I went to Cambodia for a short holiday. On a cloudy day that was supposed to rain, I randomly decided to go on a floating village tour, after having read that it is organised by an NGO and profits go towards funding a school for kids in the floating village.
I didn’t have much expectations on the village, because it is not meant to be a touristy one. But to my surprise, I was lost for words when we got to the village. It was a lot worse than I thought it would be.
But before getting to the village, we got to meet Paren, our friendly tour guide who grew up in the village himself. Paren is a very polite, soft-spoken young man in his late 20s. He was very apologetic for being 5 minutes late, and he kept apologising to every person or group he had to pick up, just for being a little tardy. I find his coyness quite endearing, as he said admittedly that he always gets nervous when he has to do introductions, even though he has done it many times.
He did well in my opinion, and I thought it was a cute inside joke when he said his name is like parents without the “t” and “s”. I would never have imagined how hard his life was, there was not a tiny shred of bitterness or resentment, between his friendly smiles. His face lit up when he spoke about his favourite thing, which is this Cambodian soup his mom makes (he tried to teach me how to pronounce it but I completely forgot, I only remember it sounded like “coco” in the end but I don’t think I got the tones right at all).
As part of the “itinerary” we had to introduce ourselves, the group was mixed with tourists from the UK, Australia, and Europe. Two Malaysian girls and myself were the only Asians in the group.
As an Asian girl, it is quite interesting that people always seem a bit perplexed when they find out that I travel alone (but they never seem to be as surprised when it’s a Western girl). And so was Paren. He seemed a little impressed also, when he said most people in his country do not travel by themselves. But I digress.
Our first stop was at the bamboo sticky rice village, where it is literally just a whole village (several villages in fact) selling one thing – sticky rice cooked in bamboo on charcoal, along both sides of the road. We must’ve passed by a hundred stalls, and Paren invented this game where one of us pick a random number and that’s the stall we stop at. And so we stopped at the third stall we saw once we started counting, manned by a young cute girl who must’ve been around 12, 13, 14 or so.
It is a very simple and humble snack for Cambodians, but some of us wondered how the stalls remain competitive if they all concentrate in the same area. They do that because that area is famous for sticky rice, and Cambodians are single-minded people, that’s my impression. If it was me I would’ve experimented with adding different ingredients to make different flavours, to try and stand out among the competition, but that doesn’t seem to be the way they think. They make sticky rice with beans, and that is how they do it. I would not say that it is very smart, but there is something quite respectful about being such purists.
Before we got to the boat we made a second stop at a local mom and pop bakery, where they made traditional Cambodian cakes, biscuits and chips. For 2USD you get a huge bag of sweet potato chips, which is a steal for those of us in the developed world who would pay a premium for sweet potato chips, as they are considered a healthy snack, compared to regular chips. They also make these super addictive mini rice doughnuts, I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth but I could not stop at one (also because they are so small, like onion-ring-size).
After that we made our way to the pier, where we boarded a flat-bottomed boat for the tour on Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake that spans across 5 provinces in Cambodia. From time to time Paren would try to explain to us the lives of the floating village people, how some of the structures standing out from the water are actually bridges that are used during the dry season, but the engine was quite loud so I could only hear some of that. The boat ride was very enjoyable, especially in good weather, and little kids (and sometimes adults) would wave at us from their houses or boats.
I have read that some of the more popular floating villages are actually very touristy, and they don’t really benefit the villagers that much, and that’s why I did not expect to be “entertained” by crocodile handlers or anything like that on this tour, which did not bother me at all.
After a pleasant boat ride, we arrived at the Bridge of Life school, the school for kids at Kompong Khleang, where they currently have 80+ students. The school is charity-funded, and one source of their income is from tours. It is not government-funded probably because the government does not think it is necessary to build a school just for a floating village, or a few villages. However, it is precisely because the floating villages are so remote from everything else, that they should have schools for kids there.
The “school”, more like a classroom, is in one of the stilt houses on the lake, with wooden floors that can be taken out and placed higher when the water level rises. There is one white board and about 10 low benches, and that is where they fit 80+ kids (sometimes more).
We had a small lecture in the school where Paren explained to us how the school came about, and why it is important because this might be the only education that these kids from the villages will ever get, should their parents decide that the kids have to help with fishing so they can’t continue to go to school, especially since it would involve commuting long distance to a state school.
This is really like a “bridge of life” for them in giving them a chance to get education and if they are “lucky” enough like Paren, maybe they can go on to study at a regular school, but without this school, that would not be possible.
Paren also told us that the number of people are growing in the villages, as people tend to have a lot of kids (I can imagine the lack of birth control), but there is already less and less fish (presumably because of overfishing). He seems to be very concerned about the situation, and is genuinely worried about the future of his fellow villagers. It does sound like a bad cycle, where families have a lot of kids, and when they get to a certain age it becomes difficult for them to continue to go to school rather than to help out with the family. And without much education, these kids will not have a chance to get out of poverty, or be able to choose to do something else other than fishing.
After a short tour of the school (there really wasn’t much to look at), we proceeded to visit the village. Before that, Paren told us not to hold any of those children or take close-up pictures of the unclothed kids. I understand it is to protect the children, but the thought of sex trafficking appeared in the back of my head, as I have seen stories about that in poor areas in Cambodia. I cannot imagine how being sold for sex could be a possible future for these kids, and I could only hope that it does not happen where I was, or anywhere else for that matter.
The “village” is on this small piece of land that looks about 5 square meters (don’t quote me on that) with not just dirt, but what seemed like a dumpster with debris all over. I understand this is meant to be the riverbed, and that tiny bit of land that looked like a mini war zone is only there because it’s not the full rainy season yet, in which case it should be completely under water.
One of the guys in the tour was thoughtful enough to have bought a bag of those delicious mini rice doughnuts for the kids. It was an immediate hit with the kids as they all surrounded an older girl who was made in charge to distribute the treats.
It was a sight that was difficult to forget, and even just standing at this impoverished place where these children call home was hard to bear.
But soon I was infected by the purest of smiles on their faces, and high-fived all of the ones who reached out enthusiastically with their little hands. I have volunteered in Laos and children there love their high-fives. Funny enough they are the same in the village as well. Just a simple gesture like that makes them really happy. It always puts me to shame how little it takes for people to be happy in places like that.
Sometimes the less you have, the less you want.
After a short visit it started raining, so we decided to head back to the boat. It was raining quite hard on the way back and so there was not much to see, or I wasn’t in the mood to see anything anyway.
Back in the van, Paren very thoughtfully made sure we were all comfortable, and asked us if we have any questions. I was having this question in my head and I knew that was the right time to ask, so I asked him, how did you manage to get out of that situation and get educated? Seeing and hearing how things worked in the village, I don’t think it would be an easy task, and I was curious about his story.
And as it turns out, he had a great story to tell.
Paren has been through a lot of ups and downs in his life. He did grow up in the floating village, but then his parents separated for some time, and his mom moved to a farming area, along with him and some of his siblings. Because of that, he had the opportunity to go to a school funded by Japanese philanthropists, and so he did. He repeated the final year, because the secondary school was 20km away from where he lived, and when the donors visited they recognised him (because he had always been 2nd in class and the donors award the top 3 students each year). They asked him why he was still there, and visited his home.
The next day when he got to school, there was a bicycle waiting for him.
And the day after that, he was already riding his new bike to the new school. Having grown up in the fishing village, and also since his family could not afford a bike, he never learned how to cycle. It was very difficult, he said. But he did learn and grew to like it in the end, and for years had been cycling 40km everyday for school ever since.
On one particularly bad day, it was raining on his way home from school, and he had a flat tire but shops were all closed already, he had no other way but to walk home. He said it took him hours to get home, his family was worried and was looking all over for him. At that point, he wanted to give up studying and just stay and help his family, but his mom said they had no money for that. I forgot why it would cost his family more money for him not to study, but I think it was fortunate that it was the case.
So he kept going, until it’s time to go to high school. He thought that would be it, that would be the end of his education, because high school was once again too far away. But life has a funny way of helping people out. His secondary school opened a high school that same year, so he could keep going to the same school. And so he did.
You would think that life should get easier for him after that, but the next hurdle he had was to go to university. Universities are not government-funded, and I can imagine there being not enough support for underprivileged students. Paren had to find a way to make enough money for that. He started working, in his first job he worked 12 hours a day, 28 days a month, but only got $50US per month (!!!)
Rent already took half of that because he could not have stayed home and worked 12-hr days. After some months he realised he was barely scraping by, he was not saving any money, nor was he sending any money back home to help his family.
It was then that he realised that the Bridge of Life school was looking for part-time teachers, and he started teaching there. I can tell the school has a special place in his heart because he was one of the first students there. How that is possible I don’t know because on the website it says the school was founded in 2009, perhaps it already existed in some form before that. Since then he had also worked in a pagoda, and now back to the Bridge of Life school as a full-time teacher and tour guide.
He managed to put himself through university through his perseverance and his extremely resilient attitude.
I am sure I have missed out some details or might have included some inaccuracies in his story, apologies for that. But there is a lot to learn from Paren’s story, it puts me to shame how much we take things like education for granted sometimes, even though I wasn’t born in an affluent family myself. I feel very privileged to hear his story, it was very generous of him to share it with a group of people he just met for a few hours. That was definitely the highlight of the tour for me. I have tremendous admiration and respect for this tenacious yet very humble young man, and I know that with his attitude, he will succeed in life, no matter what he does.
Thank you, Paren.