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Life in floating village of Cambodia

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In a country where fish is the staple source of protein and land is at a premium, most villages are located along the lakes and rivers and many are built to actually float on the waterways. This is especially the case around the shores of the enormous Tonle Sap Lake.

Kompong Luong is an entire commune of five floating villages located on the lake in the Pursat province area. Like most floating communities, it is a sophisticated and bustling township of fisherfolk, boat builders and businessmen, providing everything which a town on dry land can provide its population. The people of Kompong Luong almost never need leave the water.

According to Mr. Keo Sovanareth, commune chief of Kompong Luong, there are five floating villages in the commune comprising 1214 families with a total population of 6962 people.
"We have four different ethnic groups of people living here," Mr. Keo says. "There are Cham (about 40 families), Chinese (two families), Khmer and Vietnamese. The last two are here in roughly similar numbers. Seventy percent of the villagers make their living as fishermen and the remaining 30 percent have mainly fishing-related occupations, such as boat building, making nets and processing the catch."

Aerial view of Kompong Luong’s floating village during the raining season.

According to Mr. Mao Sophorn, director of Pursat’s Provincial Culture Department, Kampong Luong began its life as a small fishing village in ancient times. But in the post-Angkor era, and perhaps during the reign of King Ang Chan Reacha, who defeated King Korn’s troops and the Thais during his rule, the king began to use it as a port when sailing between Krakor province (now present-day Krakor district in Pursat province) to the ancient capital of Long Vek, which now lies in present-day Kampong Chhnang province. He used it as a secret stop on his way to war and as a rest and relaxation place where he could swim and recuperate without fear of ambush.

Because of the king’s frequent voyages, Mao Sophorn says, villagers in the area christened the place Kampong Luong?Kampong in Khmer means a place where water is taken, a bathing place or a place where ships and boats land, load or unload. Luong means the king or monarch.

Bamboo material is the main material used for construction in a floating village. Some elders, however, disagree and say the name Kampong Luong existed before the reign of King Ang Chan Reacha and was instead named because it was the king’s route between the temple capital of Angkor and the southern part of the kingdom.

Chork Kimseng, 51, is a Vietnamese-Cambodian villager and a village chief. He has lived here most of his life, but he is worried that the floating villagers’ traditional way of life may now be in jeopardy.

"In the past my family made their living from fishing, but because of the increase in the number of fishermen and the decrease in fish production, I was forced to change career and became a boat builder back in 1988 or so," he says. "But now, business is not so good, and the fishermen cannot catch fish, so they have no money to order new boats or have a boat built. Boats are not cheap to make.

"When they want a boat made, people usually buy the timber themselves and transport it to me to build. During the past few years, most people prefer small boats of just 1.5 meters width by five or six meters in length. This kind of boat is called a touk sampan. It can carry 500-600 kilos of cargos. One cubic meter of wood is enough to build this type of boat. There isn’t a lot of profit left at the end of it. I charge 200,000 riel ($50) for the work, but I pay three or four workers for a week of hard work to help me, and the resin and oils used for coating the boat’s hull and nails is not cheap either. Still, it is easier than fishing, where you are out on the water under burning sun, teaming rain, winds, storms?the lot?and have to work very hard for no guaranteed result, pulling heavy nets in and out. In the past year or so I have made just five to ten boats. The fish are not there in the numbers

they used to be, and a good boat made from koki wood can last 15 or even 25 years. They need maintenance, though, so recoating old boats with resin, not to mention maintaining people’s floating houses, forms the bulk of my business. I learnt how to build a boat from my father when I was a child. Now, my children have also learnt this skill from me and will probably be fixing the boats I made in the future."

Popular makes of boat also include the touk pok chay and touk salang. A third style which is made by hollowing out a single whole tree trunk is not popular with the superstitious people of the floating villages. It is expensive to find a log large enough,

Testing out the waterproofing sealant before launch.

they say, and one bad spot in the timber once it is cut and hollowed out will mean they must throw the whole log away or suffer a curse by being prevented from becoming rich and have a troubled life while they use that boat.

Chhuo Seng Nea, 25, who used to be a food vendor but is now a student, came to the floating village from Pursat provincial city. She is not a lifelong resident like most others there. "I had lived among and had done business with fishermen at various floating villages such as Chhnok Tru, Kampong Luong, Raing Thil, Kbal Kol, Prek Torl and Chong Khneas for many years, but the floating village I liked most was Kampong Luong because, like a town on land, this village was very busy with many people going in and out. There are all types of services: market, clinics, a floating pagoda, school and even floating petrol stations. At night, the reflection of electric lights on the water is beautiful. There are also many karaoke parlors and restaurants, so there are plenty of things to see and do," she says.

"I remember the first time I went ashore for a while after several years of living on the floating house. I felt the ground rocking! How strange it was! Though we have had difficulties caused by storms, or in moving our house up and down the river banks along with the water level everyday, they were small problems, and the floating village provides unforgettable memories in my life." Seng Nea, said.

"I remember the first time I went ashore for a while after several years of living on the floating house. I felt the ground rocking! How strange it was! Though we have had difficulties caused by storms, or in moving our house up and down the river banks along with the water level everyday, they were small problems, and the floating village provides un-forgettable memories in my life." Seng Nea, said.

Villagers cover their catch with a tarp to protect it from the rain.

Like Chork Kimseng, Keo Sovanareth also complains about the difficulties of living in the floating villages. We face storms in almost every season, he says, and the fish production has decreased dramatically in recent years. They also face another unusual difficulty?having to regularly move their houses up and down the banks with rising and subsiding water so they float properly on their moorings and allow boat traffic up and down the cluttered "roads" that crisscross the villages.

"However, the main moving jobs in our floating village usually happen only twice a year," he says. "In the rainy season we have to move it close to the bank to avoid storms while in the dry season, when the water goes down, we have to move it out into the open lake according to the depth of the water where we can gather together again." A floating village needs between one and four meters of water beneath it.

The floating house is constantly moved in a safe direction from the wind.

Villagers are beginning to mutter that the increasing drop in the fish catch may force them from their unusual homes. Illegal fishing and the harvesting of fish fry for commercial fish farms are massive problems that will continue to drive the catch down as long as they are not controlled, they say, as well as rising competition for the fish that remain.

For now, however, the villagers of Kampong Luong continue to live as they have for centuries, with their lives on centering the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap.