Chong Kneas Floating Village lies along a stretch of river feeding into Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It’s an extraordinary, but rather confronting place to visit, being on the one hand so mesmerising and curious, and on the other, dreadfully poor. The people largely subsist through fishing and farming and make extra money where possible from tourism – taking people on boat rides up and down the river, which usually terminate at the entrance to the lake itself.
The village is mostly built of floating, moored house-boats, tied to stakes which allow them to rise and fall with the seasonal swelling and shrinking of the river. The variation in height throughout the year can be considerable; indeed, I was told that during certain times of year, when the river is too low to fish in, the boats move further out into the lake itself, where a network of much deeper mooring poles can be seen.
The people of Chong Knea seem almost saddeningly used to having their photos taken by curious visitors. They mostly get on with their lives and pay little attention to the passing voyeurs; sitting on their floating porches, mending nets, cleaning tools, fixing boats, doing their washing, brushing their hair, or just chilling and smoking cigarettes. The sound of televisions could often be heard coming from within, and it seemed that much of the time there was little work to do. Some eager and enterprising locals will ride alongside the boat offering soft-drinks, snacks and bottles of water. On three occasions, seemingly out of nowhere, a young boy boarded our boat with an icebox full of drinks. The child in this photograph, like so many around Chong Knea, was swimming about like an eel, a complete natural in the water. Everything revolves around the river and lake.
It’s worth mentioning the negative press Chong Knea has on Trip Advisor, which I found both astonishing and disappointingly petty. Yes, you will be overcharged for a tour and boat ride, but if you want to squabble about spending twenty US dollars to see something as unique as this, then you should stay at home. Yes, people will encourage you to buy books and pens for the school, and yes, they might not be completely honest about where this money is going – but does it really matter considering how poor everyone is here? And anyway, you can always say no. I’ve felt guilty ever since visiting this place because I tipped our boat drivers so little money, thinking they would be receiving a wage for their efforts from the twenty-dollar entry fee. They actually get nothing at all from that fee, something I found out much later to my shame – so don’t make the same mistake and make sure you tip them generously.