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Cambodia & Kampong Phluk: Life at the heart of the Tonle Sap Great Lake

Clinging to the banks of the Tonle Sap, the houses of Kampong Phluk seem to defy the laws of gravity. Perched on stilts, some rising nearly eight metres from the ground, these strange dwellings play tricks with the floods and ebbs of the Great Lake. In recent years, this fishing village has become a major tourist destination, living as if in equilibrium, somewhere between sky and water.

Clinging to the banks of the Tonle Sap, the houses of Kampong Phluk seem to defy the laws of gravity. Perched on stilts, some rising nearly eight metres from the ground, these strange dwellings play tricks with the floods and ebbs of the Great Lake. In recent years, this fishing village has become a major tourist destination, living as if in equilibrium, somewhere between sky and water.

The fabulous temples of Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attract visitors from all over the world every year. But the town of Siem Reap and the surrounding area are home to many other, sometimes surprising, wonders. Tired of the hurried and necessarily fragmented visits, more and more tourists want to discover other aspects of local life, off the beaten track. The villages along the shores of the Tonle Sap, including Kampong Phluk, are among these newly popular destinations.

The village in the dry season. During the rainy season, the water can rise to the top of the stilts
The village in the dry season. During the rainy season, the water can rise to the top of the stilts

High houses

Some of these lakeside villages are right in the middle of the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Kingdom's aquatic lung. Their colourful dwellings, like handfuls of confetti thrown in, rest on floats that keep them afloat. Not so Kampong Phluk, which is definitely not like the others. Linked to the Tonlé Sap by a channel and to the mainland by a road that is submerged for half the year, its wooden houses have chosen to rest on stilts.

The use of this method is certainly not unique to this place. In the Cambodian countryside, and sometimes in town, it is not uncommon to find houses resting on poles. What is striking here is the excessiveness of the process, taken to its extreme.

Boats play a vital role in the lives of the villagers
Boats play a vital role in the lives of the villagers

The breathing of the lake

At the end of the dry season, when the waters of the Mekong abound, the surface area of the Great Lake increases fivefold. This rise in water level results in a change of several metres in amplitude. The speed at which the water rises and falls is meteoric, on the order of several centimetres a day.

In the space of two weeks, the main street was completely submerged, and boats replaced pedestrians and mopeds. The only means of access to the houses, well sheltered from the waters perched on their stakes, was by boat, which became indispensable. Even the children, wearing their immaculate uniforms, travel to school on their more or less frail skiffs, parking their boats and depositing their oars at the school entrance.

Schoolbag, uniform and oar are the indispensable accessories of schoolchildren
Schoolbag, uniform and oar are the indispensable accessories of schoolchildren

Fish in all its forms

How long has this conurbation existed, with an estimated population of just over 4,000? Nobody seems to be able to give a precise figure, with "a very long time ago" being the consensus answer. However, there is no doubt about the village's vocation: fishing is the primary activity of its inhabitants. The men leave early in the morning and return late in the afternoon, nets loaded with fish and buckets full of prawns.

"This year has been very good for us", says a fisherman returning from a day's work. Unloading his boat in shovelfuls, he explains the economic system that governs his activity. "At the end of the day, the catch is assembled and sorted on the banks. The women, who were previously in charge of cleaning the nets, join us and help us sort the fish according to size. The smallest will be used to make prahok. The larger fish, whose prices can be quite high depending on the species, are sold to middlemen, who come every day and leave with their trailers loaded.

On the docks, small and large fish are separated as soon as the boats return
On the docks, small and large fish are separated as soon as the boats return

Towards a better future?

The vast majority of the inhabitants of Kampong Phluk make their living from fishing, although they do not make a fortune from it. "The conditions are tough, the equipment is expensive and the pay is not very high. But we love our job, it's what our fathers and grandfathers did. But I'd still like my son to have other career prospects than this," says Dara, whose children are laughing as they dip their little hands into the still-frothing fish.

The situation in Kompong Phluk, which remains relatively accessible because it is not far inland, is not the worst. Other villages, lost in the folds of the lake, are cruelly lacking in basic infrastructure, and even water and electricity. Yet the challenges faced by its inhabitants remain a major source of concern.

Raving nets in the village streets
Raving nets in the village streets

Life on the fringes

Lying on the fringes of society, the settlement, which comprises three communes, has only the most basic access to healthcare. While there is a small dispensary to deal with everyday ailments, more serious pathologies require a long and complicated journey. There are no dentists or maternity wards here. The risks of illness, compounded by the precariousness of living conditions, need to be taken more seriously than anywhere else. Sewage collection is non-existent, as is refuse collection, which is burnt at the foot of the houses.

Education, which until now has lagged far behind, has improved considerably with the recent opening of a secondary school. However, the situation is complicated when it comes to higher education: the road to Siem Reap is too long, so students are forced to find accommodation in town. The costs associated with such a change of life dissuade many from continuing their studies.

Waste is incinerated on site, for lack of alternative solutions
Waste is incinerated on site, for lack of alternative solutions

Diversification of activities

Over the last ten years or so, boats loaded with visitors have appeared on the scene, providing residents with some additional income. A tourism industry has sprung up, creating many new jobs. Women have freed themselves from housework and become rowers, taking their passengers under the tops of the adjacent mangroves. A boat service takes visitors on a tour of the city's canals, stretching as far as the Tonle Sap.

There, globetrotters in search of originality can visit crocodile farms and toast the setting sun, admiring the silhouette of long-tailed boats against the sun's disc. This tourist economy, far from representing a financial windfall, nevertheless helps to improve the daily lives of the local people. During the dry season, others turn to farming, which is made easier by the silty soil. Right in the centre of town, a hanging garden is being built, promising to produce a sizeable (and spectacular) crop of vegetables growing in the sky.

Small boats in the heart of the mangrove swamp
Small boats in the heart of the mangrove swamp

Symbiosis and osmosis

The delicate balance in which the people of Kampong Phluk live is to some extent part of their culture. "We are used to a changing lifestyle, alternating between periods of flooding and periods of drying up. We don't fight the elements or nature. We adapt to the conditions as best we can, with some success," says an old-timer sitting on the high staircase leading up to his house.

Recently, science fiction fans were able to catch a glimpse of the village on the big screen, and it was used as the setting for several scenes in the film "The Creator". Tourism and news reports have drawn attention to Kampong Phluk, leading to the creation of NGOs and public schools. Although the standard of living is still well below the national average, there has been a marked improvement. What remains to be done is to maintain a fragile harmony, in the ever-delicate equation comprising tourism, the preservation of natural resources and that of traditions.

The main street at the start of the rainy season. The water rises several centimetres a day
The main street at the start of the rainy season. The water rises several centimetres a day

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