On The Water's Edge: Cambodia's Ethnic Vietnamese Floating Village

Irene Navarro /
Irene Navarro / | © Culture Trip

A series of floating villages dot the huge expanse of water that makes up Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. Here, the communities – predominantly ethnic Vietnamese – live out their lives on the water.

However, their livelihoods and future remain at threat, thanks to a series of issues. Take a look at how these communities are living on the water’s edge at one village, Kampong Phluk.

Village life

Welcome to Kampong Phluk, a community that heavily relies on the Tonle Sap’s waters for survival. As one of many floating villages that dot the edge of the huge lake, Kampong Phluk, which sits close to Siem Reap and is home to about 5,000 residents, is one of many floating villages that are turning to tourism to make ends meet.

Comprised of mainly fishing families, the villagers live on the rim of the lake in wooden stilted houses. During monsoon season – May to October, when 75% of Cambodia’s rain falls and the Tonle Sap Lake water rises by up to 10 metres – their houses seemingly float on the water.

Stilted houses at Kampong Phluk
Life at Kampong Phluk
Stilted houses at Kampong Phluk
A typical home at Kampong Phluk

Slender wooden boats are the only way for the villagers to get around, sailing from their homes that sit on the water, to floating schools, temples, shops and community halls.

Tail boats are the main mode of transport
Boats sit outside homes at Kampong Phluk

Throughout dry season, residents return back to earth and live out their lives on ground level. During this time, families huddle in the shaded space beneath their homes to prepare meals, women gossip among themselves as they fix fishing nets or prepare mats of salted fish to dry under the sun, and children cycle through the streets shrieking with excitement as they go or play games in front of their homes.

During dry season, Kampong Phluk is free of water
Children play on the streets
The energy of youth can be seen as the children play
Women prepare a feast beneath their houses during dry season
A fisherman takes some down time
Villagers enjoy a game of cards

Tonle Sap Lake

While life is seemingly simple at first glance, survival is tough for these communities who rely on the expanse of water daily. Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997, the Tonle Sap Lake is home to approximately 150 species of fish and yields about 300,000 tons of fish, making it one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems.

According to NGO Conservation International, which carries out work to improve the lives of these communities, the Tonle Sap and Cambodia’s inland fisheries account for more than two-thirds of Cambodia’s protein consumption, and are worth an estimated $2 billion annually.

Fishing on the Tonle Sap Lake is the main economy for villagers
Children fish in the Tonle Sap Lake

However, fish populations are drastically dipping due to over-fishing and environmental issues, such as the slashing of mangroves that protect small fish, climate change and threats posed by the construction of a series of dams along the Mekong River, which merges with the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh. In 2016, Global Nature Fund announced the Tonle Sap is the “most threatened” lake in the world.

Fish provide the country’s diet with the main source of protein, and it is Cambodians’ appetite for the species that in effect feeds the floating villages’ fishing-based economy. But with depleted fish stocks, this is having a serious impact on lives.

Life is hard at Kampong Phluk
Education is an issue at Kampong Phluk
Making a living is difficult for villagers
Village life at Kampong Phluk

Tourism trend

Kampong Pluk and other floating communities in the area, including Kampong Khleang and Chong Kneas, are benefitting from the rising number of tourists that are steadily flocking to the sites. Many now drive the boats that take tourists through the villages and onto the lake, or run small floating restaurants to feed the crowds.

Many fishermen double up as boat drivers to cater to the growing tourists
Family-run stalls selling drinks and snacks are serving rising numbers of visitors

Some families have even opened up their homes to guests. For example, at Kampong Luong there are a handful of basic homestays with local families that can be booked on arrival at the boat landing.

While life remains tough for this pocket of people, hopes are high that eco-tourism has thrown them a lifeline to diversify and thrive. As with any eco-tourism trip, visitors are urged to remain respectful during their stay.

A villager cooks local snacks
Village life during dry season
A floating platform on Tonle Sap Lake
A villager heads downstream
Children from the village
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