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Welcome to Phnom Kraom — the poor community along the dirt road extending from the paved National Road 63 connecting Siem Riep town to the Tonle Sap Great Lake. Walking along the so-called village, you may end up seeing many dozens of kids without clothes...

Phnom Kraom located near the Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake that provides livelihoods for over 10% of Cambodia's population. Its water level varies considerably so the inhabitants of 6 of the 7 villages at Chong Kneas live in houseboats. The 7th village is perched on the side of a road embankment running south from Phnom Kraom, an isolated rocky outcrop rising about 140 meters above the otherwise flat terrain of the seasonally flooded land bordering Tonle Sap.

For those whose live on water, life is extreme hardship and vulnerability. In spring, melting snows in the Himalayas spark off a remarkable chain of events in distant Cambodia that affects the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people.

Boosted by monsoon rains and with its gradient now too flat to retain the flow within its banks, the river spills out over large parts of Cambodia, where up to 65% of cultivated land is covered each year by floodwater. The Tonle Sap River, which joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh, acts as a safety valve by absorbing part of the excess. It reverses its flow from mid-May to October, massively expanding the volume of the Tonle Sap Lake, 100 km “upstream,” close to the famed temple complex of Angkor Wat.

In the dry season, the floating villages anchor in a small inlet at the edge of the lake, where there is ready access to fishing grounds and some protection from storms and waves. When the water level is high, residents of Chong Kneas cluster at the base of Phnom Kraom where is often heavily congested with regular traffic, floating houses, fish cages being towed, and tourist boats coming and going. As a result, the area is clogged with floating trash, rotting organic matter, and fuel and oil spills, making it a stinking repository of solid and liquid waste.



According to ADB, the annual shifting of the lakeshore by some 6 km has created a highly unusual living pattern for the people in the community of Chong Kneas at the northwestern end of the lake. Some 5,000 people live on houseboats moored within the lake during the dry season and move “inland” along a narrow channel as the waters rise. Other families, who live along the road embankment beside the channel, load their houses onto the backs of trucks to seek higher ground as the water rises. The whole community settles around an isolated hill at Phnom Kraom when the lake is at its highest level.

While the floating villages are a picturesque tourist sideshow for visitors to the nearby temples, for the people who live on the boats and the peripatetic houses, this is a harsh existence. But it is one they have tolerated because of the livelihood they derive from fishing. Some members of the floating population were once farmers who fled to the lake in the 1970s when they lost their land during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror; but others, many of Vietnamese origin, have been there much longer and have known no other life.

The houseboats and other transportable dwellings have no sanitation and waste disposal facilities, electricity, or drinking water connections. Many houseboats have cages tethered to them in which fish are fattened with the waste products from fish processing and the dwellings themselves. Some risk prosecution by fattening crocodiles in these semi-submerged wooden cages prior to smuggling them to commercial markets for their skins and meat.




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Additional Photos by Ngy Thanh (ngythanh) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 472 W: 128 N: 2360] (8578)
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