This post was contributed by Carla Belloch.
Here’s the funny thing about most floating villages in Cambodia: they don’t actually float. No, instead, the houses in these villages are perched impossibly high on wooden stilts that are only visible six months of the year. When the rainy season arrives in June, the water levels rise so dramatically that the stilts are plunged completely under the surface, and small waves lap right against people’s front doors. It is then when the villages appear to be truly floating.
In contrast, during the dry season, you can stroll around the villages on foot, as much of the land is completely dry. I was lucky enough to get to visit one of these villages twice in the same year: first in the dry season, and again several months later, during the rainy season. The difference was such that I barely recognized the place. I’m aware this might be a little hard to picture, so let me provide you with some visual assistance…
This is the village of Kompong Khleang, situated about an hour and a half’s drive from Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Wat temples and the main hub of tourism in Cambodia. Like all the other floating (or rather, stilted) villages in Cambodia, Kompong Khleang is located on the Tonle Sap, a massive freshwater lake in the middle of the country that triples in size during the rainy season. The picture above was taken in February, amid the scorching dry heat, with no water in sight.
But there is still some water! Not every part of the village is walkable in the dry season, and the Tonle Sap doesn’t ever completely dry out, far from it actually. In these pictures you can better appreciate just how high some of those wooden stilts are.
But the real magic comes in the rainy season, along with the dark skies and heavy storm clouds that rumble across the horizon like angry gods waiting to unleash their wrath on a world that can do nothing but brace itself for the oncoming downpour.
I made my way back to Kompong Khleang seven months after my initial visit, on a stormy afternoon in September. I hardly recognized the place. It honestly took me an embarrassingly long time to identify key landmarks like a bridge and a pagoda that I had seen on my last visit. The rainy season had brought so much water to the village that it was now completely flooded, and the only way to get around was by boat. So that’s exactly what we did; we spent the next hour or two navigating Kompong Khleang on a dingy little boat until the rain came down in sheets and we were forced to find our way back to land.
It seemed to me like the rainy season had brought out a new dimension of life in the village. It was like every color was brighter, every shadow darker, every inch of the space simply seemed more alive. Perhaps the energy in the air was just due to the storm that bore down on us, or maybe I was looking at everything with a new perspective now that I had lived in Cambodia for a few months. Whatever it was, it made every breath feel charged with a certain kind of magic.
It is important to remember that, though beautiful, the rainy season is not without its troubles for the villagers. Aside from the obvious risk of their houses flooding, many children can’t go to school as they can no longer walk there and their parents often need the family’s only boat to go fishing or for other work.
Overall, seeing the difference between life in Kompong Khleang in the dry and rainy seasons was quite remarkable, and although I’m still trying to wrap my head around how it’s possible for the water levels to change that much in just a few months, I’m glad I got to see both sides of the story
Have you ever visited a floating village? Would you like to? Let us know in the comments.