Unforgettable day: the floating village of Kompong Khleang, Cambodia

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We’d heard about the “floating” fishing villages outside of Siem Reap from an Australian couple we met on Mariner. When we asked our first driver in Siem Reap about them, he’d said there were 3, but that the first 2 were touristy and crowded and the furthest one, Kompong Khleang, was the one to see. Roberto suggested Chantrea, who offered to drive us for $50, then we’d pay $20 separately for a tour boat. Hmm. $90 for a day with Chantrea again (I hadn’t quite gotten over that hour in the heat.) and it didn’t sound like he really knew much about the village. David took on a little research and soon found a couple of tour companies, but one tour really stood out. It was $35 apiece and promised that the money would remain local and much of it would go to support a local school which we’d get to visit. As an additional bonus, the tour didn’t begin until 2pm and lasted through sunset on the lake. Other tours started early in the morning, something we’d just as soon not do on vacation. There was a minimum of 2 guests for the tour to “make” and since we were 2, it sounded perfect. David emailed and we got a quick reply. We were on for Monday.

Right on time a spiffy new SUV was waiting outside our building. Our driver, Paren, introduced himself as a tall young Californian walked up saying he was Eddie, the guy David had emailed with. In the car, Eddie explained that this was his second stint in Cambodia as he found he just couldn’t stay away. He’d come the first time to teach English, but after only 2 weeks, he’d gotten interested in promoting education in Cambodia. This time he was working with Paren, a native of Kompong Khleang. He’d founded a non-profit to support the Bridge to Life Floating School for young children of the village. The price for these tours were treated as donations and Paren’s brother, also the teacher, would captain our boat for the day. Since we were the day’s only guests we could all fit in a smaller, faster fishing boat rather than a larger tour boat. Awesome!

En route to the village, we passed many roadside stalls selling short sticks of bamboo cooking over open fires. Paren pulled over at a roadside “filling station” and snack stall to show us these “kralan” and buy us a sample. He gave us a demonstration, first removing a plug made of a banana leaf stuffed with strings of coconut husks, then peeling back the outer covering of the cooked bamboo to reveal slightly sweetened steamed sticky rice with soy beans. David and I happily pulled off balls of the tasty treat.

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Cambodian filling station (Yep, that’s gasoline in those bottles.)
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Paren explains kralan
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Kralan: David and I liked the sticky treat

We pulled over again at a small town market where Paren walked us through the stalls explaining the things we couldn’t identify and buying all kinds of fruit and grilled snacks for us to try and take along. He was eager to show us a local delicacy, eggs containing fetal ducks. When I said I didn’t want to try it, but I’d love to watch him eat one, he agreed, buying one from a vendor lady. She cracked the egg to reveal the mostly-developed duckling, gray and unappetizing looking with its sparse wisps of not-yet-feathers and cooked remains of yolk. She spooned red chili sauce and lots of sliced garlic over the curled little thing, then broke it apart with a spoon. Paren dug in then offered a bit to David who went for it. Eventually, I caved, too, trying a small bite. It wasn’t bad, but it was just too hard not to think about what it had just been. Paren kept feeding David spoonfuls between his own, so David got way more than I did. The vendor was much amused and pleased by our willingness to try her dish.

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Fetal duck snack

Driving past rice fields and water buffalo, we left towns behind until we finally arrived at the first houses on stilts of Kompong Khleang. Paren said the water was not as high as it sometimes gets, so we were able to drive on a rust-colored dirt road through these first ramshackle houses, the waters of the lake coming up under the houses to the edge of the road.

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Paren parked at the end of that row near a inlet of water and we all got out. The smell of fish hit my nose immediately upon opening the door. Paren’s brother was waiting with a low fishing skiff and in minutes we were off. The motor of the boat was connected by a 5-6′ long pole to the propeller so that it could be lifted in the shallow water. The boat snaked through low bushes until we came to an open area where we picked up speed. Skiffs like ours along with other boats passed, occupants waving a greeting. Eddie said they were surprised to see foreigners in a fishing boat. We had to stop once to remove a fishing net remnant from our propeller. We soon came to the main area of the floating village. Houses on stilts spread out around us, made of every imaginable kind of material in all kinds of random configurations. About 5000 people live in these homes, living as they have for generations: fishing always, and especially in the rainy season, farming and raising some animals in the drier season when the waters recede. They’re poor and live at the whim of weather and medical access, people having died in recent droughts and of curable illnesses. Education is hard to come by and often hard for parents to justify, given the difficulties of getting children to school when a boat is needed to fish for a livelihood.

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Boarding the skiff
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Passing other boats

Our skiff pulled into the side of Bridge to Life Floating School. A group of women and children were clustered around a tarp in the mud nearby, mincing small fish to sell. Paren said we’d visit them later, but first led us up a wooden ramp to the school on stilts. Paren’s sister-in-law was inside, swinging her big-eyed baby in a hammock while her older son hid behind her skirt. Paren’s brother and his family live at the school, or rather the school is in their home. Paren’s brother is also the teacher. The long building is divided (by usage only) into living quarters on the left as you face the open back onto the lake, and the classroom to the right. The classroom consists of long low tables–brand new acquisitions of which Paren and Eddie were proud–where the children work while sitting on the ground. A large whiteboard covered in Khmer writing dominated the front of the space.

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Pulling up to the school
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Inside the school

We paused for a break in a little sitting area at the open end of the school building, using the time to eat the last of the fruit Paren had bought for us at the market. Then we climbed down the ramp to watch the fish-chopping and see a little more of the village. In the house next door, people welcomed us in to show us three new litters of puppies in baskets. Children came out, laughing and smiling at us, as curious about us as we were about them. A young boy giggled at the nakedness of the youngest of his friends, tying a t-shirt around the little one’s middle for modesty’s sake. One little girl followed us, twirling and smiling to show off a dingy tutu pulled on over her pants a top. At another spot, men were pounding and drying fish. An older man smiled and tried to explain, then turned his attention to hug the tiny t-shirt swaddled tot who turned out to be his grandson.

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Mincing fish too small to fillet
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The little girl with a cleaver looks to be about 4 years old. I can’t imagine giving a child that age a knife, much less putting her to work with it!
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Local children hamming it up for the camera
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Village homes beside the school

Leaving this bustling center of activity, we got back in the skiff to head into the open lake for sunset. Tonle Sap is an enormous lake that feeds much of Cambodia. We were just on its edge in these waters, in the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the water before heading back into Kompong Khleang.

The houses on this far edge of the village really do float on pontoons, a Vietnamese custom indicating Vietnamese or mixed Vietnamese-Cambodian families lived in this area.

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Paren admiring the sunset over Tonle Sap

Gliding back past the stilted houses as the light faded we decided we had just enough time to visit the village “pagoda.” Pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, this building is more like a temple than what we think of as a pagoda as they exist in Japan and Korea. Paren eagerly led us to the pagoda while his brother and Eddie went to buy a light for the ride home. Next to the pagoda is a large community dining hall used for celebrations and by the monks who also lived next to the pagoda. Paren said he’d lived at the pagoda for 7 years, only recently moving to live with an aunt. We’ve found it common in many parts of southeast Asia for young men and boys to live at least some of their lives as monks. Clearly, this pagoda was someplace special to Paren and he described to us at length on the way home the story from Buddha’s life depicted in the pagoda painting over the main door.

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The village pagoda
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Back with a light to pick us up from the pagoda

Our visit to Kompong Khleang was a highlight of our Asia trip. Not another tourist, vendor or souvenir in sight, it was a real glimpse into another way of life and we felt like our money was being used for a good cause and definitely getting into the right hands. To learn more, visit: http://kompongkhleang.org.

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