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A fishing village by Tonle Sap

Posted: 2007-05-28 09:04:39, Categories: Travel, Cambodia, Cycling, 899 words (permalink)

A high rising house in Kompong Khleang. Only 30 km after Siem Reap I took a right turn from the main road and rode towards Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia. By the lake lies a village called Kompong Khleang, where the inhabitants get their living mainly from fishing. I arrived in the afternoon and there were no guesthouses so it was again a splendid opportunity to meet locals.

The water level of Tonle Sap varies greatly. During the dry period the water flows to Mekong river and the lake becomes smaller and smaller. The monsoons make Mekong to flood which reverses the flow and the water level rises by almost ten meters, also greatly enlarging the area of the lake. This variation was reflected in the design of the Kompong Chleang village. There was a tiny center on top of a small hill with a pagoda, a market and a couple of bars, but most of the houses were spread on both sides of one single road stretching several kilometers. There was a wide canal next to the road providing a waterway to the lake. The houses were built on top of long wooden poles, keeping them above the water even during the floods, when the lake fully covers the road and all the surroundings.

During mid May the water level was still low, so the road was easily accessible by bicycle. It was rather quiet, as many inhabitants spend most of the time fishing and living in floating houseboats on the lake, returning to their main houses only occasionally. Those who remained were looking at me rather curiously.

Already on my way towards the center I was invited to stay in one of the houses. The family didn't speak any English but we managed to communicate enough that they realized I didn't have a place to stay and I understood their sign of pointing up at the house and sleeping. It was still early so I gestured that I'd go to the center first and come back later. In the center about two kilometers away I met a guy who spoke English. He was living in Siem Reap but visiting his home town. We discussed for a while and he said that I could stay at his place too. It would have been easier of course because of the common language, but I didn't want to be impolite and ignore the first invitation so I returned to the family I had met earlier.

The family was a relatively young couple with a less than one year old son, living in the house with their grandmother. During the evening also some sisters or other relatives came for a visit from neighbouring houses. They welcomed me warmly and offered me dinner, which consisted of several different kinds of fish, rice, and some vegetables. With the lack of common words, photographs were once again the easiest way to communicate. I showed my set of family photos and Finnish sceneries and got to see their wedding album. It was quite different from Finnish wedding albums: a huge number of photos where the married couple was posing in different clothes in front of artificial sceneries. The buddhist school teacher in Rohal had also shown his wedding album and it was very similar. In both cases the couple also wanted to give me one of the wedding photos and I gave a photo of myself in return.

Like most of the houses in Kompong Khleang, they had well enough living space for all family members, but luxuries were limited. Water could be pumped up from the lake using a hand pump, but during the rainy season they rather collected rain water and used that for both washing and drinking. They had electricity from a 12 volt battery, powering up a couple of small lamps, a television set and a mobile phone charger. Landlines are nonexistant in Cambodian villages, but mobile phones are filling the gap and becoming more and more common. Even phone booths are virtually all operated by mobile phones.

Early next morning the father of the family reached his younger brother, who was studying in Siem Reap and who could speak English. He borrowed a motorcycle from a neighbour and came to help in communication and to spend the Sunday in Kompong Khleang. I also decided to stay for the day and one more night when I was invited to do so. We went for a boat ride to the lake and saw also the floating part of the village. They asked if I could pay for the gas and I was of course happy to do that.

With the English speaking brother it was easy to clarify some things which had remained a mystery the previous night. For example, I had asked my hosts to write down their address so that I could send them photos later. They could read and write but sending and receiving letters seemed to be an unknown concept to them. Now I heard that there was no postman coming to the village. First they suggested that I could send the photos to the brother in Siem Reap by bus, but then they remembered a friend who had a shop at a market in the capital city Phnom Penh, where I was heading. I got the number of the shop and the name of the friend I could give the photos to.

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