Life on the Lake: Kompong Luong Floating Village, Cambodia
I recently found my travel journal from a trip to Cambodia and Laos that I took with my travel buddy Caroline in December 2014. One of the highlights of the trip was a homestay in a floating village called “Kompong Luong”. Here is my journal entry of my time there…
Finding Kompong Luong Floating Village
We decided to try our luck and go to Kompong Luong, although we weren’t sure if the bus would stop, if there would be tuk tuks to get from Krakor to the lake edge, or a homestay available. But we needn’t have worried. We caught the Phnom Penh bus from Battambang. We were the only tourists onboard. A little Cambodian girl of about 4 years old entertained us for the 3 hours it took to get to Krakor. She played games with us and chatted away in Khmer. We counted to 5 in Khmer and English creating much giggles from her and her grandmother. Her grandma offered us dried calamari strings and a jumper (cause she was cold and we were wearing tshirts). The tuktuk drivers came running when they saw ‘Barang’ getting off the bus at Krakor. We negotiated for a fair price to and from the lake.
Poverty Lines the Path
A dirt road lined with shacks and rubbish paved our way to the floating village of Kompong Luong. The road, if you can call it that, was the bumpiest yet and the tuk tuk weaved between ditches and potholes from the town of Krakor to the lake’s edge of Tonle Sap. Tiny shacks lined the road, some no bigger than my bathroom at home, and home to entire familes including their dogs, cats, and chickens. One father lay on the wooden floor while his little one picked lice from his hair. Other children walked along the waters edge sifting through the piles of rubbish which had floated in from the village. Most children waved and called “Hello!” with big smiles.
The poverty here was quite shocking and the worst I have ever seen. There was no running water or electricity and no evidence of clean drinking water (no bottles in sight). There was a small health clinic nearby which was the only solid building on the road. One or two small stalls sold water, gasoline in old coke bottles, and a few treats.
Finding Accommodation on the Floating Village
We arrived at a small shack on an inlet from the lake. Three other tuk tuk drivers immediately offload our luggage as we get approached by a lady with a laminated picture of our tour options – 1 hour or 2 hour!
We say “homestay” and after 3 or 4 tuk tuk drivers get involved to translate, we’re presented with a different laminated sheet – 1 side with “Cambodian Village Homestay” and the other with “Vietnamese Village Homestay”. It’s clear we’re being pushed to choose the Cambodian one and the sheet keeps getting turned to that side. So we say “Cambodian Village” and we are bustled into a long boat with the guy who was showing us the sheet. Turns out it is his house we are staying at (or his brother’s house… we think).
Town on the Water
The boat ride to our homestay was quite incredible. The noise of the boat motors in deafeningly loud, and the diesel fumes suffocating, but the beauty of the village is exhilarating. The houses, shops and prtrol stations are all floating and anchored with ropes. Each house is painted in bright decorative colours. The children smile and wave, while the older ones just look. In the 1 minute ride, we see a lumber yard, minimart, chicken and pig farms, mechanics shop, petrol station, dogs, cats, pelicans, and hundreds of houses sprawled as far as the eye can see (all floating on Tonle Sap lake).
Our house is bright blue and freshly painted. Our host, a young mother, meets us with a baby on her hip and toddler clinging to her leg. She smiles and says hello, helps us with our luggage, then asks (with her hands) if we want food. She put the smiley baby in a hammock and went to the back of the house to start cooking.
We must be the only Barangs (foreigners) in the village today and each passing boat slows down look at us. The house is one big room with wooden floors and a rail across the front and doors to stop the toddler getting out. The room has 2 hammocks hanging, a small TV on a shelf, a Buddha statue up high with offerings of food and incense, and 2 huge speakers. The kitchen is at the back which is just some pots hanging by the back step with access to use water from the lake. The toilet is right next to the kitchen and is a hole onto the lake (no water or paper).
The man who dropped us here helps set up a folding table with some plastic chairs, and we are soon enjoying a lunch of rice and stir-fried morning glory (a vegetable that grows like a reed in lakes (similar to stems of lotus flowers). The food is simple but tasty and much needed after a long journey.
We are shown to our room which is not much bigger than the double mattress on its floor, but it has a mosquito net and fan which is a welcome relief to the heat in the room.
Watching the World Go By
It’s not long before 2 other travellers turn up in a boat. They introduce themselves as Dan and Kelly from Melbourne. We sit on the deck and watch the village in motion. Boats full of produce paddle up and down selling by stopping at the back of houses. Some boats are powered, but most selling goods are maneuvered by one wooden paddle similar to a Greenland kayaking paddle. It’s surprising how quick they can move around.
Most of these goods boats seem to be paddled by older Vietnamese women, with their triangular straw hats. There’s a vegetable boat, an icecream boat, a cocacola and drinks boat, and some selling treats and meals of which we’ve never seen.
The powered boats race through the main channel next to our house, creating waves for the boats and houses, deafening noise, and black billows of diesel fumes. We cover our nose and mouth with our scarves and wait for the clean air again.
The baby is rocked to sleep in its hammock but the toddler does not want to sleep and is not happy about having visitors.
Touring Around the Lake
At 3, the man of the house turns up to take the 4 of us on a tour of the village. The late afternoon sun makes for some amazing colours reflected on the water. It is a very bright place, and intricately decorated. We pass many houses and businesses and a school, church and several petrol stations. It is quite amazing. Children play on a tower, and dive the 10 metres into the water without any hesitation once they see us coming. Dan climbs up the tower for a view, but we are not sure about the rickety ladder with no railing. But the kids clamber up it at a lightning pace and dive off when they’re sure we’re watching.
The outskirts of the village are in the shallow stagnant waters on the edge of the lake. The rubbish collects here and is quite distressing to see. These are definitely the poorer sections of the village.
Dinner and Sleeping on the Lake
Back at our homestay we sit on the deck and watch the sunset as the fisherman come back in from the lake with their catches of the day. After dinner of stir-fried tofu and morning glory with rice (bought from a Vietnamese lady with a paddle boat full of fresh greens), we settle into our room to get it ready before the light fades and the mosquitoes descend. It is immediately evident that the mattress is covered in bugs that jump and bite.
Since there was a working mosquito net around the mattress, we opt to use our own permethrin treated mosquito nets as a sheet over the mattress and use our liners to sleep in. Luckily this worked and the bugs soon died. The heat in the room was intense even with the fan, so we covered ourselves in deet and returned to the deck for a few hours.
We went to bed about 8ish so that our host could get the kids settled. They slept in the main room under a mosquito net. After wrestling the heat and noise for a while we finally fell asleep.
Moving Houses During a Storm
In the night we both stirred to the sound of motorboats passing and waves lapping on the house. At first we thought it was dawn and the fisherman were going out to fish, but it didn’t die down. So I went out to find out what was happening. The husband got a phonecall and took off in his boat, and the house became a hive of activity. A look outside showed it was a strong wind that had come up and was bringing swell from the lake. It was just after midnight, and within minutes, all the households were busy preparing their houses for the weather. Some dove into the water to release their anchors, then pulled their houses into new positions by pulling ropes, and some used power or paddle boats to toe the houses into position. One lady towed her rather large house single-handedly from a boat with one wooden paddle in swell larger than her boat. It was quite remarkable.
The whole process took a couple of hours, with just about every house being towed one by one into a new position, closer to the shore and to each other. The waves came up over the landing at one point, but it didn’t seem like a particular bad storm or wind. Our host said it was very unusual and was shivering with the cold while we sat and watched in singlet tops enjoying the ‘breeze’ as a relief. Eventually the moving finished, and everyone went back to sleep to the rocking of the waves on the house.
In the morning, I awoke early to the sound of motorboats and sat on the deck to watch all the houses move back to their usual positions. After the houses moved, the morning trade began with boats carrying meat (a full pig, cut into bits… head and all), vegies, soups, clothes washers, icecream, drinks… all paddled from house to house calling out to their owners. The stream of motor boats heading out to fish continued with the puffs of black fumes and deafening noise. After a few hours, we were ready for some quiet so decided to leave early. We said farewell to our host who asked us to like her on Facebook.
Ants Ants Ants!
Upon gathering our packs to leave the house, I discovered (by ending up with them all over me) that a nest of rather large ants had moved their nest into a cavity of my backpack. There were thousands of them. The owner of the house helped me brush as many off into the water as we could. How that many ants live on a house on the lake is beyond me?!?! We catch a boat back to the lake’s edge, and start the tuk tuk journey back to Krakor along Cambodia’s bumpiest dirt road.
It was such an experience of contrasts, and a sensory overload from the lack of water or basic facilities, to the noise of the boats and smell of the petrol fumes, to the bright colours and peaceful paddling of the hawkers. I was happy to leave after feeling hot, tired, and grimey, but even happier that we got to experience this incredible village.