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April 8th, 2011 | Asia

The Floating Village of Chong Khneas…

Trevor and I agreed that after being able to ride our bikes through Angkor Wat on our second visit there, a third visit would be a bit of an anti-climax…

On our last day in Siem Reap, we decided to visit one of the floating villages out on the edges of Lake Tonle Sap… It involved a short ride to the town of Phnom Krom, site of more ancient ruins and Khmer temples, where we had to park the bikes, and then take a water taxi down to what looked like a man-made river, to the entrance of the lake itself…

Chenty seems to be enjoying not having to wear her full riding gear... The temperatures and humidity combined to make things rather unpleasant...!!

Visits to the village seem to be a big money spinner, judging by the development going on here...

The price we were forced to pay for the water-taxi, was five times higher than what we had been quoted in Siem Reap… We were told that for $12, we could get a boat to take all three of us to the village…

On arrival at the harbour that was under construction, we were informed that we needed to pay $20 each to get a taxi to Chong Khneas…!! That meant $60 instead of $12…!!

We were not amused by the “take it or leave it” attitude of the beer-swilling officials who manned the ticket desks… It was barely 10 am and they sat swigging Heineken in full view of all the tourists heading down the steep ramp to where the boats waited…

This floating school was still under construction...

We were herded onto a narrow vessel by three young guys who informed us that they would be acting as both crew and guides for our visit…

A channel some 5 kilometres long, probably the site of an original river or stream, was being carved out to link the little inland harbour to the lake…

This was the dry season, and the water level had dropped by about ten metres, making the channel so shallow in places, that we had to slow the boat down to a walking pace to allow the stern to rise up to avoid scrapping the bottom…

The propeller at the end of the long shaft had to be lifted from the water as well to allow us over the sand banks that clogged the narrowest part of the river….

The “captain” of the boat, a young guy who had yet to experience the joys of shaving, allowed both Trevor and I to take turns at the wheel, guiding us through the shallows, and glancing nervously at oncoming boats that we narrowly missed on occasion…

Captain "B" takes us down the narrow channel on the way out to the lake...

Trevor took a turn at the wheel as well, and confirmed that it was a little different to motoring around the islands near Vancouver...!!

Just as we entered the waters of the lake proper, small skiffs came darting out toward us, their occupants either selling water and sodas, or advertising horrific injuries resulting from land-mine blasts or the handling of unexploded bombs that still litter much of Cambodia… A small boat bumped against the starboard side of our boat, and I saw Chenty leap out of her chair and retreat to the opposite rail, a worried look on her face…

This little girl and her python, had Chenty scrambling to the far side of our boat...

The little girl in the boat had a small Python draped across her shoulders, and seemed to believe that this fact alone would have us digging money out of our wallets…!! It annoyed me to see her handling the snake so roughly, and I could see that it was not in good shape…

It hung limply from her outstretched hands, and If I believed it would have survived, I would have plucked it from her and tossed it into the water in the hope that it would swim away and escape… Handing money to her would have encouraged others to capture these snakes that were becoming more and more scarce in this part of the world…

We left the first wave of beggars behind and motored into the village… Up to this point, the smell of rotting vegetation and garbage had been at a tolerable level… As we entered the village, the smell moved to the “barely tolerable” level…

It is difficult to describe the filth and the squalor that these people live in...

This home had a small garden planted on its stern...

I have been into many parts of the world where the poor and destitute huddle together in terrible conditions in an attempt to eke out a living… This floating village rivaled many of the worse that I had been in…

People urinated and defecated directly into the waters surrounding their “homes”…

“The e-coli count must be sky-high here…!!” said Chenty as we wheeled around a floating shack that had a satellite dish attached to its roof… Through an open doorway we could see images flickering on a TV screen…

“Just like in Africa…!!” I thought to myself… People could be starving and unable to afford the next meal for their family, but the TV would always be in perfect working order…

A pox on the invention that has done so much to reduce the morals and values of our society…!!

We stopped at a large “floating supermarket” where we were encouraged to buy a carton of tinned goods to donate to the school and orphanage that we had asked to visit… The cynic in me was shouting “SET-UP” quite loudly as I looked about me… Our boatmen had made straight for this place, when they could just as easily taken a shorter route to get to the orphanage…

The floating school and orphanage...

We motored up to the edge of the floating school and tied up amongst a small flotilla of other boats… As we stood looking across at the bedlam that was taking place aboard, a few young boys came over to the side of the boat and threw armfuls of plastic bags and crisp packets into the water next to our boat…

Both Trevor and I shouted for them to stop littering, and asked to see the teacher… Our cries fell on deaf ears as yet another child came across and threw rubbish into the “big brown rubbish dump” that they floated and lived on… I had the intense desire to throttle somebody…

Hordes of children sat eating on the deck of the barge...

Lunch seemed to consist of sticky rice and dried fish....

These two seemed a bit shell-shocked by it all... Notice the silver bangles... My suspicions were raised a notch....

Although it was impossible to count the number of children that swarmed over the two vessels that were tied together, I estimated that there had to be at least 200 kids on board…

In one corner, a huge pile of gift parcels were stacked, all in pink plastic bags that would no doubt be floating in the lake within a few hours…

The school was for Vietnamese children mostly, which was confusing, as we were at least 400 kilometres from the nearest Vietnamese border…

I guess one would have to do a bit of research to see why a Vietnamese orphanage was situated on the far northern edge of Lake Tonle Sap in Central Cambodia…

We were told that the large group of adults that were on board, filming  and photographing the children, were in fact from Vietnam, and had brought the huge pile of donated items with them…

We presented our carton of tinned food to a young lady who thanked us and then took it through to a small room and stacked it on top of a pile of similar cartons…

We had paid $20 for the carton, and I am pretty sure the same carton would have cost less than half that back in Siem Reap…!!

I would have loved to have marked our carton, as I was sure that it would find its way back to the supermarket a few hundred metres away…!! Money would change hands, and the grubby carton would be back on sale to another unsuspecting tourist the next day…

I know a racket when I see one…!! And this place had “fraud” written all over it…!!

I began taking more than just a passing interest in what I was seeing… I noticed for instance that the two little girls in the photo were dressed in neater and cleaner little dresses and wore silver bangles, and did not seem to know any of the other children… They huddled wide-eyed against a wall, staring out at the other kids…

I assumed that they were sisters and had been thrown in here with the rest of the squabbling kids to boost the numbers…

I looked around and could not see enough space on this boat for these children to sleep in… So where did they sleep…?? One side of the barge was clearly made up of classrooms, with desks and benches for the kids to sit at… It was separated into four different sections for kids of different age groups… The larger section that we were in served as a mess hall and meeting area… Maybe even the “playground”…!!

The cynic in me believes that while this is indeed a floating school of sorts, the whole thing is being overdone to get gullible tourists to part with their money… I think these kids live in the village, and are brought together to tug at our soft western heart strings with claims that they are all orphans…

We were asked if we wanted to see the fish and crocodile farm, and having been more than a little disappointed by our visit to the school and “orphanage”, we agreed to take a look… Many of the houses had their own fish farms underneath, which added greatly to the terrible smell that pervaded everything…

Boatloads of beggars crowd around any vessel carrying tourists... They are not selling anything, just holding up naked children in the hope that their un-controlled breeding habits will gain sympathy and money from stupid tourists...!!

We arrived at what was obviously the “touristy” part of the smelly village… A large holding pen that contained far too many fish for the volume of water in it, was off to one side of the gangway we walked up after tying out boat up alongside… The fish were flopping all over each other in an attempt to get under the water…

Further off to one side was a little curio shop and a restaurant of sorts… We wandered over to see what was cooking…

After a quick glance at what was being served for lunch, Trevor's reaction had us heading in the opposite direction...!!

My Rhodesian Ridgeback, Jessie, would not have hung around either…!! All that was missing was a large sign that read :

“DISEASES SERVED HERE…!!”

On the opposite side of the boat was a large pen that held the crocodiles… We walked up onto an elevated platform that surrounded the pen to look down on the animals that were obviously battling in the heat… The two small pools were not nearly big enough to allow all of them to cool off in…

The so-called crocodile farm... the reptiles were being kept in less than suitable conditions...

Yet another charming snake and child owner comes a-begging...

While Trevor snapped more photos, I saw that Chenty had gone quite pale…

I was not sure if it was the intense heat, the smell, or the sight of so much that was wrong with the world, or a combination of all three that was getting to her, so I suggested we head back to the boat and clear out of Chong Khneas…

Back on the boat, I tried to shoo all the beggars away…

A small boat came over, paddled by a woman that might have been in her early twenty’s… She held a naked child up by the arm for us to see…

Behind her two more half dressed kids played in the water in the bottom of the boat… Behind them again, lying under a small piece of shade-cloth, was yet another young child…

Chenty was finally overcome by emotion, and broke down in tears… I tried to comfort her while desperately looking around for Trevor and trying to get our crew to fire up the boat… I wanted to be away from this place as quickly as Chenty did, and I felt that the wind  we would generate by moving would help clear the smell of it all from our sinuses…

We motored back mostly in silence, and I now understood why all the people we had seen heading back to the harbour when we were on our way out to the village, had such serious and sombre looks on their faces… They had experienced the same revulsion that we had…

By the time we entered the channel leading back to the harbour that was being built,  we felt a little better… The smell was not so bad here, although the banks of the channel were littered with garbage… I watched as both adults and children waded in the water, attending to fishing traps, washing clothes and themselves, or just plain relieving their bodies of unwanted toxins… All within a few metres of each other…

I felt like jumping out of the boat and slapping some sense into a few of them…!!

“Don’t they understand how filthy this water is, and what germs it contains…??” asked Chenty to nobody in particular…

“It has been like this for years and will be like this for years to come…!! They don’t know any better, and suggesting that they begin living under far more hygienic conditions will be like asking them to move to the moon…!!” I replied…

I had seen much of the same in Africa, and was quite used to the scene of people living under conditions that would infect most of us with diseases in minutes…

The new harbour that is being built to support the local begging industry....

“The sad thing is that despite this development you see taking place around you, I am willing to bet that if you came back here in ten years time, the floating village behind us will be in much the same condition as we saw it in today…

Look how many boats are standing out here, waiting to take tourists out to the village… And this is the low season supposedly…!! There is no other work for these people, apart from catching, drying and selling fish… They have no land which they can farm… They breed like rabbits, many of them parents at the age of thirteen…!! Their lack of education adds to their problems, and the cycle of poverty continues…

Have you seen a single poster anywhere in Cambodia suggesting that people cut down on the size of their families, or wait until they are old enough to read and write before having babies…??

They make money from begging and playing on the consciousness of well-meaning westerners, who believe a few dollars here and there is helping these people…

What is needed for a decade or two. is for every man and woman in that village, below the age of 30 to be sterilized…!! That will give things a chance to come right…!!”

My little outburst usually gets a few raised eyebrows, and I guess this one will do the same… I am sick and tired of seeing people in “self-destruction mode” and not doing anything to help themselves out of it…!! You do not need to go to school to know that the more children you squeeze out of your penises and uterii, the harder it is going to be to feed and clothe the little buggers…!!

Begging should be banned around the world… Grab a broom and sweep something for heavens sake, or pick up all the bloody litter you throw around, and then I might consider giving you a few dollars in return…!!

And that’s all I have to say about that…!!

By the time we got back, and enterprising individual had a few souvenirs ready for us...

He seemed quite put out when we pointed out that we had never ordered the tacky things in the first place...

When we finally arrived at the disembarking post, which was a few hundred metres from where we had set off, we were met by a young man who showed us a few plates with our faces etched into their surfaces…

“How the hell did he do that…??” asked Trevor…

“You remember the guy filming us as we walked down the ramp to get to the boat earlier this morning…?? That’s him…!! While we have been to the village, he has been quite busy…!!” I replied.

The guy wanted $10 a plate for them, and as we walked along, we bargained him down to about $2 a plate before telling him that we did not want them… He seemed quite annoyed…!! But I can see how he probably gets quite a number sold every day…!! It was a clever idea, that would probably fool most tourists out of $10…

Problem for him is that we were not tourists… We are travelers, and there is a big difference between the two… The one pops out for a quick two week visit to a foreign destination, and needs to return home with physical proof of his trip to show his friends and family… The other is out for a far longer period, and collects mementos with their eyes and their minds…

We stopped on the way back to Siem Reap to take some photos of the Lotus flowers...

On the way back to our hotel, I suggested we stop and take some photos of the Lotus blossoms in a field on the side of the road… If anything, just to remind ourselves that despite many of the blots on the earth’s landscape, there is still so much simple beauty to be found…

It had been a long hot morning, and once back in town, we sought out one of Trevor’s “50 cent joints” for cold drinks and a meal, before heading back to prepare for our ride out of Cambodia the following day…

©GBWT 2011

2 comments to The Floating Village of Chong Khneas…

  • Charmz

    Well said GB, I couldn’t have said it better. I agree fully with what you have stated. It’s a disgrace to see how these people/children live, and yet they don’t look worse for wear wallowing in that diseased filth.

  • Åke

    Yes , it’s true. Even after ten years we will find that the situation
    hasn’t changed a bit !

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