I recently started my summer internship working on a project that focuses on coastal restoration along the North Shore of Nova Scotia. This work has made me think back to an amazing experience I had in Cambodia when I was studying abroad in the Fall of 2018. Growing up, I had always dreamed of what life would be like living in a floating village in Cambodia. I got to live out this dream, and it turned out to be one of my favourite experiences of the entire semester! You may not be familiar with the concept of floating villages. These are found all over the world and are basically people living in “boat houses”. Depending on where they are found, the houses can be a similar structure to boats or houses on super high stilts.
My class and I stayed overnight in the floating village of Prek Toal on the Tonle Sap Lake. The village, Prek Toal, migrates closer to the shore during the dry season when the lake level lowers and moves out farther into the lake during the wet season. It was about a 15-minute drive from our center in Siem Reap to a boat on the shore of the Tonle Sap. Once we got on the boat, it took about an hour and a half to get to Prek Toal. Along the way, we saw a variety of birds and passed through another small village. Prek Toal is located near a bird sanctuary, so my classmates and I had the opportunity to participate in bird counting during our stay.
Upon our arrival, we had a short lecture and talk with the founder of the ecotourist projects of the village. The village offers a variety of services to help supplement the families of the village incomes. Some of these services include the overnight homestays, fishing tours, bird tours, a restaurant, and a shop that sells items made from the invasive plant species water hyacinth. After the lecture, we had a demonstration and tutorial on how to weave water hyacinth into a mat. Then we had a short break and got to enjoy our temporary home for the next two days!
After dinner, which was provided by the restaurant run by the community, it was off to our homestays for the night. Students and staff were split into groups of five or six and dropped off by the barge one by one. At the home where I would be staying for the night, we were greeted by a cheerful woman and her two daughters and son. We were shown our mattresses in the open room we would be sleeping on and the bathroom to freshen up before the interview. We began the interview without the husband, since he would be out fishing until the early morning. Our interview was spent asking questions about the family’s livelihoods: questions on how they earn income for the household, where they get their food and fuel, and any changes they’ve noticed on the Tonle Sap. We also got to ask about the kids’ education, and it was really interesting to hear about their lives. One thing that surprised me the most in the interview was learning about the family’s income from Crocodile farming. Families can make a lot of money from selling crocodiles but it is a pretty big investment in the beginning. I was so surprised to learn how common this is on the Tonle Sap and how much of a demand there is by cities and tourists. We even got to see their wooden cage with all their crocodiles in it!
A memorable moment during the interview was the mother teaching my professor and the other students and I the word for baby shrimp in Khmer. It was a lot of bad pronunciations, shared laughs, and big surprise for us since we didn’t actually know what English word we were trying to say in Khmer. After we had asked all our questions, it was the family’s turn to ask us questions. When conducting interviews like this in Cambodia people usually didn’t ask any, but this lady did. She was curious about our education and where we came from. It was fun to practice Khmer and there were some good laughs shared about our pronunciations as well.
Thinking back to this night and incredible experience, I often forget how deeply moving meeting people and what connecting to their experiences feels like. I always feel humble speaking to people, and it makes me think about my life and all the different roots and opportunities I’ve been given. I remember before going to the Tonle Sap and just thinking about how hard life on the lake must be. After speaking to this family and seeing all the ecotourist projects, the strength of all the community members was so apparent. This community is so full of hope and equally adapting to their changing environment. As a visitor, having a peek into the day-to-day life of families on the lake felt so special—I can still feel the sense of peace I felt after those two days on the lake. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, I urge you to check out their website here if you ever visit Cambodia!
What group or people give you hope in your community? How does your community find strength when faced with adversity?
Latest posts by Sophie Boardman (see all)
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