As if visiting Angkor Wat wasn't enough excitement for a day, we made our way to Tonle Sap lake in the late afternoon to see the floating village of Chong Kneas. It's a small ways from central Siem Reap but a very worthwhile trip. As we made our way towards the lake we began to see what we were about to experience - very poor villagers living in one room huts and large families with children born to help the family sustain a living. We were a little unprepared for the floating village.
Our guide from Angkor Wat, Thy, helped us secure a private boat and came with our for the visit. The water level changes significantly between dry and wet season, changing how far the road stretches into the village on land and where Chong Kneas is found in the water. As our boat made its way through the village, the "novelty" quickly melted away and life on the lake dawned on us. Power is run from car batteries and tv from antennas. Fish are pulled in on individual long boats with nets. The boathouses are one room homes, with the lake as their livelihood and wash basin; some homes were barely staying afloat. Children paddled around in wash tubs and played with snakes hanging around their necks. Women paddled around with kids in their boats, appealing to tourists to give them money for taking their photos. I was overwhelmed by all that I saw and made me reflect on how we live in North America, how much we have and how fortunate we are. I just wanted to give them everything...take it all! But as much as it tugged on our heart strings, we didn't want to encourage the women who were throwing their children at us for money, the kids who were foregoing school to help their families survive...the only life they know. I will profoundly remember the little boy who was barely old enough to walk or to speak, but knew on cue in front of tourists and at the sight of a camera to stretch his little hands out and boldly ask for money.
We were overwhelmed by what we saw at Chong Kneas, a reality that we know little of in North America. I guess this is why we travel, to get in touch with the world and reflect on the fortunes we have in our lives. I highly recommend a visit to the floating village - this is something we all need to experience. I also suggest donating to reputable charities to ensure your money is going to the right people for the right causes. I am no expert on "good charities," but we were touched by the work at Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital in Siem Reap, founded by Swiss doctor Beat Richner (provides free medicare to children, one of 5 across the country). We saw women carry their children in from rural areas before dawn to line-up for care. They have had great success, so if you can help, consider this a good cause. And of course, there is always World Vision Cambodia.