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The past sometimes unfairly overshadows contemporary delights. The ancient temples of Khajuraho are held up as magnificent examples of Indian history and culture, but what I remember from my visit there is the blind beggar singing folk songs outside an ancient temple in Khajuraho. He used a one-stringed ektara to keep time and weave a musical backdrop to the high-pitched dirge about a tragedy from the Ramayana. The temple is now a hazy image in the mind’s eye, but the song lives on in my memory.
Similar, perhaps, is the tragedy that the natural beauty of the Tonle Sap, the great lake south of Angkor, is condemned to. It will always live in the shadow of the Empire That Was and the great temples at Angkor.
The Khmer Empire (9th to 13th centuries AD) stretched over parts of modern Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia at various times. The site of its capital at its zenith is Angkor in modern day Cambodia, famous for its astonishing architectural masterpieces.
Had we not arrived in Siem Riep, the gateway to the Angkor region, after the “closing time” of the great Angkor and Bayon temples, we would probably have never bothered with the floating village on the Tonle Sap. Luckily, a whole evening had to be whiled away.
A two-hour ride on a noisy motorboat took us to see the sun setting on the Tonle Sap. The locals call it the “sea of fresh water.” I soon saw why. The moment we broke away from the kilometre-long inlet the shores were nowhere to be seen. The impact was even more dramatic because we had to leave the blinkers of the inlet to sail into the wider expanse of the lake. My guidebook told me that the Tonle Sap is 140 kilometers (87 miles) long and covers an area of 3,000 square kilometres (1,150 square miles).
It has been recorded and acknowledged that the Tonle Sap lake was the lifeline of the Khmers. Its waters undergo a natural annual phenomenon that elicits fascination: the southern end of the Tonle Sap lake is linked to the Mekong River by the Tonle Sap river.
When the snows melt in the far-away Himalayas, the waters travel right up to China to enter the Mekong. They then travel south as part of the Mekong, which may not always be able to accommodate these extra waters. When the Mekong backs up, the overflow forces the Tonle Sap river to flow in the reverse direction. When this happens every year, between July and October, the Tonle Sap river feeds the Tonle Sap lake, which doubles in size (and here I was—thinking that it couldn’t get any huger!) At the end of this season, the extra waters drain off and the Tonle Sap river reverses its direction, causing the Tonle Sap lake to revert to its original size.
The best part about the tale of the two rivers—the Mekong and the Tonle Sap—was that it evoked a lot of mental imagery: the trees I had just passed actually go under water and the people on the banks (who I definitely could not see) abandon their homes to move to the hills. Apparently, some homes also stand on stilts to accommodate this annual drama.
The young boy steering our boat sailed into the sunset with single-minded focus because this is what we were there to do—to see the sun disappearing into the great lake, a beautiful sight indeed. But why hadn’t anybody hyped the sights we passed while sailing into the horizon? It was a village on the lake, spread around us! Pedestrian activities took on magical contours because they were being played out on water. I could imagine people on ships, but here was a whole village on floating homes and boats.
Think village, think farming: we saw small patches of floating crops—just hydroponics … on a bigger scale. Some homes had fenced off areas adjacent to them; these were no backyards, but fish farms. However, not all the animals we saw were aquatic. Other than the pet cats and dogs that seemed perfectly at home in their floating dwellings, we saw a floating pig sty; porcine bottoms peeped out from between the wooden beams that made up the walls.
Think village, think petty commerce: Not only were vendors of groceries and food rowing their wares to buyers’ homes, there were also proper stores and shops; a colorful and chaotic jumble—tin and cardboard boxes, jars and bottles, sachets, ketchup and shampoo—as Asian mom-and-pop stores are wont to be. These gaily painted shop/homes had balconies in front—a suitable landing stage for the clients.
A prosperous home, with a wrought iron swing on an extension, had cut-outs on the walls of flashy models in fashionable poses. A hair dresser? I couldn’t be sure.
The long arm of law easily reached here—there was a police station. Then there was a series of very dull colored cabins strung together like the carriages of a train. A little way off was the “engine”—bigger and much brighter; its second floor was covered by a wire mesh. This whole ensemble was the village school. The cabins were the classrooms. The area inside the mesh, then, was the outdoor gym and assembly hall!
What exactly were the denizens of the fascinating village doing that evening? Perfectly ordinary things, of course. Here was a girl paddling off in her canoe, probably to dock at a friend’s for a chat. And there a family of Vietnamese descent, the woman’s hat a give-away, rowing away vigorously for what probably was just an evening jaunt—father, mother and three beautiful children.
The Vietnamese, we were told, arrived here not just since the war with America. The Mekong has linked the peoples of Cambodia and Vietnam for hundreds of years: rarely peacefully. Arrivals in modern times are attributed to the fact that “It is easier to make money in Cambodia,” contrary to what economists would have us believe! Immigrants, as always, are resented and are held responsible for the fish population going down. The sighting of the Vietnamese family and the ensuing conversation immediately explained the family altars we had seen in some of the homes. Their red and gold glory had been visible from afar, proudly proclaiming the Chinese influence on their Vietnamese culture.
One other thing shone constantly, even in the shabbiest of homes—the utensils on the wall of the kitchens. The kitchens were just open spaces at one end of each boat-home. Each kitchen had a roof but no outer walls, except for the one of the adjacent cabin (making the rear). It was sheer pleasure to look at neat rows of bottles and jars stacked on racks and the gleaming colanders, pots, and pans hanging at neat intervals from nails on the rear wall.
Some kitchen fires, made with wood in the old-fashioned way, were going at this evening hour; it made the utensils reflect the rich orange. I saw no contradiction in wood burning merrily surrounded by water because I saw how it was stored—atop high platforms on stilts, to keep it dry.
Not all homes were humble; a few boasted music systems, televisions, carpets … the works. However, even the more prosperous ones seemed to have tiny tin toilet-sheds at the back. How the smaller boat-homes managed was not so evident.
Did I feel awkward about gaping and gawking? Strangely, no, because nobody seemed to be noticing the tourists; not in the deliberate manner of those fed up of outsiders, but of those unconcerned about visitors. This made the whole experience genuine and refreshing. There was not a single soul smiling shallow smiles at any of the tourist boats. The only people who took notice of us were small children who made it a point to wave, but their faces were unsmiling, too. Could it be the travails of living on water? It couldn’t possibly be all fun. Mosquitoes, for instance. There was no discernable system for sewage management, so diseases could not be far away. I didn’t see a floating hospital, though I hope there are doctors floating around there somewhere.
A living proof that tourism hadn’t caught the imagination of the village folk were two big restaurant boats or mini-ships. They were alien to the setting. A few tourists were lounging around on the upper decks, but the crew seemed to be imported from elsewhere. That they could mill around and sell handicrafts to the few visiting tourists had probably not occurred to the villagers. Yet another proof that they were still untouched by commercial forces.
The biggest tragedy about tourism in adulthood is not that food doesn’t taste that good anymore. It may have more to do with loss of wonder; reading travel guides and making detailed arrangements do take their toll. I rediscovered some of that wonder and curiosity in the floating village. It came with the realisation that broadening of some people’s horizons comes at the expense of the loss of innocence of some others.
How to get to the Tonle Sap Lake: The closest airport is at Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is well connected to the major cities in South East Asia—Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Singapore, etc. Overland travel is possible from the surrounding countries of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. There are taxi, bus, and van services between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but the crossing at Aranyaprathet is the closest to Siem Reap. There is also a ferry service between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Local taxis are available for hire in Siem Reap. An arrangement could be worked out to bring you to the boats.
Till she became an “accompanying spouse” to her peripatetic husband, Nidhi Asthana was an India-based educational technologist.