Churning the muddy water as you drift towards the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap, the playful shimmering sunlight on the river will appear like molten silver. The constant mechanical groan of the steamer will accompany you. At that time of the midday, a gentle breeze will blow nevertheless, wafting in the smell of fish, salt and lake.
As your cruise comes to an end, a lake over 2700 square kilometers opens up in front of you and it will surely make you gasp!
Dotted across the emerald water expanse are small makeshift huts made of wood, scraps of metals, tarpaulin and what not. Few clustered together, rest separated by the colorful algae-water. Tiny boats were attached to all the houses. Some floating lazily as the villagers go about doing their daily chores, fishing or selling wares. It will be a usual scene only in an unusual village.
Thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who used to live in Cambodia earlier found a home away from home on this very ‘no man’s land’ Tonle Sap Lake. Years between 1975 and 1979 witnessed the greatest massacre of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The legacy of Democratic Kampuchea had torn the country apart. Years of deprivation, starvation and disease followed into meaningless nothingness. With families lost and dead in the scariest genocide of the 20th century, identities denied by both the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments, and nothing to claim as their own due to lack of any paper evidences, these immigrants chose the most precarious option of life, living on the water, a neutral space.
Maneuvering, across the lake, as you go around the unique village, more and more astonishment will await you. The village has everything, from a pristine white church to a school and a restaurant offering a perfect view all around. It will let you ponder on the survival feat of man in general for sure.
Tonle Sap’s floating village breaks all those doubts of man’s ability and willingness to live despite all odds. It is probably ‘hope’ that has kept these people afloat and alive. Carefully wrapped in the memories of the past and a hope for a better future these Vietnamese in Cambodia has definitely not forgotten to live love life!