One of the most fascinating things of Cambodia is the Tonle Sap Lake. This largest fresh water lake of South-East Asia has many remarkable which makes the lake unique in the world. Moreover, the floating villages it houses can show the world a strong lesson in resilience.
There are the giraffes and the midgets, the high houses on stilts, and the low floating boats. Together they form the floating villages of the Tonle Sap Lake. Although not all of the houses are floating, they are all showing an extreme kind of resilience that our climate changing world better takes seriously.
At first there are only the pillars. Long wooden trees with houses on top rather than leaves. It is a remarkable site, they are connected with bridges to the street side, while on the other side they look over the deep emptiness. A couple of meters under them is a muddy, sandy surface, which I can imagine might be once at a time a river or a lake.
It is dry season and the sun is burning like hell. Cambodia has two seasons, and so has the Tonle Sap Lake where I’m watching at – even though there is no water in sight. But this is how it looks in dry season.
The Tonle Sap lake is connected with the Mekong River – on which I wrote before and will continue writing on later –. Although the Lake at the moment flows into the river, soon, when the wet season will start, the river will divert its flow, so the Mekong can flow into the lake. Hence, the lake will fill up and the giraffe houses will become … well floating villages.
Floating village in the middle of the lake
The real floating villages however are located in the middle of the Lake. They remind me of the floating islands in the Titicaca Lake in Bolivia, however they are off another structure. Whereas in Titicaca, one island could house various houses and even a common ground, here, every house is an island as such. There are floating houses, floating churches, floating schools, floating markets, and besides the ‘island’ type of constructions, there are boat markets as well.
All these boats are not connected, but via waterways. Going to school? Jump in the boat. Visiting your neighbours? Get in the boat. Getting on the big boat? Get a boat first. It is particular amazing to see, how an entire village exists out of separated floating elements, and functions as a whole.
The combi – now it makes sense
At a certain point the lake runs out into a river, where you can see both, the floating housing units, and the giraffe houses. Moreover, the floating houses are located a couple of meters below the towering houses. When you take a closer look, you can see how the stairs of those buildings – a couple of meters as well – has marks of water almost up to the front door. Hence, normally, these houses are inundated just until the front door, hence making them look like floating houses. And the floating houses below? They just rise up and down with the waterflow.
It is a genius way of adaptation to the nature, or the changing climatologic circumstances. Expands the lake some 3,000 square kilometres during dry season, it more than triples in size during wet season, spanning about 10,000 square kilometres. Becoming the biggest lake of south east asia. The water level rises a couple of meter, and hence makes it impossible to construct fixed buildings in the vicinity of the river, unless on stilts.
However, at the same time, the Tonle Sap Lake is a source of life for Cambodia. It does not only contain fresh water, but it houses fish – with the giant Cat Fish as one of the world’s unique species – and is a irrigation source for the surrounding rice fields. Hence, Cambodia could not live without the lake, but not on the lake neither.
The creation of floating villages, which adapt to the flow of the Tonle Sap Lake was their only solution.
Additionally, Cambodia’s history of the Khmer Rouge had a big impact on these villages as well. Since most of the inhabitants of the Tonle Sap Lake zone were Vietnamese, they were all forced to flee back to their country during the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed their documents as well. Even though those Vietnamese lived in Cambodia for generations already, when they returned after the Khmer Rouge collapse, they had no right anymore to possess property, since they had no longer valid Cambodian documents. These laws applied to land property, hence the lake – the water – was their way to go.