people and places that might push you to the brink of discomfort, but at least it pushes you.
    How thrilling that you are off to Argentina and Bolivia! Good luck. Will wait to read about your tales. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Feeling out of my comfort zone (sometimes) is one of the many reasons I enjoy travel. Like Kompong Luong, it can feel uncomfortable in the moment, but the learning and intense emotions/memories that come with these experiences are so rewarding.
      I’ll be off the reading and writing radar for a bit. Unlike other bloggers who seem to effortlessly post while traveling, this doesn’t work for me.
      Wishing you a lovely Spring in NY!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can imagine. Going off the radar is the best way to enjoy your travels. You go conquer those two countries and give us lots of tales later.
        Thanks and you have a lovely spring too at your end 🙂 xx

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It certainly makes you realize how well we live in our modern world. Very interesting Caroline.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been following news on Cambodia, a fellow ASEAN member. It looks like some things are getting worse in the country, for example the increasingly authoritarian regime which only makes it harder to fight rampant corruption. Anyway, thanks for writing this intriguing post, and have a great time in Bolivia and Argentina!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bama, we got that impression when we were there last year—from tuktuk drivers, hostel owners, etc. who were quite open about their worries about increasing government corruption. Sad, after all this country has been through.

      Like

  9. Hi Caroline, Thank you for this post. time did not permit us a visit to the lake while we were in Siemp reap. It is also interesting reading Peta’s comments. I get the discomfort of being a tourist in some places, sometimes. it sounds far from picturesque and charming. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Louise, it’s hard to fit in everything while traveling and as you can see we just grazed the surface. I’m glad we went, despite the discomfort. I really admire how Peta and Ben dig deeper, and their meaningful interactions with locals. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Brian Foster

    What an experience. You two sure are gutsy. I’m always amazed how some cultures figure out nature and sanitation while others continue to despoil their environment and themselves. You’d think they’d learn that defecating in the water they drink is not a good thing. Thousands of years ago Romans developed separate channels and systems. Oh well. You do though get an up front and personal view of the existence of another culture and society. A lingering memory it will be. Can feel the emotion in your writing. Well communicated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Brian. It was an eye opening experience for sure. The more I travel in developing nations, the more I realize that solutions to issues like pollution are extremely complex when factoring in all the challenges these countries face. Worrisome.
      Enjoy the rest of your trip! Caroline

      Like

  11. Caroline this was an interesting post for us to read, because a few years back, when we were living in Vietnam, we too visited this floating community on Tonle Sap. For us, we were coming to it from a specific angle, that is, viewing it as a community that are inherently resilient to deal with the realities of climate change.

    After our first visit there on a boat, much like yourselves, we were intrigued and wanted to meet some of the people that lived there and get to speak to them. We hired a translator for the next day and we returned. The experience we had, being invited onto the boats and homes of the people that live there, was one of the most rewarding one in all our years of travel. These people are unused to interacting with foreigners and for us and them it was interesting to meet each other. Some were very shy and others were much more interactive… such as the floating shop owners who invited us to share their food and alcohol.

    The set of problems that you describe are very real but they are not perhaps specific to being a floating community. We have observed that many people all over the world use their lakes and rivers for washing themselves, their clothes and bodily functions, cattle going into the water. This seems to be a developing world reality. And of course, the issue of garbage is a worldwide problem. Western Europe and Japan have both made significant investments in transforming waste to energy, bringing their contribution to landfills to a very small portion of their total waste generation. But this is a fraction of the waste generated globally. Of particular concern is the massive floating island of trash in the Pacific ocean that has recently been measured to something roughly three times the size of France! And this is the visible part of the trash in the ocean. Here in Sri Lanka last year, a landfill collapsed during severe rain, onto nearby dwellings built by locals and many lost their lives. But the garbage issue is a constant problem and is not going away until globally we come up with effective and affordable solutions and also that we curb consumption of so much plastic which is the leading landfill item.

    You might be interested to read about our experience at Tonle Sap.

    http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2013/09/staring-down-climate-change-flood-resilient-communities-on-lake-tonle-sap-cambodia.html

    Enjoyed your photographs and the memories they brought back!

    Ben & Peta

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Peta and Ben, thank you so much for your comments and sending the link to your post about Kompong Khleang. This is not the community we visited, but I assume the Tonle Sap villages all face the same challenges. I agree that these issues are widespread and I appreciate you emphasizing their massive global impact. I imagine living in Sri Lanka, witnessing devastations like the collapse of the landfill must be very troubling.
      I really admire how you guys go beyond observing to understanding local conditions.
      I urge anyone reading this to take a look at Peta and Ben’s post. How amazing that must have been to interact with the residents of this village. Your photos paint a picture of a truly rewarding experience.
      As always, I thank you for your insights. Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Globetrotting Grandpa

    I think as travelers ( I really don’t like the word tourists) we owe it to ourselves and those we share our experiences with, to honestly see what is around us. Many see travel as escapism but if done correctly oftentimes it is the exact opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree. Travel has a whole lot of facets and I am grateful for all I get from it. It was important for me to write about the unpleasant parts of this excursion and the issues faced by the folks who live in Kompong Luong. I’m surprised by how many reviews of this place only describe it as “picturesque” or “charming”.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Yes, seeing the struggles of others is humbling. Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: